There’s something disturbingly satisfying about landing the perfect shot in Sniper Elite 4.
Maybe it’s how the camera pans around your bullet, Matrix-style, as it flies through the air to your target? The way your victim stays blissfully unaware that a lump of hot metal is flying towards them, faster than the speed of sound, until it’s too late?
Let’s be honest, though: it’s probably the gruesome X-ray effects that show your shots reaching their target - and confirming that yes, a skilled sniper really can castrate an enemy from three hundred meters away.
Developer Rebellion hasn’t trodden too far from the formula it established with previous series entries, but there’s actually more here than simply an unflinchingly twisted shooting gallery made up of Nazi soldiers.
LINE OF SIGHT
Rather than force you down a series of linear missions, or let you loose in one massive open world, Sniper Elite 4 instead gifts you multiple smaller playgrounds, all set around stunning WW2 Italy.
Each one has enough space for you to cause plenty of carnage, but not so vast that you get lost trying to make it from one side to the other. They’re roughly on par with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega, which feels plenty large enough when each one is swarming with Nazi soldiers.
These wider environments are packed with tiny details, gorgeous backdrops and hidden routes to explore, so you never feel forced to take a particular path to your goal.
Sure, you could infiltrate that enemy compound and stick a dagger in an SS general’s back, or you could climb to a high vantage point on the hilltop opposite and wait until he passes by a window. One carefully timed shot later, you’re ready to hunt down your next target.
Waiting for a plane to fly overhead and mask the sound of your rifle only adds to the tension before you pull the trigger - especially when you’ve also got to take into account bullet drop and wind resistance.
Night-time excursions make a first appearance here, with the darkness making it easier to sneak around without getting spotted, but also making it more of a challenge to pick out targets from a distance. Pop a few searchlights and enemy troops will have a harder time finding you if things do go south.
PLAN OF ATTACK
You’re really left to play as you choose, dropped into each level with a selection of explosive playthings and a map showing the general location of each objective.
It helps that you have an expanded skill set now, shimmying up drain pipes, hanging off ledges and escaping out of windows. If you do get discovered and the enemy goes on alert, you don’t feel as trapped as you did in previous games. Sprinting away from danger still spikes your heart rate, though, and you won't be able to steady your rifle until it goes down again.
You’re fully loaded with TNT, mines and detonators, too, in case you decide stealth really isn’t going to work. It’s just as fun to go all Rambo, taking on everyone head-on, as it is to play the silent assassin, which helps distinguish Sniper Elite from that other open-world kill-em-up, Hitman.
There’s a reason you start each level with a rifle, though: the AI can be brutally difficult if you take the enemy soldiers on directly, and you aren’t a bullet sponge. Take a few hits and it’s game over.
The enemy is a lot smarter this time around, actively hunting you down if you take out one of their number. That’s why it pays to focus on the lieutenants - it’ll leave the grunts confused and they’ll be less effective later in the level.
Sound still plays a major part, with loud noises quickly giving your position away. You can't set up shop in one place and take out the entire map's roster of Nazis - they'll flush you out as soon as they hear the first shot. A small supply of suppressed ammo will keep you stealthy, but it runs out fast, and some levels don't have any at all.
READY FOR WAR
When most shooters are firmly focused on the future, heading back to World War II is genuinely refreshing.
The locations are beautifully realised, thanks in part to Rebellion only focusing on current-gen consoles. There’s a lot more going on here than in Sniper Elite 3’s African deserts.
That being said, crack sniper Karl Fairburne isn’t exactly the most charismatic hero. In fact, the whole story is a bit duff: it’s just not all that engaging, especially for players that never tried the earlier games in the series.
You’re given the briefest of backgrounds, then let loose on the opening chapter. Thankfully you can skip every cutscene, and the game is no worse off for it. It means you can concentrate on the gameplay, rather than the fairly bland story.
A lot of the objectives repeat themselves, too. Destroy this AA gun. Collect this important intel. Assassinate this Nazi general. You’d think it would get boring, but the addictive sniper mechanics managed to keep me playing after each successful mission.
That's true whether you play solo or co-op, although the story missions don't have any two-player specific addons or challenges to tackle - it's the same content, only you can bring a buddy along to cause more carnage.
CALL A DOCTOR
There’s really no getting away from the ultra-violent X-ray kills - you’ll be seeing them pretty much every time you fire your rifle.
Expect to see organs exploded, bones broken and other body parts forcibly introduced to the outside world - it’s vicious, but oddly mesmerising at the same time.
Sniper Elite 4 adds melee and explosive kills into the mix, so grenades and fuel tanks rip through opponents in almost balletic slow motion. Get up close and personal, and you’ll see jaws break and bones crunch where you land your punches.
Beyond these stomach-churning/pulse-pounding moments (delete as appropriate, you delicate wallflower/sicko), the third-person action dissolves down to a more basic run-and-gun style. The cover mechanics are fine, as is the arsenal of machine guns, shotguns and pistols, but they just aren’t quite as satisfying as the sniping.
In general, I wasn’t too challenged by the normal difficulty setting, so it pays to experiment if you’re breezing through the early levels. Notch up the challenge and the HUD disappears, so you won’t know if there’s an enemy on the other side of the wall you’re crouched behind.
This gets rid of the onscreen bullet markers, too, making it all the more satisfying when you land a crucial snipe.
Of course, playing against other gamers is a sure-fire way to make things tougher. Sniper Elite 4 has a fair few multiplayer modes, with the best one handing the win to whoever scores the longest-range kill.
Survival, a horde mode-style co-op mode, is more satisfying still. It forces you to hold your ground against increasingly tougher opposition, surviving airstrikes, laying down mines and lasting as long as possible. There's only one life here, so cop it and your friends are forced to fight on alone.
SNIPER ELITE 4 VERDICT
You won’t get too many surprises, as the story really just isn’t all that engaging, but it doesn’t matter.
By looking good, doubling down on the macabre yet moreish sniper gameplay, and expanding each mission area to really let you play the way you want, Sniper Elite 4 is the best entry in the series to date.
It delivers just about everything fans of the series could want, and even without a gripping story, expands the formula so that new players can get in on the action too.