Somewhere, over the rainbow… *squelch*
Sniper Elite V2 is the latest game from the reasonably prolific British developer Rebellion, their back-catalogue includes Alien vs Predator, The Simpsons Game, and Neverdead. What do all of those games have in common? They all had some kind of brilliant hook, something that set them apart; they were also all painfully mediocre games, and now Sniper Elite V2 is here to continue that legacy.
When I first played the demo of the game I was impressed. Sniper Elite V2 is a third person action game but you spend a great deal of time looking down the sights of a sniper rifle (as hopefully you’d expect). You have to balance a few different variables such as distance, breathing rate and wind direction on harder difficulties, and then you pull the trigger to take out your enemy. The game then often slows to a crawl and focuses on the bullet as it tears through the air, you get a dizzying sense of distance and scale before you watch the bullet strike your target. This moment is essentially what you’re paying for with the game, the moment a round meets a target a number of things can happen: most of the time you’ll be shown some fairly horrific exit wound rendered dynamically; sometimes you’ll hit a grenade and watch as the hapless gent takes out his squad in an impressive fireball; best of all (I understand how sickening this could sound) occasionally you’ll be treated to an x-ray visualisation of the metal slug tearing through bone, vital organs and blood on its way out. As gruesome as that sounds (and it is) there is a huge amount of satisfaction to be gained from watching your brassy friend shoot off away from you, gliding through the air majestically to fit neatly into the eye socket of an anonymous ‘Elite Russian Sniper’.
This killcam is the hook that Sniper Elite V2 was evidently built around. Like most of Rebellion’s games (Rogue Warrior didn’t have a hook, it was just awful) all of their attention seems to have been based on getting this mechanic right at the expense of all others. Some have praised the game as being a realistic military shooter as opposed to the arcade joys of Call of Duty or Battlefield, but really this game lacks any kind of realism that I could see. I don’t know a lot about guns but the number of times you bring an enemy down by grazing his forearm, or destroy a tank with a shot to a glowing petrol cap, or clamber around Berlin carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition, mines, other explosives and an infinite supply of pebbles suggests that this is not exactly a simulation. Hitting the point home is a scoring system that pops up whenever you make a kill. It’s immersion breaking and in itself broken as it tries to give you higher score for taking out two enemies with one bullet, or getting headshots and so on but the points assigned to kills seem completely random. A few times I managed to get a bullet through the heads of two of Hitler’s henchmen standing neatly in a row over a hundred meters away only to be rewarded with less than I scored for hitting a man in the next room who was walking towards to me after I missed him seven times and had to reload.
All of the usual staples of normal shooters are presented on the cheap. The environments are admittedly huge but moments of beauty are ruined by graphical glitches, pop-in (and out; a few times I saw soldiers randomly disappear in cut-scenes) and ugly texture work. There’s a couple of spectacular wide open spaces where you can really explore and find the best way to approach your objective but all too often you are pushed into tiny boring corridors or streets. A sizeable chunk of the game takes place underground which may be easy to program but seems the wrong place for a sniper.
The gameplay outside of the actual sniping is dull and lacks much of the finesse that the genre has developed over the last decade or so. Your SMG is incredibly inaccurate and although this could be a good thing as it encourages you to be careful about when you go in all guns blazing, it also makes it mostly useless. The pistol is also fairly anaemic so I tended to settle most close-quarters encounters with my sniper rifle since there’s abundant ammo and it kills in one hit even on normal. Movement is haphazard and despite many climbing sections the animations often fail to trigger or clip through bits of geometry. Many times I found myself sprinting away from a group of unexpected enemies only to find myself waddling away because I had pressed ‘B’ the wrong number of times.
There are a number of tools to help you with your missions but no real opportunities to use them. In the opening tutorials you get shown how to set traps to cover your escape later. The problem is that you never get told from that point on when you will need to be escaping or if you’ll be coming back the same way, so there’s no point setting anything up as you’re usually moving forward.
The story is told through a block of text read aloud in-between missions, and occasional short cut-scenes that all seem unfinished as they start and end abruptly with very little happening. The tale concerns some kind of special-agent sniper person as he roams around Berlin at the same time as the Russians are finishing up the war. This is a fairly interesting idea, both sides appear as a threat to you, but the voice acting is devoid of emotion and despite the repeated mentions of Berlin being ‘like hell’ you see very little fighting going on that isn’t aimed directly at you. You never get a sense of who the main character is, or anyone else, and even the enemies all merge into one faceless entity as you pick them off one by one with your trusty rifle. You’d think Rebellion would have tried to inject a little personality into the weapons, and each new rifle is blessed with a short cut-scene, but they all work in a similar way and you see hundreds of identical ones on every other soldier as you make your way around Berlin.
I finished the campaign on the standard difficulty in around five and a half hours, and that took so long because I died repeatedly. The game puts up a decent challenge and trying to be stealthy is much harder than it seems. If you shoot when there isn’t a loud sound (bells, explosions etc) to mask the shot, or an enemy sees you, every enemy in the checkpoint will know exactly where you are. You can’t take all that many hits and the checkpoints are apparently random distances apart so I found myself having to replay ten to fifteen minutes of a level two or three times fairly regularly. Eventually it stops being any fun at all as you just memorise where each enemy comes from and take him out before they’re aware you exist. As you have regenerating health it’s entirely sensible to set off the enemies on purpose when you’re in a good spot with somewhere to hide and simply pick them all off as they run towards you. You end up clearing the enemies in an area and then can progress unhindered until the next checkpoint when more enemies spawn. This might not be the intended way of playing but it’s simpler and trying to be stealthy just gets too frustrating.
There are four multiplayer modes (the back of the box lists them as ‘War-torn online modes’, how can a mode be war-torn?) but none of them are adversarial, or interesting. You can play through the solo campaign co-operatively, but nothing really changes and all of the problems from single-player are present. You can also take part in a kind of horde mode, a ‘bombing run’ where you have to collect parts as you move around a level, and the most interesting that is called Overwatch. In Overwatch one player is a sniper, confined to a single spot, and they must watch over another player not armed with a sniper rifle, who must perform various missions on the ground. It sets up an interesting dynamic but the gameplay is so similar to the single player I lost interest extremely quickly.
I’ve always tried so hard to like Rebellion’s games, they show so much promise. Unfortunately Sniper Elite V2 is another dud on the pile that will hopefully have its excellent sniping mechanic stolen by another developer to be used in a more fleshed out game. If you’re after some gruesome fun for an afternoon pick this up on a rental but don’t pay full price for it, you’ll feel cheated.
+ Gruesome but delightful killcams
+ Impressive sense of scale at times
– Terrible story
– Extremely short
– Frustrating checkpoints and stealth system
– Dull multiplayer
– So much wasted potential