Sniper Elite 3 review: Sniper sim sequel aims high, but still falls slightly off target
At a Glance
Taking aim at both PCs and consoles, Sniper Elite 3 is a third-person/first-person shooter hybrid that casts you in the role of an elite American sniper in World War II, and it's shockingly—even brutally—violent, just like its predecessor.
Ostensibly this is a game about liberating Africa from the cruel iron fist of the Nazis and General Erwin "Desert Fox" Rommel, but really Sniper Elite 3 is about lining up a shot from across the map, pulling the trigger, and watching in slow motion as the bullet flies with heavy inevitability towards its distant target, finally crashing into soft flesh with explosive force as the camera turns into X-ray vision and you see lungs/intestines/hearts/kidneys/skulls/brains/eyeballs/testicles explode into a billion miniscule pieces.
If this were ten years ago, it's the type of game that would cause a vein to rupture in erstwhile-lawyer Jack Thompson's forehead. It's violence so self-aggrandized and artfully rendered that it's basically pornographic.
Even for me, a veteran of hundreds of digital wars, it's eerily close to some invisible line I don't really want to cross.
Yet bombast masks a game that, while a definite improvement over its predecessor, still hinges entirely too much on a gimmick—and a gimmick that's increasingly stale. The first hundred times you see a skull explode from a well-placed M1 round, it's horrific. Then, it's expected. Eventually, it's boring.
Move past the systematic dismembering of hundreds of Nazis, and what's left is somewhat underwhelming.
You're given various objectives in each level, spread across an enormous and labyrinthine map. The plus side: Sniper Elite 3 is far more open than Sniper Elite V2, giving you multiple paths towards targets and allowing you to wander at will. Sniper Elite 3 lets you actually plan how you'd like to use your stealth skills and sniper rifle.
The downside: Everything is easily exploited. Nearly every "vital" area of the game has a way to mask your shots from the enemy—backfiring trucks, for instance, or faulty generators. Time your shots with the noises emitted from these devices, and you'll pass unnoticed. It makes no sense really in terms of how human ears work, but I'll give that a magical "video games" wave of my hand and suspend disbelief.
More troubling is that it makes the game incredibly easy. Each combat arena you enter plays out the same: Find the noisemaker, stand by it, shoot everyone in sight, then stealth around with your silenced pistol to mop up the rest.
If you mess up a shot and attract attention, you're forced to relocate or risk alerting enemies to your real position—in theory. To call the enemy AI in Sniper Elite 3 "unpredictable" or "uneven" is like saying nuclear bombs are "a bit scary." I found it all too easy to pile bodies on top of each other, luring a Nazi to check on the body of his friend and then shooting him under cover of the next generator malfunction. Enemies take time to "notice" you, so it's perfectly acceptable to run around in plain sight as long as you don't fill their caution meter.
I can't help but imagine Karl Fairburne—the American sniper whose shoes you fill in the game—standing around the bar with his fellow soldiers after a successful mission, casually swigging a pint. "Yeah, so I took out that entire platoon of Nazis by myself. How? Well, get this: I'd shoot one of them, wait for the others to come investigate, then shoot all those guys. Nazis, right? So dumb."
At one point I was tasked with disabling an enormous artillery cannon, which in this case was also the noisemaker I had to time my shots with. There were three soldiers around the cannon—two sitting on the seats making aim adjustments and a third shouting orders. I waited until the cannon fired and shot the man giving the orders.
The other two sat there making aim adjustments, their friend lying dead mere inches away.
The next time the cannon fired I shot the guy sitting on the left. The third guy made aim adjustments. The cannon fired and I shot the third guy. The cannon adjusted its own aim and kept firing.
Sniper Elite 3 isn't bad. It's fun enough, and the sniping mechanics are great. But it's a B-game, released during the perfect time of year for B-games and action movies—those slow, slow summer months. There are moments where it successfully makes you feel like a stone cold badass, feeding off your primitive instincts as you watch your shot roar across the map and smack into the skull of your target. Really, that's why anyone is playing these games, right? For the sniping and the ballistics and the particle physics.
If only the rest of Sniper Elite 3 were given the same level of polish. Instead, the series still feels like a hastily thrown-together framework meant to usher you towards the sniping sections instead of a cohesive end-product.