Previous entries in the Sniper Ghost Warrior series have been justifiably criticized for their stifling linearity. Missions would regularly guide you by the hand through one cramped corridor after another, with a succession of targets ripe for elimination along the way. It wasn't a formula conducive to the type of freedom and choice one might hope to find in a game focused on the act of long-distance sniping, and Polish developer CI Games has seen the error of its ways with the latest entry in the series. Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 ditches the restrictiveness of its predecessors by shifting the action to the gritty open world of a separatist-controlled Georgia. With an increase in scale and the flexibility inherent therein, it's a positive direction for the skull-splitting series--albeit one that's still frequently disrupted by myriad flaws rearing their ugly head.
The jagged cliffs and dense forests of the Georgian wilderness are notable for their expansiveness, yet the muted color palette, lackluster lighting, and some muddy, low-quality textures do little to inspire awe. Conceptually, this is also an open world without a clear, defined purpose. There are a few nebulous activities dotted across its three maps--like rescuing civilians and capturing outposts--that net you XP, money, and materials that can be used for crafting. But I gradually ignored these minor distractions and still had a surplus of cash and materials on-hand to acquire the weapons, ammo, and items I desired. With little in the way of interesting locales to entice exploration, it's also a particularly barren world. Pockets of civilian life do their best to present the illusion of a living, breathing society, but their nonplussed reactions to a burly marine barging into their houses aren't exactly believable. Ghost Warrior 3's depiction of Georgia is neither a convincingly realized place, nor an emergent sandbox like the Far Cry games it shares many similarities with. This slice of Eastern European landscape is little more than a glorified path to get you from point A to B without a loading screen interrupting the flow.
For as disappointing as this is, it matters little once you've reached the whereabouts of your active mission. Each one is generally contained within a single, sizable location, whether that's a decrepit block of apartments or a busy airfield. Objectives are refreshingly varied, and there are often optional tasks to complete if you're up for, say, retrieving a downed drone or completing the active mission with no alerts.
Ghost Warrior 3 is at its best, however, when simulating the methodical precision of being an elite marksman. There's a rhythm to the planning and execution that goes into these missions. You usually begin by sending your pocket-sized drone up into the Georgian sky to get a lay of the land, using it to tag enemies and make note of any advantageous vantage points. Once you're comfortable with the layout, you infiltrate the perimeter, using your sniper vision to reveal a climbable surface up the side of a nearby cliff. At the top, you go prone on the cold, hard granite, and prop up your rifle on a tripod for extra stability. With the target firmly in your sights, you twist the dial on your scope to 400 meters and adjust your aim to compensate for bullet drop and a gusty wind coming in from the east. Then you take a deep breath and pull the trigger. The bullet arcs through the strong breeze before darting downward and colliding with your target's temple. Blood spatter covers the bedroom wall behind him, and a convenient zipline covers your exfiltration.
Sniping is the winning card in its deck, and yet CI Games regularly plays other hands to the game's detriment.
While this sounds short and sweet, missions like this can take upwards of 20 minutes to complete if you're willing to take your time. Sniping is all about being cautious and taking a measured approach, and you're rewarded for your patience with some immensely satisfying killshots. For first-person shooters, it offers a unique approach that sets Ghost Warrior 3 apart from its histrionic contemporaries. Sniping is the winning card in its deck, and yet CI Games regularly plays other hands to the game's detriment.
There are three binary play styles for you to adhere to: Sniper, Ghost, and Warrior. Completing actions in each group (sniping for Sniper, performing close-quarters stealth kills for Ghost, and going all guns blazing for Warrior), nets you XP that can be spent on some humdrum upgrades in each, like auto-looting bodies or increasing the effect of health items. It's not the most exciting system, but the added emphasis on different play styles makes them all viable options. The ability to react to an ever-changing situation and completely alter your approach adds a sense of variety to each mission. Sure, the stealth is incredibly simplistic, and open gunfights are ponderous, but as minute complements to the sniping, they serve a functional purpose.
Where this falters, is when these styles take center stage. There are missions where your sniper rifle is taken out of your hands, and others where the tight confines of the level render your sharpshooter too unwieldy to seriously consider. These missions dilute the game's strengths and put it on a playing field with the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, where it does not compare favorably. AI issues are more noticeable here, too, as enemies reveal their idiotic tendency to follow each other into a killzone. And in the latter half of the game, new enemy types adopt a bullet sponginess that makes the close-quarters shooting even more of a drag.
Similarly irritating are the glitches and rough edges peppered throughout. In the PlayStation 4 version, I had enemies T-pose in front of me, disappear in the middle of a stealth takedown, and repopulate before my eyes, inside what I thought was an empty outpost. The game also crashed on four separate occasions. Whenever you boot up the game or change regions it takes almost five minutes to load, which is excruciatingly slow. And even something as simple as tagging enemies is frustratingly inconsistent. Sometimes the ability won't work when you're directly aiming at someone from a few yards away; other times you'll pull up your gun and inadvertently tag someone in another room. The framerate is also consistently shoddy, whether you're simply walking or popping in and out of your sniper scope. Sometimes sounds don't play, and pop-in is a constant eyesore.
There have already been three updates pushed out before release, yet I still encountered these issues with the most recent patch installed*. CI Games is certainly working hard to iron out the kinks and address what needs fixing, but after multiple delays, it's disappointing that it's still arrived in such a buggy, unpolished state.
Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 feels like a B-tier, budget-priced game. Even the predictable, profanity-laden story is reminiscent of the type of gritty B-movies Steven Seagal is known for. There's certainly merit to its accomplished sniping mechanics, especially when missions hone in on the planning and precise execution that makes playing as a sharpshooter so thrilling. Yet it falters whenever it veers away from its strengths, and the plethora of nagging glitches and technical problems are a persistent nuisance that make Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 difficult to recommend.
*[Editor's note: CI Games has released another patch in time for Sniper Ghost Warrior 3's launch. This review was conducted prior to the patch's release. GameSpot will update this review after testing the patch.]