I don’t like shooters. That was, for a very long time, something I firmly believed. The main reason for that was not necessarily that I really suck at shooting, which I usually do, but had more to do with the fact that I find picking off targets arcade style incredibly boring. There are a very few shooters I like. First among them ranks Bioshock Infinite, but that game’s got an awesome world and an equally captivating story.
Then I discovered SNIPER ELITE III and, immediately after, SNIPER ELITE 4 (Shouldn’t that be SNIPER ELITE IV?). And guess what? I really like stealth games, where you have to outsmart your enemies to survive. I also like the thrill of being hunted and being the hunter in turn. Which is why it’s a good thing SNIPER ELITE is my personal perfect mix of tactical shooting, stealth and survival.
A hero in shadows
The story of SNIPER ELITE is set during the last leg of World War II and spans a couple of years, starting in 1941 in North Africa, with the siege of Tobruk. You play as Lieutenant Karl Fairburne (Tom Clarke Hill), a British sniper born to a diplomat father in Berlin and educated in Westpoint. He is an older guy, a solemn, seasoned warrior who, over the course of the game, turns from expert marksman into James Bond. Minus the sex and the martinis.
Now, this enterprising sniper does not only shoot, he likes to take the initiative and the fight to the enemy. Having proven just that during the battle for Tobruk (Tobruk was lost to the Axis forces) Fairburne’s recruited into the SOE (Special Operations Executive) to serve as commando. Which, basically, means he’s carrying out special missions behind enemy lines. On his own. So, to survive in, say, a huge dockyard crawling with enemy soldiers without the cover of night (SNIPER ELITE 4, Deathstorm-DLC), tactical thinking and stealth are paramount. Which is right down my alley.
Using the rifle is not everything
I have this fond memory of Jedi Knight II, where hero Kyle Katarn has to eliminate some troopers guarding the fortress he has to infiltrate by sniper rifle from a very long distance away. Hitting the targets wasn’t easy, but I enjoyed the challenge. As far as I recall, though, they didn’t come after me once my cover was blown. Karl Fairburne has no such luck. So, while he is a sniper first and foremost, he is also skilled in melee and stealth.
Outfitted with a rifle, a SMG and a pistol, plus grenades, mines, dynamite and wire traps and a Panzerfaust, if he can find one (no wonder he’s so ripped!), Karl Fairburne is a formidable foe even for a tiger tank (I kid you not! Although I was really happy I didn’t have to take on that awesomely huge tank in the last mission of SNIPER ELITE III, which I briefly feared I needed to).
The key to success during the missions is finding a good vantage point to shoot your rifle at enemies a very great distance away (my longest shot in SNIPER ELITE III were some 602 m, in SNIPER ELITE 4 I only managed 306 m so far) and hope they don’t immediately zero in on your position. The further away, the better since, if they spot you, you’ll need to quickly relocate and find a new hiding place. Actually, you’ll always be on the move, trying to outsmart your pursuers. Which is great fun. Now, if you manage to relocate without being spotted, you are playing as a ghost for as long as you remain undetected. That includes any melee take down you can manage away from prying eyes (Isolated). Also, you can use the environment to sound-mask your shots. Suppressed ammo exists, in SNIPER ELITE 4, at least, but it is very rare and you should use it wisely.
You can also leave little surprises, aka traps behind for the enemy, blowing them up with teller mines or trip wired explosives. You can also shoot fuel barrels or the fuel tanks of trucks to take out nearby soldiers.
I love this game!
SNIPER ELITE also features an anatomically rich x-ray kill cam which shows you exactly which organs and bones are being blown to bits by your bullet, and how. While I knew about that I didn’t know this was the default setting and I admit I nearly threw up when experiencing that in-game for the very first time. Thankfully, you can turn that camera view off.
In both games you can hone your skills and gain XP and achievements by playing solo survial missions and taking part in multiplayer and coop events in new locations. Which is a great plus since I, for one, found myself always looking for the next challenge. Too bad they dropped the Long Shot-challenges from SNIPER ELITE 4. I loved those. But, to be fair, you can actually achieve long shot xp at any time, you just have to choose your own target.
As mentioned, Karl Fairburne is a commando, so he doesn’t participate in your usual battlefield skirmishes. Instead, he is sent behind enemy lines to investigate and sabotage secret scientific projects commissioned by the Nazis, to help pave the way for the Allied forces. The fact that he understands and speaks German doesn’t hurt either. Kudos to the team for not botching up the German NPC dialogues and kudos to Tom Clarke Hill for really making an effort.
During missions, there’s always a primary and some optional objectives. Which means Fairburne needs to navigate and traverse heavily guarded installations a number of times to get everything done. The longer he stays undetected, the better. It also helps to prepare. For example, in SNIPER ELITE III there is a truckload of elite Jäger forces headed for an old monument Karl needs to get back into in the Kasserine Pass. Strategically place a mine some time before they arrive and your life will have gotten much, much easier. Especially when playing on Sniper Elite (Hard), these little things count for much.
Each mission plays in roughly two hours, though you are free to skip activities, like optional objectives, and do them faster.
In SNIPER ELITE III Fairburne is hunting one General Vahlen, who is planning something big, called project “Seuche”, which means plague. The task is now to infiltrate heavily guarded areas set in the desert and mountains of North Africa. There are an oasis, a fort, an airfield (!) and some canyons. I liked the airfield best. I thought it was the hardest mission because it is very well guarded and you need to move around quite a lot.
Now, during the first few missions Fairburne builds up his rep and is soon known as the Desert Ghost (“Wüstengeist”). In response to his growing fame as a deadly marksman and covert agent the Germans try to contain him by also employing snipers in strategic locations, which is especially nasty during the nighttime airfield mission. Also, I have a feeling that the harder the difficulty, the more there are.
Which brings me straight to SNIPER ELITE 4. Why? Because in the Deathstorm-DLC Part 2, Infiltration, out since April, the city of Niroli features nine (!) snipers in total. Nine snipers! Are you kidding me? Often, their lines of sight cross, so when you aim to take out one, you’ll be spotted by another. Which is why one of the most coveted achievements of that DLC, I am guessing, is not being hit by a single sniper during the entire mission. So maybe just sneak up and take them down stealthily? I think I shall try that next time.
Now, SNIPER ELITE 4 changes some things for the better, e.g. it does feature more of a story, which I liked very much. Admittedly, in the beginning I feared that, this being about Karl Fairburne having to dismantle another science project, it would be a repetition of its predecessor, but there are some nice twists and turns in there which you may or may not discover and piece together before they are revealed.
I loved that.
So, this time, Karl Fairburne has to hunt down the evil General Böhm, who has been tasked with overseeing a project that involves guided missiles and threatens the impending Allied naval invasion of the Italian mainland. While Fairburne’s lost the desert tan and his hair is also darker, his voice still sounds like something you really don’t want to meet in the dark (Is it just me or do all video game heroes sound like that lately?). Also, he’s even more deeply entrenched in all that covert ops business, working closely with the OSS now, while also taking orders from SOE. His code name is Red Fox. Cute. To the Germans, he’s known as Shadow and they are out for his blood. No surprise there.
With the story comes a host of supporting characters. There’s partisan leader Sofia, plagued with self-guilt and filled with zeal, slick German turncoat Dorfmann and hands-on American intelligence officer Weaver. Also, the Mafia. This is Italy, after all. The partisans’ stories in particular give this installment a more human touch, just as the NPC chatter and personal documents, which contributes to illustrating the hardships of war both for soldiers and civilians. At one point, though, I found that SNIPER ELITE 4 began to feel like a James Bond movie. Not being a fan, that kinda spoiled it a little for me.
While SNIPER ELITE III focuses on stealth and using the rifle, for example by rewarding the player for achieving spedific long shots, SNIPER ELITE 4 features environmental kill opportunities and the ability to climb buildings and go up and down pipes to get to higher ground. You can now also hide in bushes. Which is nice, but it makes it feel easier in comparison. The thrill when you just got prone among the high grass and shadows and hope that noone comes close enough to spot you is pretty awesome. The missions, though, are harder, I feel. For example, if you make too much noise, the enemy can call an artillery strike down on your last known position. Scary! Also, they have grown smarter. If you take out one of the patrols, they realise someone is missing and go take a look. Plus, there are optional challenges that you can activate when playing a mission and thereby increase the overall difficulty.
SNIPER ELITE III already made an effort of increasing the challenge for the more seasoned players of the game when introducing their Story-DLCs. The first I played is set in Tobruk, and the city is fairly crawling with guards patrolling both the streets as well as the roofs. The first mission of the Save Churchill-DLC, the second Story- DLC, set in the familiar oasis of Siwa but with fewer places to go to ground and ace troops on the roofs, was also pretty taxing.
SNIPER ELITE 4 focuses more on having you infiltrate confined settings, like small towns or military installations, where observation and timing are key. Being able to hide in bushes and climbing objects therefore makes sense. I am currently playing the game for the third time on Sniper Elite-difficulty.
Given my prejudices concerning Shooters, surprisingly, I loved both of the games.
Some last thoughts (not entirely spoiler-free)
Pulling Rank: Karl Fairburne is a lieutenant, a senior rank matching his experience. If you break down the word, though, it literally means “hold ground”. For a sniper, that’d be a really bad idea. Which is why I asked myself, was that intentional? Also, I felt like a cheat when people in the game addressed me as Lieutenant Fairburne when, judging by XP, I was, like, just a Technical Sergeant Mark 2.
A Matter of Perspective: “We are not the same. I remember the people I kill.” Ah. Well. Let me correct you there, Karl. Personally, I do not, in fact, remember any one of the few dozen NPCs I shot, stabbed or blew into smithers up until this point in SNIPER ELITE III. Maybe that’s a hint? Maybe I should really try to finish the game killing only the specific targets? On second thought that may be a tad more than I am willing and able to. Shooters and all.
Don’t Be A Bore: Who else though that standoff at the end of SNIPER ELITE 4 featured the longest and most boring of monologues ever uttered by any main villain? And will they ever learn that prattling on about your imminent victory is much more comfortable after you’ve shot your highly dangerous and incredibly capable adversary first?
Persistent: Both SNIPER ELITE III and SNIPER ELITE 4 feature a DLC where you can assassinate the Führer, although, unless this is supposed to be an alternate universe, you’d rather be killing a double. While, based on the collected intelligence and keen observation, I correctly deduced that the guy posing as Adolf in Tobruk was a fluke and let him live, I did manage to kill a second double by dropping a U-Boot (don’t ask) on him while he was touring the naval base in the SNIPER ELITE 4-DLC. Which was fun, though exfiltrating afterwards was less pleasant. Well, in the end Karl states that he hopes he’s managed to kill the Führer this time. Boy, will he be disappointed.
A Lack of Humor: I really like it when games offer some comic relief. Since Karl Fairburne himself is a pretty solemn guy and does not have a sidekick who could serve the purpose (No, Brauer was not funny at all. He was just a stupidly annoying cliché.), there’s really no humor in the games. The only time I really laughed because it, at least to me, was genuinely funny was when Karl blew up a crypt and told himself “That’s it. I’m definitely going to hell.” Well. Christian values and all, that’s not what you’re going to hell for, buddy.