I’ve always found it interesting that when it comes to World War 2, no one ever really talks about the African front. Sure there’s the odd movie or Call of Duty level set in the sands of Northern Africa but for the most part we’re content to storm the beaches of Normandy and dogfight in the skies over Midway until the end of time. Sniper Elite 3 though, the latest in Rebellion’s series of attempts to perfect the art of exploding virtual heads, is bucking that trend by being set entirely in the land of rolling dunes and lonely palm trees. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually seem to actually have much narrative reason behind this setting but I can forgive that because the gameplay remains top-notch.
Rather than bury the lead we might as well start off by talking about the story and the writing in general. The premise here is that you are once more in the shoes of Karl Fairburne, bad ass American sniper, this time sent off to the African front to help the support the Allied effort. You quickly find out that a protegé of Hitler’s by the name is Vahlen is in the area supervising the construction of a super-weapon that could change the course of the war and naturally you must stop him. While I wasn’t expecting a deep BioShockian narrative out of Sniper Elite 3’s plot, it’s blander and more predictable than I was hoping for and it’s utterly riddled with clichés. Every character in this game is something of a broad WW2 caricature. Karl is a world-weary yet gung-ho American GI with nothing to lose, Vahlen is a slimy but sophisticated Nazi who at one point says the line “We are the same you and I” without a hint of irony, and there’s even a charmingly upbeat British soldier who acts as Karl’s spotter and friend for literally a single mission before getting shot and dying just to provide Karl with some motivation. Sniper Elite 3’s plot is also really awkwardly paced with nearly the first two-thirds of the game acting as lead-up to all the major action that happens in the last few missions, often leaving you to question exactly what you’re accomplishing early on. The worst thing though is that the plot does absolutely nothing with its unique setting; there’s no Rommel, there’s no Italian presence from their failed African campaign, and there’s no use of the native culture or people. The story could just as easily have been set in Belgium or something like that without having to change any of the characters or plot points involved; that’s a sign of half-hearted formulaic writing if there ever was one and ultimately it feels like a waste of the unique setting.
Despite my complaints with the story, I actually really liked this game overall. That’s mainly due to its gameplay, which despite being largely the same as it was in Sniper Elite V2, was visceral and satisfying while still providing the kind of balanced sniping focused shooter experience that’s unique to this series. It manages to stride a fine line between stealth and action, allowing the player to engage with either option to their heart’s content and use one to save themselves from the other when things get tense. A slip up during a stealth infiltration can be saved by skillfully shooting down all your pursuers and similarly if your one man stand against the entire Wehrmacht seems to be going poorly then you can evade your foes by dropping low and dipping into the shadows. This is only improved by the game’s new “Relocation” feature which is pretty much a combination of the alert system from Metal Gear Solid and the “Last Known Position” mechanic from Splinter Cell Conviction. The way it works is that being seen by enemies or making noticeable noise will raise your relocation bar, once that bar is filled the enemies go into an attack mode and will actively pursue you at your last known location, which the game helpfully highlights by putting down a transparent copy of you. Obviously at this point your job is to relocate and find a new hiding place but this system can also come into use when wanting to lure enemies into traps or step up efficient kill zones where you can snipe until the bodies lay three men deep. I started the campaign off by being stealthy but by the end of it I was trying to be as loud as possible and I found both options to be incredibly enjoyable; it’s just as much fun to stealth through a base like a ghost as it is to skillfully shoot down a legion of angry enemy soldiers with beautifully executed crack shots.
Aside from Sniper Elite 3’s core game flow there are other aspects of the gameplay worth talking about. For one thing the levels are much more open than they were in V2 and encourage more exploration and experimentation, providing a bevy of collectibles to find and plenty of side objectives to complete. There’s also vehicle kills as a regular mechanic now but they’re something of a pain to do, it takes a good three or four pinpoint shots to destroy most engines and in that time it’s not uncommon to have the tank or half-track that engine is attached to start firing on you. Also of note is the wealth of content in this game; while the campaign is only 8 missions long (clocking in at about an hour a mission) there’s also a wave based survival mode, as well as plenty of multiplayer content both competitive and co-op. The competitive multiplayer is your standard shooter affair but there are a couple of interesting modes that take advantage of the game’s sniping focus. There’s “No Cross” mode, which puts the two teams on either side of an impassable canyon, meaning the only way to get kills is through sniping, and there’s also regular and team variants of a mode called “Distance King” where rather than getting scored on your kill/death ratio, the winner is decided by whoever has the longest cumulative shot distance with their kills. One thing to remember though about the multiplayer, is that this being a game about sniping it’s really easy to get taken out repeatedly by seemingly unfair shots, so if you’ve ever complained about someone repeatedly sniping you from across the map in any other multiplayer shooter, then this won’t be your kind of game. As for the co-op, both the campaign and the survival mode can be played with two players and there’s also some asymmetrical co-op missions where one person gets to play as a spotter but I wasn’t able to check those out unfortunately.
Let’s finish up by talking about the graphics and sound design. Visually Sniper Elite 3 is a very pretty game, all of the maps are quite well detailed and there’s a clear level of polish on display. It’s also very well optimized, running on default setting I got a very steady 60FPS which makes the game’s gratuitous X-ray kill cams a guilty joy to behold. Speaking of those kill cams, they’ve added a lot to them, showing not just bones and organs but now also layers of muscle, veins, and even your victim’s testicles when appropriate. They also have vehicle kill cams but those are generally more localized, focusing purely on what part you’re destroying. Really my only complaint with the visuals is that things feel a bit barren and sterile, there’s no wildlife around or even bugs and that seems like a weird omission for a game set in the North African wilds. Quickly touching upon the sound design, the music is not really all that memorable but it once again performs the important job of underling battles, alerting you when you’ve been spotted and letting you know when you’ve killed the last enemy. Also worth noting is the gun reports which sound great and alongside the game’s deep ballistic physics and wince-inducing kill cams, lend the sniping a nice meaty impact and weight. As for the voice acting, it’s all rather cheesy. Karl speaks like he drinks hot rye and gravel and Vahlen sounds like someone doing a bad Bond villain impression; to be fair though that works well with the game’s clichéd story line which makes the VO an enjoyable kind of cheesy.
Sniper Elite 3 is a game that feels great and sniping fools is still as fun as it ever was, but the story here is somewhat lacking compared to the last game, it feels like they wanted to set the game on the African front but didn’t actually have a story they wanted to tell there. The plot is simply a wrapper for the gameplay and presentation, but I don’t begrudge it much for that because the presentation is really well done and the gameplay is refreshingly unique within the shooter genre in addition to being wonderfully balanced. In the end I’m giving Sniper Elite 3 a four out of five stars, while it’s not as interesting narratively as its predecessor, sniping down Nazis and watching them slump to the ground in a heap is still incredibly satisfying and fun, if not somewhat unsettling at times.