You probably haven't been paying much attention to CI Games, and why would you? The Polish studio has spent much of its existence churning out bargain bin games in an assembly line-like fashion. Its chief executive, Marek Tyminski, is surprisingly frank about this, and his candor is rooted in a confidence in his team. He says those years of working on janky shooters and copycat puzzle games were formative times, that they helped the team's growth and provided the experience it needed to break through the factory ceiling.
"We were a young studio when we started in 2002 … we've been organically growing, making more and more challenging projects. It was a long journey, but we've grown a lot as a studio," Tyminski explains. "More people joined and at the same time the people who were already here were [developing personally] a lot. Those people made a major difference on what we're capable of doing today. We're a much more mature studio than we've ever been."
In 2014, CI Games released a Dark Souls-alike called Lords of the Fallen. It wasn't perfect, but it exhibited a polish not seen in any of the studio's previous games. More importantly, it had satisfying combat mechanics, an interesting world, and memorable characters. It was received positively, and for Tyminski, it was proof they could make games worth paying attention to.
This, he says, is a statement CI Games hopes to drive home with Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3. The franchise is burdened with a sketchy legacy, but Tyminski is unperturbed. He believes both longstanding fans and newcomers alike will see the sequel is a different beast from its predecessors.
CI Games is pitching Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 as a reinvention of the series, and based on my brief hands-on, it's clearly more thoughtfully designed. While previous games led you by the hand from one checkpoint to another, stopping regularly to take out key targets, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 adopts an open-world structure.
Letting players choose how to approach objectives is key, and three complementary gameplay styles support this. While sniping is still very much a focus, missions are designed to enable gameplay variety. The idea is players should be the Sniper, the Ghost, and the Warrior. You can choose to embody just one, but missions usually unfold in a way that requires the versatility to be all of them.
"Military snipers don't just shoot rifles in a range," says senior designer Tomasz Pruski. "They're trained in all areas of expertise because they need to know what to do in any combat situation. We wanted to have that because our main character is a skilled sniper, but also a fully competent warrior in the other areas."
This multi-disciplined champion of freedom is John North, who is on a mission in a rundown estate in Georgia, which is controlled by separatist forces. Conveniently, my target during hands-on time is in a block of flats seated near an open window. As I start to reposition and line up a shot, I'm alerted to a downed drone on another nearby block of flats. It has important GPS data which could be useful, if I choose to recover it.
Since the GPS data is on a rooftop in direct line of sight of my target, I decide it's a good way to kill two birds with one stone. I make my way up the decrepit, bombed out building, but eventually reach a dead end. This is where the Scout ability comes into use. At the tap of a button, all the important interaction points around me are highlighted, and I see that I'm able to hang off a balcony and scale up the side of building to reach the rooftop.
Military snipers don't just shoot rifles in a range, they're trained in all areas of expertise because they need to know what do do in any combat situation
Once up there, I grab the data and send out a drone to mark enemies around me, which will make my escape easier. Unfortunately, an enemy spots my drone when I take it a bit too low, and it's at this point Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 reveals how the three styles of gameplay are critical for crisis management.
In a panic, I rush to snipe the target, not realising that although the enemies had spotted my drone, they didn't have my specific location. I quickly line up my shot and take it, killing the target. Had I taken the time to grab a suppressor while at my safe house, I could have eluded my pursuers relatively easily. But I didn't, so the gunshot echoed across the estate and gave everyone my exact location.
Taking stock of the situation, I realise I had a smoke grenade and throw it down to cover me while I make my way to other side of the rooftop. From there I climb down the side of the building again. While I had evaded most of the enemies, a pair of soldiers appear to block my exfiltration; the only way past them is through them. I pull out my handgun and empty the clip into them, then sprint out of the mission zone. It wasn't clean, but it got the job done.
"Ultimately it's mixing and matching [sniper, ghost, and warrior] elements to adapt to the situation as it unfolds. Even a skilled sniper can miss, the wind may be too strong, and when people converge on your location, you have to shift into warrior to engage or try sneaking away. It's not sitting on a sniper nest and pulling a trigger for 20 minutes," says Pruski.
Pruski also explained that, had I used my Scout ability on the roof, I'd have noticed the satellite dish nearby, which I could have used to knock out the signal on the TV my target was watching. In response, he would have gone up to his roof to investigate, giving me a different way to take him out.
It's unclear how frequently situations unfold like this, but CI Games says it's the kind of emergent experience it wants to embrace, and is building around. Sub-missions introduced on-the-fly will be used to push players out of their comfort zones and into situations that may force a shift in strategy.
"We can't say, 'Hey we have open-world gameplay here in terms of mission design,' then give them only three options,” says Tyminski. “We're really giving them plenty to do, and maybe they may discover things that we didn't think of. It's a very clear decision you have to make when you design a video game. You can either allow for the unexpected choices, which causes some unexpected cool things to happen, or you don't. We decided we are open to it; we want players to experience things we couldn't predict."
While the sniper genre might not be as popular as Call of Duty or Battlefield, it provides a unique flavour of first-person shooting. These games are about control and taking a measured approach. By opening up to the stealth and guns-blazing approaches--both of which can be made more effective using the upgrade trees--the devs risk diluting the series' identity.
CI Games says it has thought about this and made some design decisions that should make players feel like sniping is still valuable. For example, the game does not reward mindless killing: Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 won't give you a bonus for wiping out groups of enemies or taking over encampments. It wants you to do only what you think is necessary.
"It's not in the essence and spirit of being a sniper. It's not in the spirit of you or the character to kill everyone just to get a bonus or some reward," Tyminski says, explaining the decision.
Another way the game is maintaining a balance between the three styles is by imbuing the up close engagements with a sense of realism in terms of what a human character should be able to achieve. So if players take on two or three enemies, they have a good chance of making it out alive. As the numbers go up, however, survivability drops considerably. This means you'll want to pick your battles carefully.
CI Games is confident that Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 will be another pivotal moment for the studio, as Lords of the Fallen was. I appreciate that they're trying to do something different with the series, and it already feels like a step above the previous two games. However, it's whether it can deliver a consistently high-quality, cohesive triple-A experience that will truly prove the studio has got what it takes to play in the big leagues.