There seems to be a gleeful amorality that is accepted when killing Nazis. Like zombies, it's like you can kill them with no moral twinges at all. Because in videogameland, every soldier in the Axis armies is a black-hearted villain, and ventilating their brain pans with high-speed pieces of pointed metal is a service to humanity. Certainly, there's a lot less in the form of public outcry when your game features the spilling of National Socialist blood than it does when its Trevor running someone over in a truck in GTA.
But let's put all of this high-minded philosophising aside, shall we? Because it's back to the skull fragmenting, eyeball bursting, organ rupturing world of Sniper Elite - the series that asks the question "why just shoot a Nazi when you can graphically eviscerate every organ in his body in slow motion?"
Sniper Elite V2 came out a while back, and it was alright. The big thing was this bullet cam thing that shows a slow-motion x-ray shot of the internal damage caused by each rifle bullet along with bonus points for destroying major internal organs and some of the most revolting sound effects imaginable. The whole experience was designed to make you feel a little sick. Otherwise, what you had was a stealth-focused WW2 shooter in a pretty thin sauce.
Sequels rarely really push things forward all that much. You don't want to veer too far from what people remember from the last game, right? A little tweak here and there, a new story, couple of fresh locations, and the job's a good'un. That's how it normally works, and there'd be no reason to expect Sniper Elite III to go much beyond this.
It's set in North Africa, which I guess is a good thing, as the streets of Berlin were getting a little staid. Other than that though, is it much to write home about?
Good lord, yes. Everything that was lukewarm or broken about the previous game has been polished, repaired, improved and re-imagined in the best ways. Level design has taken a huge step forward - the maps are these great big things that rarely have a linear pattern. Once you've crossed the map, you may well need to come back again, exploring the stealthy combat from another angle. The maps play out wonderfully like a big game of hide-and-seek, just as you'd want them to. Get a good overview, tag enemies with your binoculars Far Cry-style, and stalk them however you please. Obviously, the emphasis is on long range shooty business, but your gravelly-voiced action hero is just as handy with his combat knife - or, if it comes to it, just wailing away with a tommy gun. Once you've made a lot of noise and alerted the enemy to your location, you need to relocate a certain distance from where you drew attention to yourself in order to clear the patrols, who will continue to move in on your previous location, not even realising that the cat has become the mouse until they're dead.
Gone is the regenerating health, instead being replaced with the Far Cry 3 health system. Blocks of energy, each of which recharge slowly if partially damaged, but which won't recharge if they're depleted entirely and need topping up with health packs. In fact, much was made of Far Cry 3's outpost skirmishes when it came out. Sniper Elite III basically makes a whole game out of that idea.
The plot, such as it is, really doesn't need a lot of attention, nor does it really feel like it received much from the devs. You're a one-dimensional all-American action guy, and there's an evil Nazi who has a secret plan. You need to learn about the secret plan, and then foil it. Throw in a little bromance with a plucky, plum-voiced Brit and you've really got all you need. What's really important here isn't a complex story so much as a series of incredibly enjoyable, wide open maps that feel considerably more like a sniper's playground than the streets of Berlin from the previous games.
There are plenty of tricks and traps that you can employ to confound the jackbooted hordes, and they're all really fun to use. Even the old classic of shooting a red barrel will often result in a nice slo-mo cutscene. There's nothing like finding a great sniper nest, defending it with a trip mine, then blasting away at a village full of German soldiers, only to be rewarded with a tripwire double-kill as the goons stumble into your little surprise as they attempt to outflank you. Many levels are realistically possible without having to murder your way through each and every guard in the place, creating a 'Dirty Dozen' kind of feel, as the guards lean on crates and chat and you nip past in the background.
With a little tweaking, the Sniper Elite III graphics settings allowed me a stable and relatively pretty experience, and the settings are certainly there to allow a fun game for older machines and something for even new systems to chew on a little. Overall, a well-optimised game that certainly cures many of the ills of the previous Sniper Elite games.
Sniping can be a lonely affair and when there are already millions of titles that allow FPS snipers to dominate the multiplayer landscape, having a Multiplayer option here might not be too high up the development list. So instead Rebellion added something that would work, co-op sniping. You can play the entire Sniper Elite 3 through with a buddy sniper if you want. Lovely, right? There are a couple of other co-op modes too that put your team work skill to the test, Overwatch and Survival.
It's not a perfect game, and there are a couple of small issues. But they really are small. I had two CTDs, and a few instances of Sniper Elite 3 freezing up for about fifteen seconds during the bullet cam. Once, I seemed to be unable to relocate, with the attention marker stuck on my player, despite the fact that I fled into a series of empty underground tunnels. The game relies perhaps a little too heavily on the 'OMG' tactic of dropping a tank into a level as a mandatory boss fight. But for everything that Rebellion has got right here, these are minor flaws. Sniper Elite III is so enjoyable because it's a stealth game done right.