Sniper Elite 3 review: War and pieces

Sniper Elite 3 marvels in its own destruction, continuing the franchise's adoration of slow motion bullets and the highlighting of a target's gooey innards. It glorifies not war, but something worse: Nearly every shot fired. This is the game's great fault: that it only has a single trick, an almost literal dissection of human beings as the player pumps round after round into their body, trying desperately to gussy up the retreaded ground as "excitement." After reusing and enhancing the same trick for multiple games, DLC and expansions, Rebellion's schtick has worn itself thinner than the skin each bullet pierces.

Despite its realistic World War 2 shooter veneer, Sniper Elite 3 continues the franchise's longstanding tradition of being absurd. This time you stalk massive African battlefields for a perfect sniping perch, set up your spot to do away with evil soldiers, and then are treated to flashes calling out every organ you decimate with your bullet. It's difficult to get wrapped up in the game's serious narrative when the words "Testicle Shot!" flash across the screen.
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Sniper Elite 3

Sniper Elite 3 tries to emphasize the element of choice in its missions. You can snipe enemies from a distance, draw them in with distraction devices like a thrown rock, sneak behind them and compromise them with a lethal stealth takedown or silenced Welrod pistol – or you can run around and fire your gun like a lunatic hoping to survive. But the essence of the game is in its name. Sniping is key and it's firmly locked into place with an upgraded X-ray camera, which showcases internal organs of enemies as slow motion sniper bullets pass through them. There are a few elements that hindered my enjoyment of the sniping, though – something I never faced in 2012's Sniper Elite V2.

Sniper Elite 3 has a new system that forces players to manage sound. Fire your rifle once and nearby enemies will respond by entering a cautious state, fire again and they'll zero in on your position. A third shot magically reveals exactly where you are to every enemy on the map, including those you can't even see. The game's AI is its biggest issue. At its lowest levels, evil soldiers are complete buffoons, often getting stuck on geometry while in pursuit. Their intelligence level doesn't increase on higher difficulties, only their lethality. Soldiers will still behave moronically, eventually returning to normal patrol duties – despite the heaps of bodies at their feet – if you run away far enough and hide. If they see you, however, they can shoot you from across the map – not with a sniper rifle, but an ordinary machine gun.

In order to remain stealthy, players need mask their shots with sounds occurring in the environment. In many cases, the thunderous boom of passing planes is enough cover to allow for free shooting. An icon appears at the top of the screen indicating that the sound of your rifle will be adequately masked. Some levels feature pieces of equipment – generators, for example – that you can sabotage to create more natural sound.

Sound masking isn't a bad concept, but the game's levels don't always seem to have the mechanic in mind. Too often I would be faced with a large collection of enemies and no opportunity to mask noises. The alternative falls to the game's new relocation mechanic. The UI notifies you when your position may be compromised and indicates a distance you must move in order to remain unseen. With only sparse opportunities for sound masking littered throughout the open areas, gameplay ends up like this: Take one shot, relocate up to 30 meters in any direction, set up again, take another shot, move another 30 meters and so on. It's a shame, because when the sound masking works well, it can add a new level of tension previously missing from the series. Sadly, it falls flat most of the time. I started to hate sniping for fear of every soldier immediately knowing exactly where I was, why I was there and – even perhaps – my character's likes, dislikes and shoe size. Being discovered by one enemy is tantamount to every soldier being handed a dossier about your every move. This is especially frustrating in a late game airbase raid where a trio of deadly vehicles appear.

Levels are far more open and littered with bonuses than previous Sniper Elite games. Physically, stages are well-designed, featuring multiple paths for you – or a co-op campaign partner – to explore any way you desire. You can set up traps to disrupt enemies, hunt for collectible long-shot sniper nests to snag score bonuses (which help unlock gear) and try to use the environment in ways that make things more interesting. You could shoot a pair of anti-air gunners individually, for example, or you could ignite nearby ammunition, blowing the gunners and their cannon into smithereens. Again though, limited opportunities for sound masking detract from each level's overall design. Attempting to play the game in stealth, I found myself either relying only on paths I knew offered opportunities for muffled sniper shots – restricting the open-ended nature of each level – or else I was forced to use my pistol. My pistol too often became my primary weapon, as it ensured I could manage enemies in silence. There were long stretches where I didn't use my sniper rifle at all, which is exactly the opposite of what I want from a game called Sniper Elite.

Sniper Elite 3's multiplayer may be its saving grace, especially when playing with a friend in its variety of co-op challenge missions. These missions emphasize setting up traps, discovering a solid perch (basically any high building) and waiting for hordes of bad guys to appear. AI issues still persist, but frustration is lessened when you have a friend by your side to point and laugh at its absurdity. Even the over-the-top X-Ray kills will garner a few (inappropriate) chuckles. Competitive multiplayer, meanwhile, only features five maps and a few distinct modes designed to complement the game's signature weapon. 'No Cross' pits teams against each other and places an invisible wall between the two, forcing each to focus on sniping. Given the opportunity to hide against a limited number of other players, it becomes great fun taking your friends by surprise with a deadly bullet to the cranium. Sound masking is far less important here. Sure, your enemies will be informed of your position if you make too much noise, but there are far fewer of them to contend with and they don't have the added bonus of magical AI aiming. It becomes a real cat and mouse game against real opponents, instead of the fabricated, three-strikes-you're-out gameplay seen in the campaign.

In some respects – particularly in its graphics and slightly more refined shooting – Sniper Elite 3 is a better game than its predecessor. That said, it's grandfathered in a lot of Sniper Elite V2's AI issues, while also forcing players to micromanage too much when it comes to sniping. The sound masking system is poorly implemented, detracting from the core satisfaction of landing the perfect shot.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of the PC version of Sniper Elite 3, provided by 505 Games. Images: 505 Games.

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