There's always been something voyeuristic about sniping in video games. With a powerful rifle in hand, you're perched in some bombed-out tower overlooking a Nazi-occupied town, your crosshairs fixated squarely on the head of an enemy soldier as he strides along his designated patrol route. He has no idea that with one pull of the trigger, you're about to send a bullet careening through flesh and bone, snuffing out his young life in a single, gory instant. It's in these moments, when an unaware enemy is trained in your sights and you take a deep breath before pulling the trigger on a skull-shattering killshot, that make Rebellion's Sniper Elite such a devilish joy. Where the series has regularly faltered, however, is in the moments between these euphoric, long-range kills, where it has often been a cumbersome chore just to get around in a stealthy manner. With Sniper Elite 4, Rebellion has changed all that.
This starts with the levels themselves. In Sniper Elite 3, Rebellion abandoned the linearity of previous series entries in favour of opening things up, and Sniper Elite 4 continues that trend in grand fashion. The smallest map in Sniper Elite 4 is three times the size of the largest one seen in its predecessor, and these expansive sandboxes are brimming with open-ended objectives you can choose to complete in any way you desire and in any order you please. They're varied locales, too, stretching across picturesque Italian landscapes on the verge of invasion: from the sunswept isolation of a cavernous island off the coast, to the narrow confines of an opulent beachfront town, to the dense overgrowth found in the heart of a verdant forest. Each one teeming with fascists just waiting to be extinguished with a well-placed bullet.
And these massive playgrounds aren't just big for the sake of it; they grease the cogs of every other aspect of Sniper Elite 4's design. Collectibles and advantageous sniping positions are judiciously dotted around each map, encouraging you to explore, and the macabre satisfaction of sniping is increased tenfold when you're able to execute a pinpoint headshot from as far as 400 metres away. Sniper Elite's signature X-ray kills return in all their morbid glory here--now with even more detail--and it's a particular treat to see a bullet travel over these extensive distances before colliding with an enemy's skull, the hot lead bursting through eyeballs and sending a mixture of brain matter and skull fragments scattering onto the floor. This may sound tasteless, but the series' grisly ballistics are still second to none--and there's something wonderfully schlocky about rupturing an enemy's scrotum from 200 metres away.
Getting into these fruitful sniping positions isn't the chore it once was either. There's a newfound responsiveness to protagonist Karl Fairburne's movement that makes it easier to get around and stay hidden. This polishing of the underlying mechanics makes tiptoeing across these mammoth spaces enjoyable in itself. There's a decent degree of verticality to each map, too, and you now have the ability to utilize it by clambering up specific surfaces, jumping across gaps, and climbing in and out of windows to navigate with increased freedom--not to mention the ability to wipe out a few enemies with some stealthy ledge takedowns. Environmental kills also play a part, whether it's a convenient red barrell or a rickety-looking bridge, and foliage is often a welcome aid to keep you out of sight from curious Nazi eyes.
With the structure (or lack thereof) of its open-ended mission design, there's also a clear emphasis on experimentation. This is never more evident than with the two-pronged function of each item in your deep-pocketed arsenal. For distraction devices, this means you can switch between throwing rocks to lure enemies to a specific area, or a whistle that will bring them straight to you. Where it really gets fun, however, is with the bevy of explosives in your stockpile. Equip landmine, for example, and you can set it to detonate after one press or two. The former will see it explode the moment it's stood on, which is ideal for a single enemy; while the latter detonates after two steps, making it perfect for dealing with groups. Rig one up with two presses in, say, a doorway, and the delayed blast radius is liable to take out three or four enemies, rather than just the first guy to enter the room. Once you start booby trapping bodies, this devious feature really comes into its own.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the sniper rifle's secondary function: suppressed rounds. These trade dramatic bullet drop-off for silent sniper fire, giving you the flexibility to use the game's standout feature with much more frequency. This was actually an issue in Sniper Elite 3, where it often felt like there were too few chances to use the sniper rifle without alerting everyone to your position, almost encouraging you to stick with the silenced pistol. There are still opportunities to mask the loud crack of your rifle with malfunctioning generators or the thundering noise of Luftwaffe flying overhead, which is the ideal way to silently pop skulls. But in areas where this isn't always possible, you now have the option to snipe with far more regularity, which is key in a game built around doing just that.
If you are spotted and the bullets start flying, pulling out your Thompson and going toe-to-toe with the bloodthirsty fascists isn't as clunky or frustrating as it has been previously. There's a fluidity to the way the game shifts from stealth to action and then back again. And while its cover-based shooting is merely competent at best, its viability as a messy plan B for when things go awry is very much appreciated--which, once again, traces back to the size of the levels themselves. Every objective essentially occupies a pocket of space on these vast maps. Once you're inside one of these pockets, you can cause as much mayhem and destruction as you please, and the rest of the enemies dotted across the level will be none the wiser. This allows you to go in all guns blazing and savour each violent moment, safe in the knowledge that you won't have to worry about the rest of the mission being full of Nazis on high alert. It's a smart choice.
The AI shows a marked improvement over its predecessors in situations similar to this. They'll attempt to triangulate your position based on the sound of gunfire, and officers will command their troops to overwhelm you if they have your location locked down. Inconsistency is a common menace, though, and they're not always the brightest bunch. There were a number of occasions where I would simply circle around an area after being spotted, only to find a bundle of enemies cowering behind cover near my last known position. With all of their backs turned, it was easy pickings. In other instances I've killed an enemy whose body is quickly discovered by one of his buddies. Naturally, I kill him while he's examining it, which garners the attention of another guard, and you can probably tell where I'm going with this. Guard after guard after guard; each one brazenly disregarding the growing pile of corpses to wade into my line of sight.
If you want a harder challenge from the occasional bungling enemy, the “Authentic” difficulty setting strips away all of the handy assists and extends the life of the campaign with a steep learning curve. You'll probably want to skip all of the cutscenes a second time through, though. The plot is completely forgettable; a stereotypical World War II tale, with an unhinged Nazi villain, and a superweapon only our gruff American hero can stop. Some surface level details touch on the Italian resistance and the mafia's role in the war, but it never delves deep enough to be particularly enlightening or engaging as a story. Beyond the beautiful Italian landscapes, the setting isn't exploited as much as one might hope.
Sniper Elite 4 feels like a natural progression for this series, as Rebellion continues to refine its systems and put a greater emphasis on the long-range shooting
Multiplayer serves up a plethora of game modes spread across competitive and cooperative offerings. Control asks teams to battle for supremacy over an ever-moving control point, disregarding the sniper rifle in favour of some up-close-and-personal skirmishes. This sits in stark contrast to the rest of the competitive modes, which are predominantly marksman affairs. If you enjoy cautiously moving across maps with an eye open for the glint of an enemy scope, then there will be something here for you. I can't say I've ever regularly enjoyed sniping in multiplayer shooters, so entire matches based around this style of combat aren't for me. Killing a human player from the opposite side of a map is still immensely satisfying, but these moments are so few and far between, it was never enough to hold my attention for too long.
Survival fares much better, as up to four players work together to withstand increasingly challenging waves of enemies-- à la Horde mode. As snipers, distance is a key advantage, and it's fun finding an opportune location to seek shelter and pick off each wave of progressively difficult Nazis. In a unique twist, the supply box you use to replenish your ammunition also moves to a different location every few waves, forcing you to get creative with your trap placement, and discover new areas to camp out. Once mortar fire, tanks, and heavily-armoured units rain down upon you, it can get incredibly tense.
Sniper Elite 4 feels like a natural progression for this series, as Rebellion continues to refine its systems and put a greater emphasis on the long-range shooting it does so well. Its stealth and action mechanics may be simplistic, but they're functional and regularly enjoyable. And the maps--with their impressive scale, open-ended objectives, and clever level design--coalesce these disparate systems into a creative and fulfilling whole. There are still some issues with AI inconsistency, a bland story, and some dull competitive multiplayer, but it finally feels like this series is living up to its long-standing potential.