Snipers have been celebrated and elevated in the ranks of videogame characters. Ever since Goldeneye introduced the scoped rifle to the scene, it's become de rigeur for every first-person shooter (FPS) to feature a sniper rifle, giving players the opportunities to live out their fantasies of long-range murder. Despite this ubiquity, until now there had never been a game that attempted to realistically model the mechanics of actually using a sniper rifle*. Sniper Elite is the game that finally attempts to break that trend, and it's as much of a mixed bag as one would expect from an attempt at a new genre.
Sniper Elite is a hybrid first-/third- person shooter, meaning that everything is third-person except for the sniping, but there's an awful lot of that. It's set during the closing days of the second World War, where a single American commando must murder hundreds of Russians in an attempt to, among other objectives, keep them from kidnapping German scientists to advance their nuclear program.
This story is actually little on the troubling side. This is a situation where attempting for realism might not have been the best choice. I mean, if you're going to be making a game about a sniper in World War Two, why not just go all the way with it and make it the story of the man who hunted down and killed Hitler as he tried to escape? Making it about such an obscure and relatively unimportant part of war history kind of strips the drama out of the game. I'm sure that what the Office of Strategic Services did at the end of the war seemed to be of the utmost importance at the time, but in retrospect, it didn't amount much at all. The Americans tried to keep the scientists out of the hands of Russia because they didn't want commies getting the bomb. But Russia did get the bomb. So this winds up being a game about an American soldier killing dozens, even hundreds of his allies for the grand cause of delaying the Russian nuclear program for six months.
Beyond that, this game's title is extremely misleading. This isn't actually a game about a sniper, it's a game about a commando who carries a sniper's rifle. Snipers generally avoid combat at all costs. Either their job is to sneak behind enemy lines to execute high-value targets, or to hide as an enemy force approaches and pick off the vanguard to demoralize the rest of the troops. I could see a sniping game requiring some minor close-up murdering; slitting sentry throats, for example, while getting into the optimum sniping position wouldn't be too out of character. Significantly less sniper-y is grabbing a heavy automatic weapon and gunning down hordes of onrushing Nazis.
Sniper Elite at least gets the sniping mechanics right. While I can't attest to how realistic the aiming system is, it's complex enough to feel realistic. Having to compensate for things like bullet drop and high winds seems daunting at first (especially because the game offers no training of any kind), but once the player learns to use the notches on their scope to measure enemy distance, each opportunity to murder someone at long range becomes an entertaining test of patience and math skills. The game rewards players for perfectly executed shots with a bullet camera that follows the shot out of the gun's barrel and all the way into the brain of its victim—including a gruesome close-up of a piece of that victim's skull being removed. Luckily for lovers or realism or those with weak stomachs, this effect can be turned off, sparing them from seeing the gaping hole where a German's eye used to be.
All of the wonderful sniping mechanics are wasted when there just aren't enough good places to use them. Much of the game takes place in the bombed-out husk of Berlin, where one would think that there wouldn't be a single door or window left intact. One would be wrong, though—apparently at the end of the war the vast majority of buildings were left tightly locked up, with windows made from unbreakable glass. This robs snipers of their natural habitat—the burned-out building. Throughout the game I was forced to snipe while lying prone in the middle of the street, or from behind the occasional burned-out husk of a car. It felt neither realistic nor particularly satisfying.
One of the main elements of the game is staying unseen and unheard while killing Nazis. Doing so is made very difficult by the fact that all of the rifles the player uses in the game are completely unsilenced. In a technique inspired by the film Enemy at the Gates, the player can choose to fire the rifle while a loud noise is going off in the background, so as to mask the gunshot. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell how loud the background noise is, or which direction it's coming from, so there's no way to be sure whether a shot's report is going to be covered or not. This gets frustrating very quickly, and could have easily been remedied by the inclusion of a Splinter Cell-styled noise meter.
What really keeps the game from being outstanding, though, is that in addition to the sniping, there's way too much non-sniping content. Too many of the levels follow a similar structure: Carefully sneak within sight of an important target, snipe/blow up the target, blast out of the area through hordes of enemies. Everything up until that third part works just fine, but the combat is just woefully out of place—and not just thematically. The controls suck too. Awkward movement controls, automatic weapons that are way too accurate, levels that aren't designed to be running and gunning in… it's just no fun to battle people in tight corridors when I could be sniping them from a quarter-mile off. Worse still, there are so many enemies in the action sections that they can actually be seen spawning at points—a major no-no for any game with even the slightest pretense of realism. At one point, I'd used a tripwire grenade to mine the only entrance to my sniper's nest, only to find that once I'd completed an objective, enemies magically appeared inside the building. That's just amateurish.
There are quite a few moments where Sniper Elite works as well as it's supposed to. Mostly in the larger, more open levels, where the player can really spend some time exploring and setting up the perfect shot. At these moments Sniper Elite is every bit the game it sets out to be—tense, thrilling, addictive, rewarding… if they'd manage to make the whole game feel like the more sniper-intensive levels, Sniper Elite could have been a classic. As it stands it's just a good game with a few very awkward parts. It's worth playing for any FPS lover who's willing to put up with some bad action in order to take their sniping to the next level, but that relegates it to being a niche title at best.
(*With the odd exception of the NES Golgo 13 game, The Mafat Conspiracy)
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.