In Sniper Elite 4 you hunt and kill fascists in Italy during the second World War, your best sniper rifle kill-shots enhanced by a brutally graphic x-ray kill-cam that shows their bones and organs exploding on impact. Right now, in February 2017, there is no reaction to this sentence that I would begrudge you. The catharsis of dismantling a Nazi army as a killing machine of unparalleled efficiency–- if you’re playing on Normal difficulty-– is potent. It feels very good.
The Axis forces have, historically, been an easy enemy to hate. They are a force that you feel justified in killing: you can get away with intense violence when the bad guys want to exterminate people who don’t look and act exactly like them. While we might argue about whether it’s cool to punch a modern day Nazi or fascist in the face while they shit-grinningly espouse their vile hatred on camera, literally inciting and normalizing the very sort of hatred that leads to conflicts like the one depicted in this game, most people can get behind shooting a digital World War II Nazi and watching their eyeball burst as the bullet enters their skull.
Sniper Elite 4, a game set 74 years ago, feels like the most culturally relevant major game released so far this year. But that’s not going to be a selling point for everyone. What’s going to matter far more for players not seeking catharsis in a modern world that they’re increasingly distressed by are Sniper Elite 4’s credentials as a damn good shooter.
Sniper Elite 4’s eight missions (nine if you count the excellent ‘Target Fuhrer’ preorder bonus mission, which is, of course, all about killing Hitler) are set across much larger maps than the series has ever produced before. You’re given several objectives, but only a few of them are essential to ‘complete’ the mission. The rest are pure flavor for people who want to extend themselves a bit, although the XP you gain from doing well can be spent on extra weapons and equipment. From your drop-off point it’s up to you how you’ll sneak and snipe your way through the environment.
Thanks to the open environments and objectives, and the fact that you’re largely left alone to do your thing once a level loads up, the game often feels like a lower-budget MGS: The Phantom Pain. This is what we used to call a ‘double A’ game, something that sits in-between the big-budget extravaganzas and the smaller indies. They have more modest ambitions and means than the games with the $50 million budgets and Game Informer cover stories, but they also have to compete on the same store shelves as these games, at the same price. Yet Sniper Elite 4 very rarely feels like it’s being held back, outside of its rudimentary plot and acting.
Series hero Karl Fairburne, while still pretty blank as a person, is now a more versatile avatar than before. You can climb and shimmy, and his close-range deadliness with a pistol and machine gun means that you can get out of some up-close jams once they’ve broken out. He’s got traps and mines to tear through enemy forces as well, which can be great fun when you’re engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse. You’re still going to spend a lot of time lurking in the bushes, hitting the dumb-but-not-braindead AI enemies from a great distance, but Karl is a resourceful man and the game gives you the means to deal with situations where your stealth fails.
The difficulty of parting a man’s brain from his skull with your high-velocity rifle will differ depending on the difficulty level you’re playing on. Play on Normal, as I did, and holding your breath while lining up a shot will bring up a second reticule that will compensate for wind and distance for you. Still, pulling off a shot without this aid can be, under the right circumstances, even more thrilling.
You spend most of your time in Sniper Elite 4 attacking, retreating, and planning. The maps are absolutely swarming with enemies, and if you’re not using silenced shots (which use a different, much rarer ammo) they’re going to sniff you out. Thus the game experience fluctuates between you hiding, nervous, as enemies stalk around looking for you, and the power fantasy of wiping the fascist forces out as they run around in fear, wondering what is happening.
The AI has a few weak points that can be exploited – on a few separate occasions I wiped out large groups of enemies by luring them into a room one by one, killing each person with a melee attack as they walked in. The increasingly large mountain of bodies somehow didn’t convince each new enemy soldier to practice discretion as they walked in.
But honestly, that’s part of the appeal. Sniper Elite 4 feels very much like a series of systems that mesh together in interesting ways rather than a narrative journey, and working out how to use those systems in your favor is great fun. At times, it feels like a Hitman game – you’re not just working out how to move forward, but also what you can and can’t get away with in the game’s world. For all its focus on realistic sniper physics, Sniper Elite 4 is a very unrealistic game— but it’s balanced such that the game world reacts to your actions in ways that feel appropriate and fair.
Plus, you get to make Nazi hearts explode. That’s cool.
There’s multiplayer too, although outside of the campaign co-op players are unlikely to get into it particularly heavily. My few matches across the game’s competitive modes were plagued by slowdown and weapon sets that didn’t lend themselves well to the way people move in multiplayer games. There are optional shooting range missions and a few neat extras on top of what is already a pretty generous campaign (it’s not unusual for a level to take 90 minutes or more to complete), but if you’re buying Sniper Elite 4, it should be for the single player campaign.
This may not be the slickest shooter on the market, but damn if it isn’t satisfying. If the world’s got you down – and who could blame you if it does? – Sniper Elite 4 might make you feel, for a few hours, a little better.