It’s only after I’ve lured soldiers to my various hiding places amongst the undergrowth and bushes, and literally gutted them on three separate occasions that I realise I’m playing Sniper Elite 4 like Assassin’s Creed with a really good gun. History? Tick. Stabbing? Tick. The only difference is that when I tap the melee takedown button, my victim’s skin strips away in a brutal 3D X-ray, revealing the muscles and organs inside as they burst and shatter. Liver and kidneys rupture gorily on impact with Karl Fairburne’s knife. There’s no stylish renaissance murder here but this is just as satisfying as a perfectly executed hidden blade assassination. The final soldier crumples into the bush - requiscat en pace, Nazi - and I sneak on through the undergrowth with almost a dangerous amount of choice of how to take down my next victim.
Well it’s a good thing that San Celini, the full opening level of the game, is an island of victims in uniform. Four high ranking German officers are scattered around the area and the main objective is to simply kill them by any means possible. It’s a perfect way to test the bloodied waters and get into the juicy array of murderous choices that Sniper Elite offers up now that it’s moved from Africa to the sunshine of Italy. Yes, somehow it’s still World War 2 for gruff sniper Karl Fairburne, and Mussolini has the Nazis as his distinguished guests. This helpfully means that our grizzled hero has plenty of skulls to aim at.
Sniper Elite 4 is the same stealthy, lone wolf experience you’ve always played in Rebellion’s solid shooter franchise but the seriously upgraded version. You can still crank the ballistics up to realistic levels, hold your breath for more accurate bullet time and, there’s the now series staple X-ray kill cam complete with testi-kills, but environments are now sprawling with multiple objectives and a stack of new features that deliver something that feels fresh as a daisy for the series.
Karl can clamber up buildings, leap over walls, assassinate from ledges and over hedges and generally seems to have taken a new gym regime seriously. Add in the slew of mines, traps and different weaponry and, put simply, there’s something on offer for the most imaginative of snipers. How do you want to play? Pick everyone off from a distance with your rifle, run in and gun, or melee takedown the every soldier, one at a time? It’s all here. Like Assassin’s Creed or Hitman, death can be as swift as you want it to be and the result is tense and exhilarating.
From the start it feels like an enormous playground. San Celini stretches into the distance enticingly. I explore a beautiful fishing village around a peaceful bay, clamber through an underground tunnel network, and crawl to the edge of cliffsides to peer at enemy strongholds through binoculars. Not only can you tag enemies this time around but there are also environmental murder tools that might come in handy. My first double kill is the result of a suppressed bullet severing a rope holding up a cannon being winched up a cliffside. Sorry lads, no boom at the inn. Barrels and trucks with petrol storage are scattered tantalisingly around too but it’s worth remembering that these will blow your cover to smithereens as well as the surrounding Nazis.
Suppressed ammo quickly becomes my new best friend. Previously the only way to fire your rifle and not get noticed was to squeeze the trigger at the same time as an environmental noise like mortar fire or even the bells of a church. While this is still indicated at the top of the screen for when you haven’t lucked out on the silent bullet front, suppressed ammo means you don’t need to worry about anyone’s ears pricking up at the sound of your gun.
There are few more satisfying things than following your bullet through an eye socket (perhaps knocking out a few molars at the same time), watching a soldier fall, and no one noticing. Murder quickly becomes an artform in Sniper Elite 4. Being discovered thanks to lazy bullet or mistimed scuttle between shrubs starts to feel somewhat inelegant when there are so many ways to do this silently.
When you do inevitably get caught though, enemy AI has been dramatically improved and it’s significantly harder to escape German sights once you’ve been spotted. I manage to shoot and stab my way out of a tight spot but the softly, softly shooty monkey approach is by far the most gratifying.
It’s the little moments that truly shine. I hunt a soldier on a beach, playing hide and seek around a large rock before taking him down with a knife as he investigates the body of another that I’d hit with suppressed ammo and left for his friend to find. No, you’re psychologically damaged. At one point, I sneak into an enemy camp for an optional objective, weighing up whether to use an explosive or just throw a rock to distract a soldier while I sneak past to destroy a camera. The rock won out and I left without anyone being any the wiser. This is a persistent and beautiful world that feels truly alive. I didn’t try it but if you set a trap that no one uses until you reach the other side of the map, you’ll still get the kill cam when someone finally takes a wrong step. Oops.
And this is just the first level of the single player campaign. There’s also the fact that you can play the entire game in two player campaign co-op for double the stealth. Competitive multiplayer is back too. There are more modes available but I get hands on with Control - trying to hold and defend parts of a sprawling map, and Survival - battling against swarms of enemy AI who want you distinctly dead. Control is the opposite of my single player experience, a chaotic rain of bullets and the occasional sneaky sniper who manages to camp for more than a few seconds. There’s no time for patience, no time for lining up a shot, you stay still and you’ll probably very quickly end up dead. It’s a brilliant change of pace from the single player and a perfect way to let off some explosive steam if you’ve been spending hours afraid to breathe in case someone discovers your hiding place.
Survival is a serious challenge. Playing as a female Italian partisan fighter, I team up with fellow rebels against waves of enemy AI. Up to 12 swarms of enemies can arrive if you’re lucky enough to survive, and team co-op is key. There’s no going off on your own here. Those who strike out alone die as more and more murderous AI appear on the outskirts of the village you attempt to hole up in. Time to communicate, folks. It’s worth noting too that your multiplayer character can level up as you continue. Your fighter will evolve, letting you add new weapons to your loadout, and gradually improve as you survive more battles.
Sniper Elite 4 is a confident return for the series. The mini open worlds offered up for each level are distinctly Hitman and Assassin’s Creed-like in their approach, but with a solid foundation of murderous tools and some oh-so-satisfying sniping. At its beating X-ray kill cam heart, there’s still the war games of old and Karl Fairburne still doesn’t crack a smile but given what he’s seen I’ll forgive him that. If you’re looking for the stealthy surprise of 2017 (or you think you saw something moving in the bushes just now), Sniper Elite 4 might just be it.