Sniper Elite IV, which publisher Rebellion will release for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on February 14, depicts American intelligence operations in the Mediterranean during World War II. This, by itself, presents a challenge. There's an expectation of accuracy that comes with depicting historical events, especially an event as iconic and globally known as World War II.
But beyond the accuracy of the uniforms, the architecture of the environment, and the make of the guns, there's another accuracy that's even more important—how those guns felt, and what it was like to handle and fire them. To ensure true-to-life accuracy, the developers at Rebellion visited The Royal Armouries in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, to gain first-hand experience.
"It's always good to go back to the source and learn what it's actually like to work with a World War II sniper rifle," said Tim Jones, Head of Creative at Rebellion, in an interview with Motherboard. "We had a number of advantages in getting that knowledge. Our CEO, Jason Kingsley, is actually one of the trustees of The Royal Armouries, and they've got an extraordinary collection of weapons and guns from throughout history."
On their visits, the developers worked with weapons experts, who showed them how the guns worked. Those experts also took the developers to a shooting range where they could test the guns themselves.
"In the game, your character is shooting at 100 meters," said Jones. "We were shooting targets at 20 meters, which is tough enough, particularly with World War II weapons. The scopes that soldiers used back then were far more limited [than what they use today]."
"It was eye-opening for us to hold the rifle in place, let alone shoot it or be in combat with it," continued Jones. "These rifles were heavy, and you don't realize, until you get your hands on them, how mechanical and reliable they are. And that's something that we tried to get across in Sniper Elite IV. You and your gun have a symbiotic relationship, and you get to know your gun intimately, such that you can get the best out of it."
The legacy of American sniping in World War II is scant, at least in comparison to other countries' legacies. Russia had, by far, the most prolific, deadly snipers; they fortified Russian positions during the Battle of Stalingrad, a bloody battle of attrition that registered over two million casualties. One of the most prolific Russian snipers at Stalingrad was Vasily Zaytsev, who had over 200 confirmed kills.
The Germans had snipers too, but they did not develop their sniping program with any serious intent at the beginning of the war. That's because the Germans engaged in blitzkrieg, a "lightning" style of war where mobile infantry and air force assailed European targets with surprising, aggressive force. It was brutally effective, and it rendered more subtle methods of warfare pointless.
But after enduring heavy losses as a result of Russian snipers, the Germans instituted official sniper training courses in 1943, and they chose their snipers from a pool of hunters, poachers, and forest rangers.
The United States, meanwhile, did not have have a formal sniper training program aside from a single course at Camp Perry. And while American soldiers were trained in long-distance shooting, they were not trained in the sorts of "hide and sting," camouflage tactics that their enemies employed so effectively.
The Americans would later establish a more formal, thorough program at Fort Bragg in late 1942. But even as late as 1944, the U.S. Armed Forces were paying dearly for their lack of sniper knowledge, both offensively and defensively. The Americans incurred heavy losses at the Battle of Normandy as a direct result of German snipers. As American war correspondent Ernie Pyle said at the time:
"There are snipers everywhere. There are snipers in trees, in buildings, in piles of wreckage, in the grass. But mainly they are in the high, bushy hedgerows that form the fences of all the Norman fields and line every roadside and lane."
So Sniper Elite IV, which takes place in 1943, requires some suspension of disbelief. It's possible, of course, that there would be an elite American sniper covert operation to assassinate high-ranking Nazi officials. But it wouldn't be very probable. And even the weaponry in Sniper Elite IV required some light, creative license. The real Springfield M1903A4 rifle was outfitted with a 2.5x scope. The in-game Springfield rifle has a 6x scope, which gives your character an edge that the real World War II soldiers never had.
"We maintain as high a level of detail as we can without sacrificing the fun," said Jones. "We don't want to be bogged down in Simulation-ville. That would be really cool for a small number of players, but most players are escapists."
There is always a middle ground that Rebellion has to negotiate between what is real and is fanciful "fun." For example, the amount of ammo that a character can carry is rarely accurate—one would need a trailer to lug it all about. The guns' recoil is also a product of sliding compromise.
"We've been accused in the past of nerfing the machine gun to make the player use the rifle more," said Jones. "But actually, our machine gun has a level of accuracy that's more appropriate to what you would get in real life."
But even the Sniper Elite machine guns are not entirely true-to-life.
"When we were at the Royal Armouries, the experts there stood 20 feet away from a target with a pistol, and fired off a round of bullets, rapid fire," recalled Jones. "You'd expect it to be very accurate, but the bullets actually went all over the place. Twenty feet is the maximum distance that you could expect to hit something with any modicum of accuracy. And the same is true with machine guns. So we had to find a middle ground that felt satisfying."
The team tended to compromise less on the external factors. The developers fine-tuned environmental obstacles, such as wind and gravity, which could spoil a perfect shot. They accounted for suppressed rifle bullets, which fired at a slower rate and thus dropped quicker and penetrated less. All of these factors are adjustable in the game's menu, so players can choose the level of realistic immersion they desire.
"We spoke to actual snipers; what was relevant for World War II snipers remains relevant to snipers today," said Jones. "And it's those bits outside the gun itself that felt important to them and their experience, such as the military tactics and the need to control heart rate and breathing. Those are the aspects that really impressed them."
The meta-debate over realism begs interesting questions. How much detail is too much detail? What is the line of distinction between simulator and game? Game design is a balancing act, of deciphering when fans want realism and when they want the mere impression of it. One general maxim seems to remain constant, however; realism should not come at the expense of fun.