The Sniper Elite franchise is an odd one indeed. On the one hand, it prides itself on its realism; it features such concepts as bullet drop-off, wind resistance, and other things that would actually factor into a real-life sniper’s decision-making. On the other hand, its bullet cam kills are so ludicrously violent that they would give Mortal Kombat a run for its money, and the franchise also features some of the least compelling storytelling in the business. Will this formula continue with the latest installment, Sniper Elite 5? Well…pretty much, yes.
Sniper Elite 5’s main story mode follows Karl Fairburne, an American sniper who must take down the Nazis in World War II. It’s not a particularly complex narrative, focusing as it does on Fairburne’s good-guy squad and their efforts to battle the dastardly Nazi force. Of course, a World War II game doesn’t need a complex narrative, but Fairburne’s complete non-personality and borderline pointless presence in the game feel particularly insulting in the wake of narratively complex games like The Last of Us: Part II or Disco Elysium.
Happily, what we’re actually here for is the sniping gameplay, and that’s just as accomplished and intricate as ever. When you’re lining up a shot, you’ll need to factor in your distance from the target, the direction in which the wind is blowing, and the amount of drop-off that will occur when you fire a bullet over a long distance. That means that getting the perfect shot is just as shamefully satisfying as it ever was, so at its core, Sniper Elite 5 maintains the compelling core gameplay of its predecessors, which is definitely a point in its favour.
Admittedly, one element we’ve never understood about Sniper Elite is the kill cam, which displays what your bullet has done to a target in shockingly graphic detail. You might, for example, see a skull exploding in real time, or in time-honoured meme tradition, watch a target’s testicles pop like balloons. It feels shamelessly puerile and pathetically childish, and although it does rather gel with the uncomplicated boys-own story of a heroic American fighting off the evil Nazis, we felt the need to turn it off after a while because it was making us queasy.
If you do like the core sniping gameplay, then you’ll be pleased to hear that there are a variety of absolutely massive levels across which to snipe various targets. Sniper Elite 5 takes inspiration from Hitman, aspiring to that franchise’s huge, interconnected web of NPCs and events that make up its best maps. Rebellion’s game can’t quite get there, mostly thanks to the utter stupidity of its AI. You can’t engineer a satisfying “accident” in these maps because enemies treat every kill as though it were carried out by an enemy combatant, so there’s really not much point in doing anything but sniping.
Still, the levels themselves are absolutely huge and crammed to the gills with secrets to find and shortcuts to exploit. The replayability on offer here is massive; we can imagine that there are hundreds of different ways to approach each target and find the perfect sniping spot. It’s always satisfying to explore a level, plan the perfect kill, then lie in wait like a predator and watch for your prey to enter the scope, pulling the trigger only when you know the kill is guaranteed. Of course, if you do mess up, Sniper Elite 5 doesn’t have a particularly satisfying close combat engine, so you may as well head back to the drawing board and try again.
Perhaps the biggest and most intriguing new selling point in Sniper Elite 5 is its Invasion mode, which plays a little like Dark Souls meets the Assassin’s Creed NPC multiplayer feature. This mode allows a single player to invade another’s game as an opposing sniper, adding an element of danger and fear to proceedings. Is the target you’ve got your sights trained on the enemy sniper, or is he sneaking up behind you with his knife in his hand? Honestly, we got far more mileage out of the Invasion mode than we did out of the main campaign, with its throwaway story and bland, forgettable characters.
There’s also a co-op mode, which is a godsend, frankly. Playing through the campaign with another player is a thrill, especially if it’s someone you know; sharing in all of your best kills and knowing that someone else absolutely did see that incredible shot never ceases to be a joy. The co-op actually feels like it changes the nature of Sniper Elite 5, too. It’s no longer a solitary wait-and-see game, but rather an elaborate dance between you and your partner as you synchronise positions and watch for enemy patrols together. More stealth games should have co-op modes if Sniper Elite 5 is anything to go by.
In the end, perhaps the kindest thing one can say about Sniper Elite 5 is that it’s little more than good during its best moments. The levels are sprawling and fun to explore, but the actual moment-to-moment gameplay is a little stunted and repetitive; it doesn’t have the variety it thinks it has, although the ambition on display is admirable. The Invasion mode is a game-changer, but it doesn’t represent the meat of the experience, and while co-op mode is a great addition, it doesn’t make up for a total lack of engagement in the campaign’s narrative. If you like Sniper Elite or you’re looking for a decent stealth game because you’ve exhausted titles like Dishonored or the old Splinter Cell games, then by all means check this out, but don’t expect greatness.