Landing headshots with X-ray precision in Sniper Elite III

The defining feature of the Sniper Elite series is its unique X-ray deathcam. Land a killshot with one of the game’s sniper rifles and you’re rewarded with a slow-motion sequence in which you get to see the internal damage wrought by the speeding bullet as it enters then exits its target. Sniper Elite and Sniper Elite V2 are otherwise adequate third-person shooters that largely function as delivery systems for the game’s unique take on enemy death.

That’s not a surefire ticket to sales success, which is why it’s refreshing to sit with Rebellion’s upcoming return to the series, Sniper Elite III, and find what appears to be much more of a well-devised game around the neat-o deathcam. Everything from tighter controls to larger, sandbox-style environments nod to the sort of shooter play that’s so popular these days. What worked before in Sniper Elite games? What didn’t? Our recent look at the game brings the reassuring confirmation that developer Rebellion is asking the right questions.

Story/Concept

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New theater, same war: Sniper Elite III sticks to the World War II setting of its predecessors, though it’s technically a prequel. The game shifts the action away from Europe and into plains and mountains of North Africa, to look at an earlier moment in the war.

Players once again step into the role of Karl Fairburne, a German America OSS sniper, as he’s sent off to support Allied forces. Our demo didn’t delve heavily into the plot, but Rebellion’s confirmed that, over the course of the story, Fairburne learns of a secret super weapon program that threatens to turn the tide of the war … unless he can stop it, of course.

Gameplay

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Going the distance: The most immediately noticeable difference between Sniper Elite III and the two games in the series that precede it is its more open environments. A quick peek at the map for the second chapter, which takes Fairburne to Gaberoun, an oasis in real-world Libya, reveals a sandbox-style environment. The sprawling enemy encampment that your mission plays out in offers any number of routes and approaches to each objective.

Stealthy progress and sniper fire are still at the heart of the game, but it’s realized in a way that feels less like a shooting gallery than the past two games did. The camp at Gaberoun is a maze of trenches, tents, supply pallets, and defensive emplacements that you can approach however you like. The layout of the map makes it difficult to simply sit and snipe the whole mission away from one location, but in forcing players to relocate, Rebellion creates opportunities to remind players that firing a giant rifle is only one part of the sniper’s job.

The Sniper Elite series has always been tagged as a “tactical action” game, but here you really get to employ proper tactical thinking. The Gaberoun mission calls for you to eliminate and collect intel from multiple enemy scattered around the map. How you get to each one — and deal with any nearby backup — is the challenge, and the layout of the world provides a lot of flexibility for whatever your approach is to tackling that challenge.

The right tools: Fairburne is hardly a glass cannon, but the regenerating health of the previous games is replaced by a five-bar health meter. If you take damage and then get to cover, the meter will slowly refill, but only to the top of the nearest bar. Proper medkits are needed to restore health beyond that. It’s a change that puts much more emphasis on being cautious and staying out of sight.

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Fortunately, Fairburne’s got some useful tools to help him out. The returning binoculars allow you to scan around for enemy forces and then mark them, which makes them a permanent fixture in your HUD (until they’re neutralized). Mines and other traps are also back to help keep your flank safe, and objects in the environment like generators can be interacted with to help mask the sound of your shots for a limited time.

All of these bits and pieces are supported by a new progression system, with players earning XP bonuses for scoring kills in different ways and completing secondary objectives. Doing so unlocks new weapons, gear, and other customization options.

Live-fire exercise: Sniper Elite III brings back V2‘s online play, ratcheting the total player count up to 12 for multiplayer matches. We didn’t get to see any of the adversarial modes in action, but we did get a brief look at Rebellion’s revised take on the co-op mode, Overwatch.

Overwatch is a two-player mode in which one assumes the role of the Sniper and the other assumes the role of the Operative. The Sniper has no binoculars to rely on in Overwatch, with intel on enemy positions instead coming from the Operative, who can also pick locks and generally perform more effectively in close-combat situations.

The big change in Overwatch for Sniper Elite III follows the same theme as the campaign. Larger, more open environments that, in turn, offer a greater freedom of movement. Certain sections of Overwatch missions forcibly separate the Sniper and Operative players (which is how the mode used to work, with the Sniper confined to a perch), but now they’ll also be able to move around certain sections of maps together. It’s a less restrictive take on the co-op mode, and you immediately feel the difference when you play it.

Presentation

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Functional improvements: Sniper Elite III isn’t a bad-looking game, though the visual splendor feels somewhat constrained by the fact that the game was designed to straddle the line between two generations of console hardware. Killcams see modest improvements, with the slow-mo bullet cutting through more layers of human tissue during the gory sequences. New vehicle killcams trade blood spurts for shattered pistons, providing an up close look at what happens when a sniper bullet tears through a combustion engine.

The best of the visual upgrades offer proper functional improvements to how the game plays. There’s a new minimap that shows where nearby enemies are and which direction they’re facing, as well as icons that appear over enemy heads to let you know if Fairburne is visible and how close he is to being discovered. 

Takeaway

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Sniper Elite III is no meat-and-potatoes shooter — that’s not what the series is about — but the prequel’s greatly improved mechanics and design suggest that there’s an enjoyable time-killer here for what is traditionally a quiet summer release season. We’ll find out in just over a month. Sniper Elite III comes to PlayStation and Xbox consoles, as well as PC, on July 1, 2014.

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