Last summer, the physical-copy publisher of Sniper Elite 4, Sold Out, made a bold claim about its forthcoming game.
Speaking to trade magazine MCV, Sold Out CEO Garry Williams called Sniper Elite 4 a "triple-A" production, continuing: "We have our big targets, and that's us playing with the top tier. We do a lot of things in the middle-tier… [but] with this one, we're into the bigger hitter territory. You can look at something like [Sniper Elite 4] doing 200,000 units Day One in the UK."
That confidence comes with a precedent—Sniper Elite III, despite mediocre reviews, was a number one success in the UK, US, Germany and Scandinavia in 2014. By September 2015, the Sniper Elite series had passed 10 million copies sold, across all entries.
Marking the occasion, the series' developers, Oxford-based Rebellion, issued a thank you, courtesy of CEO Jason Kingsley: "Whether you've bought one or whether you've bought all of our Sniper Elite products, thank you very much for supporting indie development in the UK."
And here, for me, lies the conflict that holds Sniper Elite 4—set in Second World War Italy, casting the player as a (yup) sniper going up against the invading Nazi forces—back from being the "triple-A" product that Sold Out so vocally anticipated.
Rebellion is, whichever way you slice it, an independent video game developer, with all of the limitations on funding and personnel that brings with it. Step into the studio and you'll see a lot of people—I've been there, and it's got a large workforce compared to the common indie idea of one or two main devs plus assistance from a skeleton crew. But its manpower is comprehensively dwarfed by the bigger boys putting out franchises like Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto, series that Sniper Elite is definitely looking at in its level-to-level layouts.
Its newest game is set across large, open areas, rich with murderous opportunities, side-missions, collection-quests and challenges to tick off on the way to 100%-ing each level. The HUD fills with markers inside ten minutes of starting each stage, and while it's never Ubisoft-like—or, rather, Ubisoft-lite—with countless waypoints swarming the region, the clutter can become distracting. There's a mini-map, and compass, but it's easy to find yourself following a breadcrumb trail to the "wrong" objective, because they stack up so rapidly.
In Sniper Elite 4's greatest moments, the player is the conductor of a most adaptable orchestra—even when things go wrong, it's because you set up the situation for it to happen that way.
Clearing them isn't a chore, as each presents its own, enjoyable challenges. But even when you've ticked off the lot—destroyed this ammo depot, recovered this film from a dead US pilot and wrecked his downed prototype aircraft, sent a powerful enemy cannon to its doom in a deep canyon—the game tells you to do it again, to get that 100% score. You didn't find all of the "letters home", or shoot out these stone falcons the Nazis seem to love so much. And then there are performance objectives, requiring meticulous play to achieve.
I get it, that these are here for that "replayability" factor. But truthfully, they feel superfluous, in place because bigger games pack in more to do, to see, than Rebellion can weave into its impressive-on-its-own-terms production. They're padding, while Sniper Elite 4 works best as a streamlined, focused-of-task military operation simulator.
Of course there's the slow-motion "X-Ray" kills—present, and a gory joy to see for the first dozen sightings or so. After that, the repetition does begin to creep in, but nevertheless: these are bad people dying horrible deaths, and that's okay by my moral compass. More impressive than those aesthetic flourishes, though, is the moment-to-moment drama of the main game, the risk and reward that comes with briefly emerging from cover to get a shot away, knowing that if you miss, it'll bring down hell on your position.
When my guy, the couldn't-be-more-generic Karl Fairburne, is holding his breath, hoping that the Nazi lieutenant some 200 meters away will just edge two inches to the left for a cleaner kill-shot, so am I. I'm watching his every twitch, listening out for any clue that he may move from just enough cover to compromise a bullet in the head, trying to be patient. But then Karl's lungs empty completely, his heart rate rushes and his aim sways. Action has to happen now.
The trigger's tugged but the shot only grazes its target—and then reinforcements are alerted. What was a patient game of silent, ghostly cat and mouse explodes into deafening terror and turmoil. I run, Karl's heart fighting its way out of his chest. To cover, any cover, anywhere that I can pause, catch my breath, reload my rifle and reconsider my approach. But the bullets rain down and I fall, unable to reach respite and apply bandages—and it's brilliant, because I made it happen.
In Sniper Elite 4's greatest moments, the player is the conductor of a most adaptable orchestra, and even when things are going wrong, it's only ever because you set up the situation for it to happen that way. The game is never unfair, the odds winnable if you study them properly, but also ready to overwhelm you if you put a foot wrong. Or, more often, a bullet into a truck tire rather than someone's intestines.
Sneak about unseen in the forest-covered third level, and you may catch a Nazi officer remarking, "This place is very pretty." And it is.
That's all great—and the game can look incredible, too. The god rays that beam down on the opening area of San Celini Island are matched for their moment's-pause impact as the piled-atop-each-other buildings of Bitanti Village, the game's second stage, beautifully evocative of southern Italy's more rural coastal settlements.
Sneak about unseen in the forest-covered third level, the approach to a viaduct that needs violently dismantling, and you may catch a Nazi officer remarking, "This place is very pretty." And it is, but again, these sandboxes are no (HD) San Andreas or French Revolution-era Paris, Novigrad or Bay Area hacker's playground. Rebellion simply doesn't have the resources to approach those levels of depth and detail.
Which wouldn't be a problem, but for an occasional break in internal consistency. Karl can splash through a shallow stream, but will he step into the surf to reach an area-exiting boat? He will not; that part of the environment is invisible-walled. There are times aplenty where not having a jump command—although X will mantle, and grab a ledge above when the context is appropriate—leaves Karl kind of stuck against an ankle-high piece of scenery, a great annoyance when you have fluffed a kill and now the Nazis are calling in air support.
These cracks in the presentation aren't persistent, and you learn—usually after a restart or two—to get around them. What does grate, more often, is the personality of Karl himself. I appreciate that the same voice actor was required to keep series fans happy; but boy, does this hero have the most depressingly gruff vocal chords. His delivery is flat and passion-free.
The player's just taken out a Nazi checkpoint, loosening the fascist stranglehold on the local Resistenza, and he comments on the terrific achievement as if he's gently chastising himself, on the way home, for not remembering butter on his last trip to the convenience store.
Again, this is more B-movie than big-budget blockbuster in a movie parallel sense. And exclusively in gaming terminology, Sniper Elite 4 is more in line with the thought-extinct second-tier, double-A games of the previous generation than Sold Out's assertion of an extra-vowel production.
Not so long ago, larger publishers would more regularly fund titles destined for less-than-massive commercial fortunes but, in the best-case scenarios, cult acclaim—think of Sega and Binary Domain, Sony Computer Entertainment and Demon's Souls. There's a dearth of that in the space between tiny and behemoth in today's independent landscape.
Sniper Elite 4 is one of the very best examples of that, where its ambition cannot quite be fulfilled. Ninja Theory's delayed Hellblade: Seuna's Sacrifce looks like another—a good-looking game chasing the triple-A sheen, that purr and performance. It, too, looks like it gets most of the way there only to come undone when you peek under the hood and find that a few components of its engine are made of bubble gum and empty crisp packets.
That's not a bad thing. I love seeing smaller studios stretch themselves, improving on what they previously made, and Sniper Elite 4 is absolutely the best game in its series, a palpable progression from what came before it. It manifests tension from thin air—literally, when your bullets find nothing but. Its campaign is clichéd but compelling enough fare, and shooter enthusiasts bummed out by recent dalliances with futuristic combat will dig its dirty, bloody WW2 setting. Its settings are gorgeous, and well-detailed, even if they can't replicate what the Rockstars and Ubisofts of the world can manifest. It'll almost certainly score higher than III managed.
This is a very good game, then, and one that could clear that 200,000 first-day target, precedent considered. But be careful if you're going into it expecting every wheel to turn just right, like the most "complete" triple-A games do.
For the landscapes to be full of life beyond patrolling Nazis, and the urge to really explore the nooks and crannies of each area to produce a satisfactory bounty. Sniper Elite 4 is born of compromise, however much it convincingly covers it up. Rebellion can celebrate their efforts, and they deserve to, because for an "indie" game this is quite the accomplishment. But knowing how quickly the games-playing public can dismiss titles when the smallest gripes emerge, it's important to temper expectations prior to pressing start.
'Sniper Elite 4' is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on February 14th.