There is a cheeky appeal in playing as a sniper in video games. The idea of lining up the sights and taking out some hapless fool from across the map, it feels so powerful. However, in multiplayer games you’ll find players move around too erratically to get easy shots in and not many singleplayer games will let you snipe at NPCs for any significant amount of time. Sniper Elite seeks to fill that void, but that does not mean it intends to let players get off easy.
Behind the lines and into trouble
Sniper Elite puts you into the boots of an experienced, lone wolf sniper. Your superiors have managed to sneak you into Berlin right as the Russians are busy conquering the city and the German army is putting up its fierce resistance. These are dark days for the German capital and you are there to make it worse for everybody involved.
As an operative of the OSS, each chapter has you complete a different mission in a different part of town. You might have to assassinate a high-ranking official, break into a compound to steal military secrets, or even just support your comrades by taking out other snipers, machine guns, or even tanks. An interesting issue here is that you’ll often be pitted against both Germans and Russians, even though the latter are technically your allies at this point. Many missions will put you in the shady position of having to steal from the Russians, sabotage their war effort, or even outright killing their soldiers. It’s a morally-dubious position to be in.
I will say that the game lacks character. You meet a number of informants and allies in the German Resistance, but none of these have memorable personalities or return at any point in the story. Surprisingly, however, your player character is not a silent protagonist despite you picking his name. He is a confident and serious soldier who can frequently surprise you with his cold and ruthless way of operating. Honestly, I wish the game gave him more room to shine.
Story score: 6.6/10
Patience is key
Every mission will put you in a map and task you with accomplishing several objectives, often in linear order. The game is a third-person shooter with a focus on the sniper rifle, so objectives can be to set up a trap to assassinate a commander or to clear a number of bunkers so your allies can pass. However, Sniper Elite ends up taking its premise of being a sniper a bit loosely.
The game is more of a stealth game, as you crawl around maps that are usually somewhat open-ended. You can try alternate routes to try and approach enemies and objectives from different angles. It can pay to take the long way around and end up behind an enemy blockade or find a building you can climb for a good vantage point. However, the game will also frequently have you explore close-quarters environments or put you in a mission where speed and run & gun gameplay is more important.
Playing as a sniper is fantastic. The game has a camouflage system to alter how easily enemies spot you and, when aiming, you need to consider bullet drop-off over distance and how much the wind will change your trajectory. Getting a feel for that and pulling off long-range headshots is very satisfying. Even when things get rough, the sniper just feels great to use against enemies as they try to rush for cover and flank you. Some of the best moments in this game had me holding a position against enemy waves or had me suddenly realize another sniper was trying to take me out and I didn’t know where they were.
The sniper is great fun and makes the game worth playing, which makes it a shame that everything around it is so lackluster. The stealth elements are a natural fit, but enemies are often unreasonably perceptive. I like how fragile your character is, but it often feels like the game won’t let you do anything except slow-crawling through grass. Walking or crawling too fast would often alert enemies, often from places where they had no way to see me or even from entirely different streets. Sniper Elite is a game that is dead-set on not letting you do anything the fast way and even has missions that will leave you waiting for minutes at a time for invisible timers that trigger objectives.
Almost every mission, without fail, would give me something enjoyable to do, only for me to bump my head on annoyances. The fatal point where I gave up was in a mission where you need to intercept 3 motor crews to prevent them from delivering a message. The problem is that the second motorcycle never spawns, so while I can hear it depart, it never actually appears. Not even putting tripwire grenades in its intended path works, so the mission is completely bricked for me.
And while stealth is unfairly hard, it is many times more functional than playing the game like any other shooter. Moving in Sniper Elite is incredibly weird, as you build up ridiculous momentum that leaves you sliding around and unable to make corners without coming to a full stop. If you move a little bit and let go of the keyboard, you’ll continue moving for about 5 more seconds; literal ice physics. Trying to move effectively in a firefight is pretty much impossible.
Not helping are the wonky controls for shooting. When holding any weapon besides the sniper, you first need to press once to bring up the reticule, and then press again to actually fire. Machine guns are hilariously inaccurate. At first, I felt this was an appropriate way to make players take sniping seriously, but some missions are in enclosed environments or will force you into close-range firefights that the sniper is unsuited for. Also questionably useful are the various items, because you first need to bring up the inventory with I, scroll through it with < and >, then press X twice to start actually using the item. This makes stuff like covering your position with trip mines obnoxious to set up.
Gameplay score: 5.8/10
There goes his face
Sniper Elite released for PC and consoles in 2005, before getting a port to the Wii in 2010. It’s eh… not quite a looker by today’s standards, but certainly not bad for 2005 at all. Areas are open-ended and diverse, with levels taking place in city streets, camps outside the city perimeter, train tunnels, and inside large buildings like monuments and churches. The textures are blurry and simplistic by today’s standard, but effort has been put into nice set-dressing like rats scurrying about. I also like how your camouflage meter increases as you crawl around terrain that matches your uniform.
A nice detail is the way that the AI behaves. While their perception range can be ridiculous, it’s fun to see how they’ll roll around on the ground when wounded and cry for help. Dialogue for Russians and Germans is also done in their native languages, which too few games actually do. Enemies will also try to grab and carry wounded friends to cover and especially the counter-snipers are really good at keeping you confused while looking for them.
The game also has a cinematic flair, as shots gain a slow-motion bullet-cam when the game judges them noteworthy. This can be cool if you manage to snipe someone’s jaw off from across the map, not quite as much when you merely hit some dude in the thigh after missing him 3 times. This can especially be a bother in a firefight if the game keeps triggering the bullet cam while you are trying to hold off ten dudes.
Presentation score: 6.4/10
If you are into older and more obscure games, Sniper Elite may definitely charm you. From its insistence that you should sign up for GameSpy to its slightly-bodged controls, it really feels like a piece from a different era. I’ll admit that the game has flaws and isn’t that appealing to fans of its later entries or zombie-themed spin-offs. However, with its strong sniping mechanics and inspired missions, it’s definitely worth a look if you go into it expecting a more stealth-focused game. I do recommend picking it up on a sale, as you may run into various bugs that might doom your chances of actually finishing the game.