World War 2 shooters used to be everywhere. Seriously, you couldn’t move for them. It was all Gruppenführer this and panzerfaust that, then as soon as they appeared, they were gone, like Nazis fleeing the Falaise Pocket. Partly, this was down to saturation – everyone had just stormed the beaches of Normandy too many damn times for it to be fun any more. But that was then. We’ve had a decent cooling-off period, and now it’s time to give the Wermarcht another blimming good seeing to.
And the Russians, it would seem. Sniper Elite V2 takes us right up to the Battle of Berlin, where the Russians were clamouring at the walls while Hitler and his chums gloomily considered packing the whole thing in and forming the world’s first boy band. Enter one American sniper (or two, if you play co-op), on a mission to stop the Russians getting hold of German rocketry tech as the war draws to an inevitable close.
As a sniper simulator, it’s action-packed. That is to say, you might be in the tower of a ruined church when three armoured cars full of MP40-toting Jerries arrive and storm in the front door. Sure, you’ll still be sniping, but it’s non-stop and furious, as you’re throwing grenades from cover, sniping as fast as your trigger-finger will allow, and relocating under heavy fire. Sure, there’s bullet-drop and wind to compensate for (particularly on the hardest skill setting), but essentially this plays out a lot more like a traditional shooter where you just happen to spend most of your time with a sniper rifle equipped than it does like a 1945-era Hitman, where it’s all about lining up that one, single shot. Sure, you can perform stealth kills, and move bodies, and it may even be possible to finish some levels more-or-less undetected, but plenty of the game is spent at one end of a soldier-funnel, shooting as many enemies as possible while they try to overrun your location.
Graphically it see-saws dramatically between imaginative, evocative urban battlescapes, and occasionally eye-rollingly bad, even on ultra settings. In one particular bombed-out library, the bookcases were just a single flat plane, blocky and obvious close-up. But at other times, as you’re creeping through heaps of rubble and clambering through half-destroyed windows and brickwork-choked doorways, you’ll come unexpectedly across a small patch of greenery struggling to survive in the midst of the devastation, and it evokes a moment of poignancy amidst the horror.
Oh, yes – the horror. See, this is Sniper Elite’s gimmick. Now, we’ve all seen bullet cams on shooters as far back as Max Payne, but Rebellion have taken it a step further, with the anatomically-detailed x-ray cam. So picture the scene. You’re on a rain-soaked rooftop overlooking a small twilight-bathed plaza. Two German soldiers are getting a dressing-down from their commander. You line up your sights, flick a glance to the wind gauge, slightly adjust your firing angle, exhale, and fire. The camera circles the bullet in slow-mo flight, Matrix-style, to the point where it enters the front of the commander’s head. Then time slows even further, and the head of the officer becomes an x-ray view, showing splintering skull fragments and ruptures in the man’s brain caused by the passage of the bullet. And it’s not just heads. Livers, lungs, spines, hearts, kidneys… oh, and ‘stones’ as well. Naturally. All of these organs, not to mention the skeleton, are shown to be shattered, pierced and sluiced by your bullets, all depicted in loving, gratuitous detail. Personally, it all got a bit much for me after the first couple of times, but each to his own, I suppose:- If fixating on just exactly what grizzly damage you’re doing to your target is your thing, then the x-ray kill-cam will certainly deliver.
So there’s your gimmick. Aside from this, you can slow time while you line up a shot by emptying your lungs, and whenever there’s a noise loud enough to mask the sound of your rifle, an image on the screen will let you know, allowing you to recreate that wonderful scene from the start of “Enemy at the Gates” where the sniper shoots a bunch of Germans one after the other, each shot covered by the sound of nearby bombs being dropped.
But that’s really it for actual innovation. Which leaves us with a third-person shooter set in the war with the emphasis on long-range conflict. Environments are as varied as perhaps it’s possible to make them in a game that revolves around war-torn Berlin, which is to say not desperately. While weapon loadouts are limited to a handful of submachine guns and pistols as well as the signature sniper rifles, there are a couple of fun gadgets like grenade tripwire traps and dynamite (which can be set off by shooting it from long-range).
I couldn’t really shake the feeling that, kill cam aside, there could have been more to it. In the single-player game you spend practically the whole game on your own, wordlessly murdering armies of enemies. A little more in the way of personality, maybe? Or missions with varying paths? I don’t know, I just felt there could have been a little more to make it stand out. The cover system is sometimes a little temperamental, as well – there are times when you might find yourself crouched below a window, waiting for the right moment, then when you hit the button to pop out of cover, nothing happens. The worst thing for me, though, was that all of the sound – voices, footsteps, gunshots – was followed by a series of annoying echoes, making the whole thing sound like it was playing out in the Sydney Opera House. Not everyone gets this effect, and I’m sure it’ll be patched out in the near future… at least I hope it will. It just adds to the feeling, however, that perhaps the developers ran out of time and money when the game was released.
Health returns in the modern manner: Take a break in cover for a couple of seconds and you’re ready to roll. This was a problem for me, as in most cases a viable tactic was to stick your head out, get shot in the face, identify where the shot came from, duck back into cover to heal, then pop up and take your shot. Wandering through levels allowing enemies to shoot you in order to locate them hardly seemed to be in keeping with the unseen warrior motif of the game.
Unpolished (except for the kill cam, which is obviously where most of the time went, and a few sublime set-piece environments), but not without merit, Sniper Elite V2 does live up to its name: When you pop out from behind a low wall, fire off three shots in the time it takes you to exhale a single breath and take one life with each shot, before vanishing back into cover, you do feel like the best of the best. Oh, and it has V2 rockets in it, so you see, it’s a clever pun. Which is always nice.
The recommended system requirements for Sniper Elite V2 are surprisingly gentle, and a halfway-decent gaming computer should deliver a perfectly playable experience. Needless to say, the Chillaxe barrelled through the system specs like a red hot 7.62x54mm round through a Soviet officer’s spleen.
I’d recommend a look at the demo for this one. It grew on me while I played it, for sure, and I found myself being excited, impressed, disappointed and bored at one time or another.
Certainly, it has its moments.