Sniper Elite Hands-On - So You Want to Be a Sniper?

You're an American, disguised as a German, killing Russians in Berlin. It's not quite <i>Enemy at the Gates</i>, but it's pretty close.

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Though we've seen plenty of World War II shooters in recent years, we haven't seen anything quite like Sniper Elite, the upcoming action game from Namco that arrives on several platforms this month, including the PC. Instead of running and gunning your way through this game, you have to slowly stalk your prey, moving unnoticed through the battlefield to get into position to deliver a single shot that could turn the tide of battle. If you've seen the 2001 World War II movie Enemy at the Gates, then you'll have a good idea of what this game feels like.

Berlin is about to fall to the Red Army, and you're a sniper caught in the middle of it.
Berlin is about to fall to the Red Army, and you're a sniper caught in the middle of it.

The story of the game is a bit complex, and it takes place during the cataclysmic and brutal battle for Berlin, in which the Soviet juggernaut delivers the finishing blow to Nazi Germany. You play as an American sniper who was raised in Berlin because your father was the ambassador to Germany. With your intimate knowledge of the city, you're disguised as a German sniper and parachuted into the besieged city. Your job is to prevent the Soviets from getting their hands on Germany's research on the atomic bomb. Since you're disguised as a German, this means that you can engage Soviet troops, and the US gets to maintain deniability of your existence. The bad news is that you happen to be disguised as a German soldier in a city that's about to fall to a bunch of guys who really hate German soldiers with a passion.

While the PC version of Sniper Elite will feel very much like a port of a console game, it's also a game with a completely fresh and unique gameplay style. This is a much slower-paced game than what you've probably come to expect from a shooter, and the idea here is patience and taking your time, rather than rushing through the level at full speed. For example, you'll want to find cover in the form of a ditch or a burned-out shell of a building and then use your binoculars to look around for enemy soldiers and, more importantly, enemy snipers. There's a very cool blur effect that kicks in, by the way, when you focus in with your binoculars. If the coast is clear, you then crawl or scamper to the next bit of cover and repeat the process again. This can create some excellent tension, as you most definitely feel like a hunter stalking your prey, with the added tension of knowing that there's a sniper out there with a bullet with your name on it, as well.

When you do encounter enemies, you have a choice. Sometimes you won't want to engage them, because odds are they'll be grunts, and taking them down will only draw unwanted attention to yourself. Don't worry, though, because you'll still have plenty of opportunities to shoot people. Sniper Elite quite probably has the most detailed sniping model ever in a game. Not only do you have to adjust your aim to deal with bullet drop (gravity's effect on a bullet in flight), but the game can also take into account wind, your posture, your heart rate, and your breathing. Most of these options are disabled by default, but if you want to try to simulate sniping under those realistic conditions, you can activate them in the difficulty settings. Perhaps one of the most rewarding features of the game is that if you do manage to get a successful shot off at long range, the game will automatically switch to a bullet cam, and you can follow the bullet's flight from the muzzle of your rifle to your target's head. Gory? Yes. Cinematic and cool? Doubly so!

The missions in Sniper Elite are all fairly straightforward in that you usually have to get from point A to point B to put a bullet in some important target. In one case, you have to bail out a group of German soldiers pinned down by enemy tanks. You can kill tanks by shooting the gas cap on a tank's fuel drum or by hurling a stick of dynamite next to a tank and detonating it with a bullet. In addition to your trusty rifle, you can pick up various other weapons and gear, such as ammunition and health packs. Silenced weapons help you take care of enemies quietly, and you can pick up and hide the bodies afterward. Meanwhile, heavier weapons will help you survive when your location has been identified and squads of infantry are coming at you.

The bullet cam lets you watch your bullet's flight up until it hits someone in the head.
The bullet cam lets you watch your bullet's flight up until it hits someone in the head.

Sniper Elite does suffer a bit in that it looks and feels like a high-resolution version of a console game. The streets of Berlin are colorful and have a nice burned-out look to them, and while the polygon counts and textures might not measure up to the latest PC games, they're good enough to make you feel like you're on a battlefield.

The most interesting question about Sniper Elite is whether its tense and slower style of play can sustain itself through a full game. We'll find out later this month when the game arrives. The console versions are due to ship next week, with the PC version a week afterward.

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