Sniper Elite III Review – PC & PlayStation 4

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As a veteran Army sniper and former instructor at the U.S. Army Sniper School a game titled Sniper Elite III might seem right up my alley; at least that’s what I was thinking; especially after having played and enjoyed Sniper Elite V2 back in 2012.  Sadly, a lot has changed with the franchise and not all of it for the better.

I’ve spent the better part of July thoroughly playing Sniper Elite III on both the PC and my new PS4 and have come to the conclusion that this is more of a puzzle game than a stealth simulation; a game where your sole purpose is to analyze the terrain and enemy placement then devise the best path to accomplish your objectives without causing too much of a fuss.  While these elements are definitely key components in real-world tactical planning, Sniper Elite III fails in the actual execution.

While I don’t have any hard numbers if I had to guess I would say that my knife kills in Sniper Elite III outnumbered my sniper kills by at least 10:1 which says something about a game design where sneaking up behind someone and doing a one-button takedown is preferential to playing the game in a way the designers are expecting you to play.  You are certainly welcome and even subtly encouraged to use your sniper rifle throughout the game but seldom rewarded and often “penalized”, especially after the enemy has been alerted.

Each of the eight missions take place in surprisingly large and complex levels, usually featuring several primary goals, one or two secondary objectives, and a short list of discoverable items like intel documents, playing cards, weapons caches, and sniper nests.  This adds a bit to the gameplay as you are unlikely to find everything on your first pass.  Many of these items are well off the beaten path when playing realistically and following orders.  The story has you playing as OSS sniper Karl Fairburne, as you continue your quest to take down the Nazi war machine; this time in North Africa.  Having been to this part of the world myself I was impressed with just how well the designers managed to capture the look and feel of the area, from the desolate deserts and rocky canyons to a lush oasis set in a sea of dunes.

Aside from the opening and somewhat linear tutorial mission, the rest of the game’s mission levels are massive and relatively open for exploration.  If you do break off the anticipated path the designers “think” you should be taking then goals and strategy can be unclear, but if you stick to the “path” you will find a convenient system of puzzle elements that include noise-generating constructs to mask your sniper shots, predictable AI pathing that allows for easy stealth takedowns, and conveniently placed dry wells or pits to stash Nazi corpses.

All the typical stealth mechanics are in place as far as line-of-sight, visible light, and noise.  Noise masking is the big new idea in Sniper Elite III and you can sabotage generators to backfire or use enemy gun AA fire, overhead planes, or even a thunderstorm to conceal your sniper shots and hide your location.  Ironically, the same plane engine that can hide my very loud sniper rifle cannot mask my squishy footsteps when I tried to run-up on a guard as the plane flew overhead.  You do have a Welrod silenced weapon but it is very unreliable.  Sometimes a headshot kills and sometimes the soldier just brushes it off and sounds an alert.  This and other inconsistencies in the stealth “rules” made the game a bit unpredictable when trying to approach these missions as I would in real-life, and ultimately I had to approach this “simulation” as a game.

I will give kudos to some impressive enemy AI; at least if you are playing on Sniper Elite difficulty or higher.  Once the guards know where you are they will execute some great flanking strategy, with a few guys staying put to draw your attention as others will circle around.  On one missions I was perched on a cliff-side sniper nest only accessible by a lengthy mountain path and interior cave system.  After taking down 4-5 soldiers I just happened to notice my mini-map showed two targets sneaking up on my six after making the somewhat complicated trek up and into the mountain.  While it’s not specifically taught in the game, any good sniper will always have his position protected with anti-personal ordnance; in this case landmines and trip-wire grenades work nicely.

Enemy AI outside of engagement is a bit flakey, but no more so than any other game where the discovery of a dead body might trigger an alert status and a special search pathing script, but it all returns to normal if you wait long enough.  Often, you have to use this system to taunt a guard in order to lure him away for a private takedown.

Binoculars are your best friend in Sniper Elite III and for some reason much more powerful than your sniper scope.  Why can’t I just strap my binoculars onto my rifle please?  You will use these to scan the terrain and lock in targets, which will remain locked and traceable (even through walls) after you put them away.  This certainly defies reality – at least for the WWII era, but it is an invaluable tool when you are consistently outnumbered 20:1  Binoculars also highlight certain targets like explosive caches or weak areas on tanks and trucks, which allow for some impressive vehicle kills.

I’ve been avoiding the big draw of the Sniper Elite games until now; the kill cams.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, I have to admit these slow-motion x-ray fatalities turn Sniper Elite III into some hybrid of Mortal Kombat and one of those encyclopedias with the transparent overlays of human anatomy.  A perfectly executed sniper shot will trigger a slow-motion journey of the bullet leaving the barrel of the gun and traveling across the terrain, impacting its target with bone-crunching velocity, shredding muscle, organs, and anything else it touches.   A guilty pleasure to be sure, thankfully the options menu allows you to tailor the frequency of these animations, and you can always cancel the animation with a button press.  Previously reserved for human fatalities, these slow-motion executions can now take down vehicles, either by shooting an exposed fuel tank or rupturing the engine block – complete with x-ray cam of the bullet passing through the pistons.  Sharpshooters can also thread their bullets through the narrow vision slot to take down tank and APC pilots.

The art of sniping is reasonably accurate; or at least as accurate as you are going to see in a game.   Factors like the breathing and heart rate of Karl are factored in as well as exhaling before squeezing the trigger.  Bullet physics are being exaggerated to prove a point, but unless you are trying to play without the red diamond indicator you’d never know.  I won’t bore you with a lesson on parabolic shaped trajectories but a typical WWII sniper rifle would likely be zeroed at approximately 100 meters, which means that you would always center your scope on a target at 100 meters. This is the distance for many of the shots in this game, so it’s not until you start shooting at ranges of 200-300 meters that your bullets will actually start to noticeably drop anywhere from 3-11cm. I can’t really fault the game for trying to keep things fun and accessible. Short of months of training and years of experience or knowing how to read a bullet drop table, nobody would likely find a “realistic sniper simulation” any fun.

Sniper Elite III tries to enrich the experience by introducing XP and a ranking system as well as a system of unlockable weapons and weapons mods for your sniper rifle.  These can be attached to tweak scope wobble, muzzle velocity, zoom, recoil, and damage.  I was annoyed that many of the weapons are stripped from the core game and being bundled as DLC that you can purchase separately or all together as part of the $30 Season Pass, but the game is totally enjoyable and easily winnable with the included weapons.

There is a surprisingly good albeit limited multiplayer component to Sniper Elite III.  First, there is a co-op mode that allows for a second player to be your spotter, using the binoculars to mark your targets.  This is pretty interesting and fun assuming you aren’t the person delegated to calling out targets.  Spotters can also be used in the 12-player versus modes, which is great fun but sadly limited to just five maps and limited match types.

Finally, let’s talk about tech.  I played this game on both the PC and the PlayStation 4.  On the PC I used both mouse and keyboard and an Xbox 360 controller just for the sake of comparison. While the 360 gamepad worked as well as expected the mouse and keyboard is an unbeatable combo when it comes to deadly pinpoint accuracy, and that’s what sniping is all about.  The DualShock 4, while no substitute for a mouse and keyboard did seem to function considerably better than my Xbox 360 gamepad when it came to precision of movement and aiming.

Graphically, I was surprised at just how good the game looked on the PS4; a very close; almost identical imposter of the PC version with only a few subtle areas like HDR lighting and shadows.  The PC obviously can play at higher resolutions than the 1080p on the PS4, and the PC does offer a slightly better draw distance and a reduced amount of pop-up textures.  You can also turn off motion blur.  The sound presentation on the PS4 was definitely superior to that of my PC, and the PC version seemed to offer a more active online community when it came to multiplayer.  You’ll need a fairly powerful PC to match the native presentation quality of the PS4, but ultimately, I have no real format preference between the two.

In some ways Sniper Elite III has actually taken a few steps backward in its evolution since Sniper Elite V2.  In that game I often lost myself in the simulation of being a WWII sniper but in this new installment I always felt like I was playing a game…a puzzle game; trying to manipulate the various pieces to accomplish my goals.  Even sniping became more of an afterthought, and I found myself stalking most of my targets with a knife.  You know something isn’t right when you finally make your way to one of those rare sniper nests and there is nobody left to kill.

There were definitely moments of fun, but just as many moments of frustration, like spending 20 minutes sneaking around tagging enemies then dying and resetting to a checkpoint where none of that progress was saved.  On anything but the two hardest difficulty options the AI are idiots, so any reasonably skilled gamer should considering playing on nothing lower than Sniper Elite.

At only $50 this is still a cautious recommendation; especially with the whole $30 Season Pass debacle.  If you aren’t in any hurry I’d probably wait for a Steam sale and I bet they’ll even bundle that DLC.  There are definitely some fun and gratuitous guilty-pleasure moments of extreme graphic violence to be had with Sniper Elite III, and it is a fun ride while it lasts, but I’m not convinced it’s worth a full-price ticket.

Check out our live PS4 gameplay videos or you can see the PC version running in Ultra graphics mode.

Screenshot Gallery