Brainless fish in a pretty barrel.
Just moments after asking what happens when things go south during a mission in Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2, I get to experience it firsthand: The trio of guards whose heads I haven't yet popped kindly line up for me, crouched behind an overturned canoe that my high-powered rifle rounds can pass through as easily as air. I rush my first shot, the barrel jerking up from my spastic trigger pull. It still connects, sending a distant stranger tumbling to the ground. Against any possible logic, his two friends stay put, as if the “cover” they're clinging to will protect them any better than their recently deceased comrade. Calmly, joylessly, I pick them off. I don't feel like a hunter so much as a killer.
And that's the catch with City Interactive's follow-up to the original Sniper: Ghost Warrior. It has all the core elements in place to be a solid entry in its super-specific sub-genre. There's the near fetishistic attention to detail on your rifle and its scope, a full ballistic simulation, and of course the bullet cam. (Can't have a sniper game without one of those.) Competent application of CryEngine 3 has done much for the game's look, particularly in the jungles of the Philippines, where my aforementioned shooting gallery took place. The boxes are all checked, and the mechanics are solid.
But the problem is the hollowness. The only time I felt any sense of agency was when I was looking down scope. Both of the areas in my demo were narrowly focused, with little to no opportunity for improvisation or creativity. This is partly due to the level design, which more or less keeps you on rails until you reach some “scenery” that needs shooting. There's no infiltrating or strategizing of any kind—you just move towards the waypoint, go prone, and hit your targets in the right order so no one sees any dead bodies until it's too late. For some folks that will be enough, but others may find this limiting.
That said, shooting feels nice, with everything from wind and heart rate to how smoothly I pull the trigger affecting my shots. In fact, many will have to play on the game's “casual” mode in which a red assist dot shows you where you'll need to aim to adjust for the various simulation factors. For my tastes, it turns the experience into something of a shooting gallery—just line the red dot up with your targets one by one and watch them drop— but junior marksmen really won't have any choice but to use it. Without the assist, shooting feels more organic and rewarding, but even when you inevitably miss a shot, scenarios like the example in the first paragraph occur, replacing a feeling of tension with the strangely unwelcome sensation of being an all-powerful finger of God.
Visually, the game is much more sophisticated than you'd expect for the modest $39.99 sticker it'll bare when it comes to retail and lining up the perfect shot does indeed feel incredible, but I'm not sure if the AI and level design will be anything more than methods to get you from one gallery to the next. Even in the open-looking urban map I sampled, you're led down a single path by a combination of invisible walls and a gutsy spotter who calls out every shot and dictates your every move to you. For a player like me who finds reconnaissance, infiltration and planning to be just as stimulating as the sniping itself, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 may fall a bit flat. But if you just want pretty visuals, good shooting mechanics, and an affordable price, keep your eye out for it on January 15th.