What kind of stealth do you favour? Are you a ghost, a passing deadly spectre only visible as a reflection in your victim’s eyes for brief seconds before they’re brutally slain and dropped into a bush? Or are you, like me, stealthy until the screen flashes ‘cover blown’ and then resolutely prepared to slaughter every single human being on the map? The beautiful thing about Sniper Elite 4 - and it is gorgeous all the way down to the sinew and muscle that burst in slow motion as your bullets slice through them - is that it’s ready for however you want to play. The gruff Karl Fairburne has his trusty Enfield rifle and is fully ready to hide in foliage waiting for that perfect shot, but is equally equipped as a killing machine for when all hell breaks loose. And you know it will.
As a franchise, Sniper Elite has always been a solid offering. It’s done exactly what it says on the ration tin; serving up a dependable sniping simulation with the gory bonus of the beautifully named X-ray kill cam ‘testikills’ when you aim for just the right area of the groin. But now, travelling from World War 2 Africa to Italy hasn’t just given Fairburne more of a tan. Everything has been improved. The open-world levels of Sniper Elite 3 could fit into the corners of these new areas. For the single player campaign, eight perfect mini sandboxes stretch tantalisingly into the distance.
From the open sun-drenched fields of San Celini Island to the endless claustrophobic tunnels of Nazi facilities holding dark secrets, each level map is a sprawling murder smorgasbord of optional objectives and missions. While there are primary quests to get on with, why would you ignore destroying vehicles, taking out high ranking officers for the Italian partisans or sneaking into guarded areas to blow some intel out of a safe? There’s a constant theme of bullets to brains and the lovely glowing red sights as you hold your breath and line up a perfect kill, but every mission switches things out, making sure nothing ever feels stale.
Like Hitman or the later Assassin’s Creeds, you can choose exactly how you want to take on each objective. There’s never only just one way in and you’ll constantly have to switch out your playstyle. Underground tunnels might take you the back way into a facility, a tiny sewer grate will let you into the heart of an Italian castle being used as a guard post, clambering up a drain pipe and leaping onto a balcony might give you a whole new angle to pop that officer’s skull. This means every tiny mission can become an enormous one. Sure you could throw in a grenade and send enemies scattering, unaware of your position, or you could tag everyone in sight with your binoculars from a prone position on red tiled roof, and start blowing up areas of the environment. You could even rig a dead body with a trap and wait for someone to check for a heartbeat. Thinking boom raider as they go up in flames is totally optional. If you want to keep your distance though, there are few moments as satisfying as regulating your heartbeat before a well placed shot to a vehicle’s petrol tank and the resulting chain explosions causing nearby soldiers to dissolve in X-ray killcam as they dive for cover. The murderous choice on offer is positively intoxicating.
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It’s enjoyably tough too. Even if you’re using suppressed ammunition, funnily enough soldiers will notice when their friends start dropping like flies. The AI here will hunt you down. Don’t cover your sniper fire with a soundmask and your position will immediately be compromised, a dangerous red triangle appearing exactly where you’ve hidden Karl so perfectly. That might be exactly what you want though. On one occasion, I had crept around the Lorino Dockyard for hours, tagging every enemy and shooting only when mortar fire could mask my gun, saving every five minutes. Then it all went wrong, I missed a headshot, the soundmask stopped and I shot again, sending every painstakingly tagged enemy in my direction with a deafening loud single gunshot. I found myself sheltering from hails of bullets on the deck of a ship, rattling off satisfying SMG headshots between enemy fire and feeling exhilaratingly like a World War 2 John Wick as the enemy did the same. A quick switch to the sniper rifle, one headshot, two headshot, oh dear God, watch those eyes pop. The joy of Sniper Elite is in these little moments. You made this happen, now deal with the consequences.
And then there’s the layers of detail. The ones aside from seeing how many molars you can spray in multiple directions when you get a perfect mouth shot. The slews of collectibles per level guarantee that OCD ghosters are going to be hard at work for hours. Letters from home, letters to home, the heart tugging final words of soldiers and the exceptionally useful duty rosters that’ll show you every reporting soldier for one officer on the map. Every map is packed with things, leading you off target into just another room to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
Even the addition of weapons stats as you hover over them feels like a slick addition. Clear red and green bars show exactly the damage and recoil you’re switching out for. In less useful detail but oddly appreciated, even tagging an enemy from afar will give you a titbit of info on them before you inevitably take them down. Hey, at least you knew he slept with a picture of his German Shepherd next to his bed before you carefully shot at the grenade belt across his chest. In short, this world feels alive, the environments beautifully layered. Whether you’re crouched at a corner in an Italian village, watching the dust eddies swirl around your feet as you listen to the conversation of the soldiers mere metres away, or are silently sneaking through a dockyard, gramophone music gently echoing on the wind, there’s a genuine sense of place.
Once you’ve completed the story for the first time (which plods along quite happily and comes complete with joyously trashy Hollywood ending) you’ll want to go straight back in. Before you even consider doing the whole thing in co-op or attempting the satisfying survival mode, each level has its own mini objectives and Karl’s loadout can be tweaked and altered with upgrades. Want improved damage? Get 20 heart shots. Bars are here to be filled, medals ticked off, organs burst, loadouts tweaked, teeth shattered. Everything feels slick, engineered to get you straight back into the warzone but as an even better killing machine. Sure, Karl still takes himself a little too seriously but Sniper Elite 4 is the murderous theme park you didn’t know you needed to visit.