Sniper Elite 4. Of all the implications that can be drawn from the title, I can't stop focusing on the number 4. As an entertainment writer, I've never been able to look to the fourth installment in any series, be it video games, movies or television seasons and say "the fourth one is the best. That's where it really takes off" (and if anyone brings up Star Wars, I swear to god I will massacre you).
It just doesn't happen. Once we start talking fourth installments, it's either an unabashed cash grab or a cash grab that caters only to those who those who unabashedly loved the series already. The time for innovation is long gone.
Which is why I find myself in the most extraordinary place of an entertainment writer, being able to say that Sniper Elite 4 is easily the best in the series, innovating and improving upon almost every aspect that was criticized in the series' previous installments.
Morality of a Terminator
You play as a near-indestructible robot from the future who is sent back in time to kill Sarah C ... wait I'm getting things mixed up. Sniper Elite 4 is a game starring the other kind of terminator - a man who would easily be the most prolific sniper or solider in the history of the entire world, capable of clearing and razing entire camps in a single day without raising a single alarm.
Fishburne is finally infiltrating Nazi-held Italy. Do remind yourself constantly that you're shooting Nazis. Otherwise, the hyper-slow-motion scenes that ensue when you snipe a helpless unaware soldier who only talks about how he misses his family (yes, that happens) right before you see his brain or lung rupture from a high-caliber bullet might seem callous. After all, Nazi ain't got no humanity.
In all seriousness, though, it still kind of a little callous, maybe just a little. Dishonored 2, for example, (not the first time you'll read that title in this review), put you up against a corrupt royal guard that betrayed the throne and was involved in subsequent murder and robbery of many citizens. But not all of them did that. Some of the guards just stood by their post trying to make it through the day, and Arkane Studios coded these people as such. So killing a murderous guard wouldn't harm your playthrough, but killing a relatively innocent one would increase your chaos, contributing to a negative ending.
The morality of this whole situation is messy, of course, and there isn't any clear right answer, but Sniper Elite 4 didn't even bother asking the question. It just has you kill any and every person, include every John Schmidt who just wants to get home to his family. It seems I'm asking too much.
The fact that I'm determining whether Sniper Elite 4 successfully tackled complex issues of morality should tell you a lot about the rest of the game: it's pretty solid. These are things with which I did not concern myself in the previous games because they had so much else going on that wasn't up to snuff. Sniper Elite 4 improved upon almost every aspect that needed attention.
Not the least of which is its level depth. Sniper Elite 3 and previous games could feel really flat, making your experience akin to a game of laser tag, which is exciting on a Saturday with a bunch of friends, but for a shooting game that prides itself on its single-player campaign, it's inherently lacking.
Fortunately, Sniper Elite 4's levels are incredibly deep, sometimes literally, with vast sandboxes that have varied building sizes and even skewed topography, setting up large buildings on big hills and sometimes vast tunnels beneath them. Every level has dozens of ways you can attack it, left, right, high and low, depending on whether or not you'd like to play the game stealthily or more action oriented.
Fair warning, if you opt for a more balls-to-the-walls approach, I'd recommend a lower difficulty. Enemies don't mess around on higher settings.
Not only are the levels themselves vast, varied and vertically-imaginative, but they also populate each level with loads to do. You may be disappointed to know that Sniper Elite 4's campaign has only eight levels, but that ignores the fact that each level can take in excess of 2 hours, depending on how thoroughly you explore each one. As with any game such as this, Sniper Elite 4 has both primary and optional objectives, but these optional objectives are part of what make the game so enjoyable.
There's just so much to do. Find this intelligence document, assassinate this Nazi, extract this POI. The possibilities are nigh-endless, making each level rich with stuff to do. Sometimes expansion comes arbitrarily - developers will make levels bigger and fill the space in between with very little - not the case with Sniper Elite 4.
However, I wish the side quests, if you will, were more rewarding. Dishonored 2 (I warned you) likewise gave you vast levels populated with tons of optional objectives to do, but whether or not you completed them (and how you completed them) had a tangible effect on the game and the story. If you interact with Deliah's statues in the last level, than she will be ready and prepared for you once you finally confront her. If you leave them alone, you can catch her unawares.
Sniper Elite 4's idea of rewarding you for side quests is giving you experience and achievements. While achievements are nice, and you can make an argument for experience being game-changing (I wouldn't), the truth of the matter is that you can play Sniper Elite 4 without doing any optional objectives and you'll never know it. For instance, you will be tasked with destroying armored vehicles to help the Partisan resistance. Whether you do or not, the game keeps chugging a long, and you won't get a thank you if you do nor have to see the consequences if you don't. A game like Dishonored 2, another stealth game with action elements that gives you large, populous sandboxes in which to work, handles this a lot better.
One thing I heard about Sniper Elite 4 was its proliferation of artificial intelligence, that it was a huge step up from previous games. While that may be the case, that's not saying much, and the enemies you face in this game have the same problem in other stealth games, but amplified with every high-profile explosion.
Like in other stealth games, an enemy will see you, or stumble upon a dead body you left lying around, then they'll get hyper suspicious for a few minutes before going about their day. I could only imagine them reporting this to their superior (assuming you left him alive) only to have him shrug his shoulders and say "yeah, that happens."
This gets even more ridiculous when you add on the more overt actions Fishburne undertakes, usually involving sabotaging and exploding high-value machinery such as flak canons. At that point, I feel like the infantry should really report this to the higher ups. I mean shit, get some bigger tanks in here and sweep the area. This kind of thing is usually absent in other stealth games because they keep their required actions small. Granted, you only avoid bringing in extra heat when you kill a radioman, but that only raises a further question of "can only one Nazi per camp operate a damn radio?"
The first time you'll actually meet some scripted resistance and raise an alarm is in level six (of eight), when you blow up a huge satellite dish. Then you have to make a daring escape in a truck you use to harbor a fugitive you've kidnapped from Nazi capture. Except this daring escape isn't even shown in a freaking cutscene. You just throw him in the truck, and it cuts to the next level. Really? As I said, other stealth games suffer from this same problem, but Sniper Elite 4's spectacular scale, while not necessarily bad, makes it flat-out ridiculous.
Now, I don't want to come off like I'm criticizing Sniper Elite 4 for not being Dishonored 2. Dishonored 2 is one of the best games of last year, if not the best, and the fact that I'm even talking about Sniper Elite 4 in the same sentence is something of a miracle.
That's really my point. Sniper Elite 4 is finally in a place where people can unabashedly call it "good." Despite its lack of impactful side quests, its morally ambiguous indiscriminate murder and hilarious artificial intelligence flaws that plague any stealth game, Sniper Elite 4 is good. Its sniping sequences are visceral and never get old (I never once turned off the slow-mo feature), and the depth in side missions alone give you more than your money's worth in terms of dollars per hour.
It's a really exciting time for the Sniper Elite. After three games of the same, generic third-person cover sniper nonsense, Sniper Elite 4 has put the series in a good position and showed a lot of potential for even more improvement, possibly elevating it to truly elite ranks. It's not quite there, yet, though. With no details you can boil down my review to "You're good. Now get better."