I'm camped behind a shallow wall of sandbags in Sniper Elite 5 and I'm bricking it. Not because of the waves of advancing Nazis, I've slaughtered hundreds of them by this point. Not because there are snipers all around with their sights trained on my forehead, I'm quick enough to dodge their aerial fodder. Not because I'm absolutely baking under the midday Beaumont-Saint-Denis sun without, at least to my knowledge, having applied even a smidgen of sunscreen. I am crapping my covert US Rangers operation fatigues because I've just learned that the dreaded Sniper Jager has forcefully entered my game.
Sniper Elite 5's new 'Axis Invasion' mode is not only a wonderful addition to Rebellion's latest tactical shooter installment, but a great feature for expanding the tried and tested formula. Similar to how invasions work in the likes of Elden Ring and Dark Souls, players can now randomly drop into other people's single or two-player co-op campaigns as the aforementioned Sniper Jager, an elite German marksman whose sole purpose is to execute protagonist Karl Fairburne in cold blood. When filling the shoes of the former, you yield a fixed, advanced skill set that's always active – with perks including additional health, and the ability to catch and return live grenades. When filling the shoes of Fairburne, you will, invariably, soil your undergarments.
War a fright
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One
Release date: May 26, 2022
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Rebellion Developments
I speak from experience, of course. Like its predecessors, Sniper Elite 5 is a solid and dependable tactical shooter that tasks you with navigating contained sandboxes (nine, this time around) with mostly linear outcomes. Kill this target. Locate this intel. Destroy this enemy weapon or means of communication. Revel in slaughtering scores of Nazi soldiers by blowing open their heads, limbs, and private parts – meticulously illustrated by the series' signature slow-motion kill cam set-pieces. It's classic Sniper Elite. Axis Invasions, however, are a subtle tweak to the blueprint that can totally upend campaign missions.
Because, while the AI in Sniper Elite 5 is the most intelligent it has ever been, enemy behavior patterns, routines, and patrols are, for the most part, pretty predictable. Throwing a volatile, trigger-happy player into the mix, though, can turn everything on its head. In the above scenario, I was on the cusp of stealthily infiltrating an enemy stronghold in a bid to uncover information about a secret Nazi war plan. Instead, I was alerted to another player's presence in my game, and given little else to work with. Wall-mounted telephones, each suddenly indicated on my map via corresponding icons, let me trace the Sniper Jager's last known location, but these were merely estimates, given that the stalker was constantly on the move, edging ever-closer to the spot where I was holed up. I started second-guessing everything. Dozens of NPC Nazi soldiers ran to and from cover on the stretch of land before me, but I stayed down. Is that him? What about him? Or him? Should I break cover and seize the moment Rambo style? Or should I hug the shadows and wait for my hitman to reveal themselves?
It was while pondering that last quandary that it hit me. That one motionless, statuesque foe crouched behind a crumbling brick wall about 50 yards to my right. His uniform, not standard green German infantry attire, but a blue woolen Auslan Spy outfit. "The Stasi," I said aloud in real life as if narrating a daytime radio thriller. Before I could gather myself, I heard the crack of a discharging RSC 1918 rifle. And then darkness. I was gone.
Hunted vs Hunter
When not preoccupied with its brilliant and brutal online invasions (which can be toggled on and off at the player's behest), Sniper Elite 5 offers everything we've come to expect from the shooter series. Story-wise, protagonist Karl Fairburne has sided with the French Resistance against the Nazis at the start of World War 2, and, having been captured using photogramattery techniques, the game's real-world locations are as stunning as ever. Sniper Elite 4 was treated to a complimentary PS5 upgrade last year, but Sniper Elite 5 marks the first proper stride onto new-gen hardware and it shows. A familiar haul of customisation options is extended to weapons, loadouts, character models, skills, and difficulty settings; while the same organic hazards affect successful sharpshooting, not least wind speed, gravity, and Karl's increasingly elevated heart rate.
Maps are bigger here than anything we've seen in previous Sniper Elite games too, and the scope for variety in how you approach each mission is likewise greater than ever before. In its most conspicuous moments, this might mean using zip lines to reach lower platforms or to make quick getaways, but, in my experience, utilizing the game's less obvious traversal opportunities – such as vaulting countryside mansion walls via well-placed vines, or scaling internal structures via exposed plasterboard – is often the most rewarding. Particularly when it leads to you getting the drop on unsuspecting enemies or uncovering a cache of weapons and first aid supplies when you need it most.
Scouring each campaign map in full two-player co-op will inevitably make fraught situations easier, with friends even able to join forces against the elusive Sniper Jager, should they rear their ugly head. Playing a pre-release review copy of Sniper Elite 5, I wasn't able to reliably sample all that it has to offer on the multiplayer front, admittedly, but across four modes – Free-for-all, Team Match, Squad Match, and No Cross (wherein two teams battle at distance, separated by an uncrossable barrier) – it seems there's plenty of fun to be had away from the game's straight-laced Campaign Mode.
Instead, when I fancied a break from my own single-player exploits, I found myself gravitating towards Axis Invasion, wherein it was me who filled the boots of the Sniper Jager. And I bloody went for it. Full Axis Invasion through the looking glass.
While Invasion Mode is undoubtedly fast and frantic when on the receiving end – and incredibly rewarding when you come out on top – it's such good fun when invading other players. The rules are virtually the same on this side, only here, naturally, you have dozens of AI-controlled soldiers fighting in your corner. They're Nazis, granted, but watching them clamber for cover in the trenches, or atop watchtowers, or in the yards of their barracks while a player-controlled Karl Fairburne picks off their buddies one-by-one from an unascertained location feels almost real. When playing the game from this side, when the soldiers around you are going about their business in what would otherwise be off-screen for the player, there's a real sense that this world exists with or without your presence.
Which is really cool. What's even cooler is spotting the poor bastard you're hunting out in the wild, and putting them through the same torture you've previously faced at the hands of someone else. During my first few Axis Invasions, I went straight for the jugular, striving to off players with straight headshots as quickly as I possibly could. But as I grew into the role of ruthless hitman, I became wicked, crippling players with shots to the hands, the arms, the legs, before getting in close and finishing the job. I claimed scalps and XP by the bucketload, and worked through the Axis Points Rewards chart – unlocking weapons and character models like they were going out of fashion. In the instances I got matched with more capable players, we found ourselves locked in cat-and-mouse, Itchy and Scratchy, Tom and Jerry, old school Spy vs Spy routines, leaving traps for each other and scrapping it out to the bloody death. In one particularly poignant defeat, I was stabbed in the back and fell from a third-floor balcony into a water fountain, Tony Montana in the closing scene of Scarface style. And it was up there with the most fun I've had playing a video game for some time.
In bigger picture terms, Sniper Elite 5 is the most well-rounded Sniper Elite game the longstanding series has produced yet, even if its core mechanics have remained virtually unchanged since Sniper Elite V2's release in 2012. It was there the series' now iconic x-ray kill cam was born, which is still as satisfying as it was a decade ago, and is today bloodier and grizzlier than ever before. What I consider to be the series' most frustrating shortcomings – invisible walls, immersion-breaking boundaries, unreasonably insurmountable objects that gratuitously block key pathways – are all still present, but, given the rest of the game world is so damn pretty, these blips are easier to overlook. Had Sniper Elite 5 launched without its new Axis Invasion mode, I'd have been suitably impressed with what is a confident step up onto new-gen hardware. But with its inclusion, although hardly revolutionary in the grand scheme of online sandbox games, it adds enough spice to Sniper Elite 5 to elevate it above anything from its own back catalog, and the majority of its competition.
Reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.
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