Pure sniping…for better or worse.
The first time I watched a bullet from my sniper rifle burrow its way into an enemy soldier’s skull, fracturing the bone and sending innards flying, it was a visual novelty. The effect loses its luster after a few times, but the satisfying sniping and stealth gameplay still kept me hooked. But after a while, Sniper Elite III, lacking an interesting or commanding narrative to guide Karl Fairburne’s actions, devolves into just a series of missions and objectives. What results is a restrained experience incapable of reaching the mantle of greatness or memorability.
Northern Africa, the setting for this World War II title, is a fairly uncommon place as far as games go but relevant nonetheless. Instead of witnessing early 20th century Western cities getting blown apart, gorgeous mountains and valleys await you. Each map offers a very extensive array of navigation options, from cliffs up high to underground tunnels between buildings, enhancing the gameplay significantly. The effort put into rendering all the aspects of these desert vistas, sacrificing fauna for flora, makes the view down the rifle scope varied and refreshing. The texture work is excellent, and various environmental effects like windswept sand and sunlight filtering through bushes keep the visuals feeling natural.
All good things coming to an end, I wish I could say the same for the enemy soldiers. They appear fine at first glance, but they soon reveal their stiff animations, and you’ll find yourself shooting the same face over and over ad nauseam, regardless of whether he speaks German or Italian. Not that the experience of causing twin soldiers to collapse in the same place is unique to this game at all, but that doesn’t make it less disappointing. Halfway through the game, you find yourself waiting for some insane sci-fi twist where the Nazi soldiers are all genetic clones. Such a plot never comes to fruition.
On one hand, I should be thankful that the story eschews the ridiculous for something fairly believable. On the other, war provides plenty of drama, well-evidenced by the recent Valiant Hearts. Karl’s role as a simple agent of the Good Guys is manifest in his Gruff McWhiteGuy persona as he mindlessly pursues the one-dimensionally sinister Vahlen across North Africa. Much like Hitler at this point, Vahlen is nothing more than a foil to Karl, an agent of the Bad Guys. His actions get you from point to point, but the personal edge, as an American or a basic human being, doesn’t reveal its face. Even the introduction of ally characters, war-time good ol’ boys, feels lazy.
Digging into the actual playing of the game, though, Sniper Elite III provides a solid stealth experience. Karl can crouch or crawl to stay silent and out of sight, and he can naturally maneuver around cover without any awkward snapping mechanics. Compared to plenty of other titles, I never had the game-breaking awkwardness of trying to walk away from a low wall to evade a guard only to find myself inexplicably attached to it, our fates surreptitiously entwined until the next reload.
And speaking of reloads, they are thankfully super quick, and the ability to save anywhere coupled with decent checkpoints shows a lot of respect for the time of stealth fans. If you’re voluntarily choosing to take hours to complete a chapter, you don’t want to lose said hours because of bullshit after all. Still, an F5/F9 shortcut would also be incredibly helpful, but I’m happy with what’s there.
The AI feels rather typical for the genre in that the soldiers appear generally oblivious at most times. Sure, they will get suspicious when they find a dead body and have very generous search ranges when alerted to trouble, but staying out of the searchlight, both figurative and literal, for a few minutes sets them right back where they were. To that end, Karl has ways to manipulate them via his trusty sniper rifle. Shooting once without another sound to mask your shot will arouse suspicion in your direction, and the next shot taken will put a definite bead on your position. Thus, you can freely manipulate the enemies to move about the map to your advantage.
Although the difficulty is customizable to a degree, I experienced more interesting challenges in the survival and multiplayer modes. The former throws waves of enemies against Karl, who has the same bag of tricks up his sleeve, but these enemies are constantly on the move. I don’t mean they have patrol paths; they actually run about the map trying to seek Karl out, which provides a more frantic and interesting challenge as you try to scurry about and stay alive. Of course, sometimes they act a little bit ridiculously, stupidly focusing on and staying in cover from a point where no shots have been fired.
In multiplayer, you face other humans, who are significantly smarter than the AI. Although I did not fare very well, I knew every death was my own fault, and you could feel the careful strategy to smoking out other players into making mistakes. Also, the indicator for where a shot will land is absent in these modes, which is great motivation to learn how to do without it in the main game. My easiest kills were my cheapest, though, when I spawned on the first floor of a building with an enemy on camped on the roof. Also, at the time of this writing, servers were woefully underpopulated, something I hope will change over time.
Whether you’re facing computer or human opponents, your sniper rifle is not your only weapon. As the game progresses, you’ll be able to unlock different pistols and semi-automatic rifles, all of which you’ll find across the expansive maps. Additionally, there are explosives, including land mines, grenades, and my favorite, trip mines. Drawing attention to your position only to lead an enemy into dying in a doorway can feel pretty satisfying even if you aren’t in a place to witness it firsthand. However and whomever you murder, all kills add to once experience bar, used to unlock bonus items of various import. Armor-piercing rounds, for example, are much appreciated, whereas the slew of crosshair designs are not.
In each of the main campaign levels, Karl is given various objectives to complete one at a time. The first time I had to blow up a tank in order to escape, I felt pretty badass. The fourth time: significantly less so. Most objectives are just "get to this point, eliminate these soldiers, destroy this vehicle, or find this thing", so everything feels routine after a short while. While navigating the map, some optional objectives will emerge, such as putting out searchlights or investigating enemy weapon stock, but unlike side quests in an RPG or adventure, they are literally just extra things to do and offer no meaningful narrative reward, just experience points.
Also strewn about are collectibles, including uniquely designed playing cards and letters among the soldiers. While some of the letters are simply directives, others are personal communications with family at home. I’m not sure how I feel about humanizing this particular military in this particular war, especially since the game focuses so highly on rewarding you with x-ray visions of your victims’ demises. It’s jarringly dissonant, though given how backseat the story actually is, it’ll be a passing thought.
The summation of all these parts is equal to an enjoyable stealth gameplay experience that just never transcends its gameplay. A personal real-world comparison I can make is to my day job. I am able to work from home at will, but I don’t like doing so because I enjoy the social interaction that is only possible at the office. Although the work itself is no less important or interesting, the work experience differs greatly depending on the environment. Sniper Elite III is like working from home for me. Although I enjoy the tasks and executing them, I feel like there are ways to make doing them more rewarding and engaging.