Sniper Elite 4 is a very serious game about stealthily killing Nazi scum during the Allied invasion of Italy. Most of the time.
It's also a laugh riot of a game where each and every bullet is shown in glorious slow-motion, tearing through skin and internal organs, kidneys and livers and testicles and other fleshy bits all jiggling in a weirdly detailed nod to Newton’s laws.
Which Sniper Elite 4 you choose to focus on? Well, that’s up to you.
Shot through the heart, you’re to blame
As I wrote in our preview last month: “While the series may never wholly shed its grindhouse B-movie feel, there’s an increasingly smart stealth game hidden underneath the fountains of blood and guts.”
After playing through the entire campaign, that sentiment holds true. Still dressed in the trappings of a stupid B-game, weirdly reliant on the shock value that comes from a brain exploding at 144 frames per second, Sniper Elite 4 is nevertheless an ambitious stealth game that handily outperforms its predecessors.
The improvements mostly come from the level design. Having played the game’s opening mission last month, tasked with assassinating a German general and his subordinates on a sprawling island, I had an idea the direction Sniper Elite 4 was headed.
But even armed with that knowledge ahead of time, I was still surprised at Sniper Elite 4’s scope. The second mission had me invade by beach, up through a harbor and crowded Italian streets, culminating in a battle outside a hilltop castle. The third took me to an enormous valley, pocked with enemy camps and gun emplacements, told to destroy a German railgun by blowing up the ravine-spanning Roman viaduct it rested upon. A fourth involved a moonlit infiltration of a dockyard, paving the way for an American bombing mission by taking out the air defenses.
Sniper Elite 3 was knocked for its short length and restrictive levels, a series of discrete arenas and chokepoints. Sniper Elite 4 counters with enormous maps and a sometimes overwhelming number of mission goals, secondary objectives, collectibles, and challenges, with each level taking well over an hour to experience fully. It is, in every way, a better game.
Not that Sniper Elite 4 is perfect. The game has some AI woes, mostly due to stealth game tropes. You’d think when dead Nazis started turning up all over a secret base the commanders might call for backup or something—or at least stay on alert for more than thirty seconds. I wish there was more penalty to being sloppy.
The story also suffers from the B-game feel. It’s predictable, even aside from the standard “American kills Nazis” historical aspects, which obviously you know the outcome of. And that would be fine too, except the voice acting is all over the place. Some characters, like protagonist Karl Fairburne, give pretty convincing performances, but any character with an accent or any character who needs to show more emotion than “Stone Cold Killer Guy” comes off a bit melodramatic and hammy.
You’re here to shoot fascists though, right? Spoiler: You’ll do a lot of that.
With the game shuttling you from one killing field to the next, it quickly becomes apparent there’s not much more to the game than shooting dudes in the head (or the bollocks, if you prefer). You'll find wide open maps and beautiful areas, but aside from a smattering of collectible letters there’s nothing much to see except more Nazis and more ammo. I wish there were more reasons to explore this world.
And the stealth systems, while improved, are still fairly limited. There’s lots of hiding in foliage, lots of jumping out and popping people in the head. Prior to release, the developers were happy to talk about the game’s Assassin’s Creed-esque platforming, but it’s more like Prince of Persia or even The Witcher 3—there’s a clear delineation between where you can and cannot climb.
Climbable? Some pipes, chains, and a few ledges. But most of the game is still out of reach, and as a result there aren’t nearly as many paths through (for instance) a city block as you might expect. You’re at the mercy of the devs whether you can clamber on a roof for a better vantage point or whether you’re stuck on the ground. Most of the time it’s the latter.
Still, there’s certainly more verticality to Sniper Elite 4 than its predecessors, along with tons of alternate paths—caves, bunkers, and entire sections you can skirt past without firing a shot. Want to kill your target from across the map, having never stepped foot inside his mansion? Yeah, you can do it. Or you can get up close and personal, taking him out with a knife to the brain stem.
It’s an altogether more freeform experience, and the step Sniper Elite needed to take to grow into its ambitions. This time around the ultraviolent killcams feel more like an out-of-place reminder of where the series came from than a herald of its future. That sort of gimmick, while still silly and fun in its own right, isn’t something Sniper Elite needs to rely on anymore. The game's legitimately good fun.
To quote my own preview one more time: It’s easy for me to poke fun at Sniper Elite. The series is built around a silly gimmick, and makes no secret of that fact—every kill is a chance to revel in your prowess, to admire every exploding eyeball and shattered skull fragment as it flies through the air. Paired with unimpressive dialogue and paper-thin characters, it’d be easy to write the series off.
But I wouldn’t. Not anymore, at least. While not as creative or as varied as some of its stealth peers, Sniper Elite 4 nevertheless reveals a series with serious ambitions, one that’s growing by leaps and bounds. It’s a good ol’ Nazi-killing time and an amazing evolution—one I hope continues with the next outing.