Changing Regimes, One Bullet At A Time

HIGH A sniping post across a lake from a chalet with glass walls.

LOW Why doesn’t this super-mask work?

WTF Why do I have to worry about windspeed in an underground lab?

There’s a story I like about the development of Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Apparently some playtesters enjoyed using detective mode – the x-ray vision that allows Batman to easily spot interactive elements and see traps at a great distance – and they enjoyed it so much that they were leaving it on for the entire game. Worried that no one was going to see the huge amount of work they’d put into the graphics, the developers spent time trying to brainstorm ways to discourage players from overusing the mode.

Nothing seemed actionable, since limitations would only frustrate players in the many sections where detective mode was necessary. Then someone had a eureka moment that would contribute hugely to its success — why not let them play however they want?

I bring this anecdote up because Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts manages to deliver a largely satisfying sniping experience, but faceplants in the most spectacular way when it comes to its gadgets. The devs would have done quite well for themselves by taking a page from Rocksteady’s handbook.

As a follow-up to 2017’s FPS Sniper Ghost Warrior 3, SGWC puts players in the role of a mercenary working for the shadowy supervillain organization from that game.

In a near-future setting, Siberia has broken away from Russia to become its own country, but corruption and mismanagement have massively destabilized the region. It’s the player’s job to kill the dozen or so people most responsible for the sorry state of the nation and soften it up for a people’s revolution the aforementioned supervillains will be able to guide towards their own ends. If the player manages to grab any biological weapons and genetic engineering research at the same time, there will be a nice cash bonus for that, too!

Functioning as a sort of middle ground between Sniper Elite and Hitman, SGWC abandons the previous title’s delightfully complex open world and replaces it with five separate mission areas, each one built around three or four facilities where objectives are hidden. Players are dropped in and then told to complete their checklist of tasks in whatever order and manner they please.

The levels are carefully constructed to ensure that all options are on the table. There’s plenty of cover for those who want to run and gun, secret entrances for those who prefer to sneak in and slit throats, and (naturally) many vantage points with clean sightlines for the long-distance killing implied by the title.

The core mechanics are practically perfect. Moving through the world is smooth as silk, whether the player is crawling along riverbeds or climbing to scale cliffsides. Sneaking through enemy lines requires careful use of cover and minimizing sound but there are numerous paths to each objective, some more obvious than others. The ‘tracking’ feature from SGW3 in which players can see glowing footprints on the ground makes a return appearance, although here it’s not about uncovering environmental storytelling, it exists to teach the player how to tiptoe through minefields.

The shooting is simply excellent. Players begin with a silenced sniper rifle with a weak scope, but can quickly upgrade to bigger and better guns by spending contract rewards between levels. Every gun can be extensively customized to fit playstyle, from bipods with extreme-range accuracy to muzzle brakes that let assault rifles to empty a full clip without losing their target. There’s only one fairly major oversight — there are numerous types of special bullets that deal armor piercing or explosive damage, but only certain rifles can equip them and SGW3 doesn’t tell players which bullets go with which rifles until those guns have been unlocked.

It’s not a huge problem, but I did spend too much time trying to figure out how to unlock futuristic computer-guided DARPA projectiles which erase the player’s need to worry about things like bullet drop and windspeed, transforming the most extreme-range engagements into a turkey shoot.

Overall SGWC gets so much right that it almost pains me to bring up its greatest flaw…

In the initial briefing, the player is told that in order to accept contracts, they’ll have to wear a futuristic mask that will hold significance to anyone who played SGW3.

The mask is supposed to overlay an AR filter on the world, auto-tagging enemies, revealing the position of countersnipers, and suggesting alternate routes through levels. It starts out relatively weak, but players can upgrade its range and functionality until it essentially transforms them into a super-soldier.

The entire game is built around employing this mask to make things easier, so why does it have a timer and cooldown restricting its use? Players can turn it on and get outlines of enemies through walls and see the vision cones of surveillance cameras, but a few seconds later it shuts off automatically. It’s a baffling restriction which — like the incredibly small battery life on the drone that players can use to scout areas — makes actually using tech central to the entire premise an annoying chore.

Here’s the thing, though — even without the advantages of the mask and drone, SGWC is still some great sniping, and by the end of the campaign I was barely using the mask at all. At its core Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts is a challenging, but fundamentally well-balanced sniping FPS, but the mask was supposed to be the thing that empowered the character and made them more than a match for the armies they’re up against — I just can’t understand why the developers didn’t let me choose how to use it, rather than forcing annoying limits upon me.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by City Interactive. It is currently available on PC, PS4 and XBO.This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language. I can talk about the drinking and smoking and slave trading all you want, but you don’t need to know all that to know this game must be kept away from kids. Here’s all you need to know — bullets tear off limbs and explode heads in this game. Graphically and upsettingly. Don’t let kids anywhere near it.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You’re not going to have much trouble with the game — there are onscreen indicators letting players know when they’re being spotted or attacked by enemies. The only important audio cue missing is the whine of surveillance drones drawing near, but they do offer an onscreen indicator once they’ve spotted the player.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Daniel Weissenberger
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