Sniper Elite 3 Preview (PC)

Sniper Elite 3 is a game about gently, almost lovingly, positioning your rifle scope over an enemy soldier's groin, and putting a bullet through both of his testicles in glorious slow-motion. Unlike previous entries in the series, however, it seems like there's a little bit more to it than that. This time around Yankee marksman protagonist Karl Fairburne finds himself in Africa, fighting with Allied forces against the Italian and German advance. It's a nice choice of setting that allows Rebellion to experiment with a slightly broader colour palette and some different, more open environments. After all, by now I feel like I've visited every single house, barn, bunker and tent in 1940's Europe. The first level, for example, tasks you with silencing a series of German artillery positions amidst a canyon pass at Tobruk. It's actually sunny. There's greens and yellows and reds and sky blues, rather than a sea of urban brown and grey. Sunlight glints off gun metal, and palm trees sway in the breeze. It's not just that the upgraded graphics give depth and vibrancy to each location; the level design swaps the claustrophobic corridors of Sniper Elite V2 for open areas offering multiple routes.

Rather than lead you by the nose from one to the next, the game essentially lets you get on with the objective in whatever way you feel is most appropriate. Winding my way through a series of rocky outcroppings, I could circle around behind the gun crew and take them out quietly with a knife, or I could make my way over to a nearby guard tower, dispose of the occupant and set up a well-positioned sniper's nest. It's not full open world freedom, but each level allows you a certain amount of leeway in how you tackle your objectives. Certainly more so than in V2, which often forced you along rigid paths with little opportunity for improvisation.

Rebellion have added realistic musculature to their signature kill-cam, rendering it roughly 3,000 times more gratuitous

Of course, most of your problems will be solved with a rifle round to the head. Or lung, or groin. The sniping mechanics haven't changed radically, but they were pretty solid to begin with so that's not necessarily a bad thing. It is still worryingly satisfying to squeeze off a bullet and see that gloriously tasteless X-ray kill-cam kick in. And yes, I spent a good twenty minutes trying to shoot a an enemy soldier through the balls. I'm not proud of it.

Sniper Elite 's marksman rifles are fast becoming one of the most satisfying weapons in any shooter series around. That apocalyptic crunch as you fire off a round, the cinematic excess that follows; it's pure gaming caffeine, addictive and completely over the top in the best way. My advice, if you want a more rewarding challenge, is to turn off as many visual aids and signifiers as possible. Just play with the rifle and the scope, and get to grip with the ins and outs of bullet drop and breath management manually. It makes each kill-shot that much more satisfying.

There are some slightly more complex vehicle kill-cams now; you can shoot a halftrack speeding towards you through the view-screen to take out the driver, or blast a hole in a truck's gas tank, then detonate it with a follow-up shot through the engine. Vehicle kills are often even more ludicrous than human ones, but who cares. They're tricky to pull off and satisfying when you do.

One-hit melee stealth kills have been added, much to this poor chap's dismay

Outside your sniper rifle you can carry two weapons, a submachine gun and a sidearm. Since revealing your position is rarely a great idea, you'll probably opt for the Welrod as your sidearm, a one-shot silenced pistol. Combine it with a knife for silent melee kills and you've got a pretty solid stealth set-up. Most of your pre-assassination prep work will involve clearing an area for you to work by getting rid of any guards, and with your stealth options it can be a nice change of pace from blasting people in the lungs with your rifle. There's no cover mechanics, so sneaking about can occasionally feel imprecise though, crouching there unsure as to whether your arse is sticking out behind that barrel as a sentry strolls past. Serviceable enough though, and combined with the Relocation system, which I'll talk about in a bit, not overly punishing should you make a mistake.

While you can't silence your sniper rifle itself (that would make things a little too easy) the sound-masking mechanic from V2 returns. Spot an object in the environment that can make a large enough noise and you can use it to cover the sound of your shots; an icon pops up on the screen when you're clear to fire. You can even mix this up with explosions you cause yourself. A couple of times during the demo I managed to combine a long-range kill with a well-timed piece of sabotage.

Sometimes though, all your best-laid plans come to nothing. Being discovered in V2 basically meant the jig was up, and you had to pray you had enough bullets to fend off the hordes of irate Germans descending upon you, which kind of ruined the illusion of being a lone wolf hunter. Sniper Elite 3 solves this problem by giving you the chance to relocate after you're found out. Get caught in the act and enemies will converge on your location, rushing to flank you. Scarper before that happens, or take care of the immediate threats that can directly see you, and an alertness meter will begun to run down. As long as you can scamper into cover somewhere a fair distance from the scene of your crime, the enemy will eventually give up the search, allowing you to slink off somewhere else to cause more havoc. There's even a 'Ghost mode' that kicks in if you slip away before anyone can find you, which layers on experience multipliers (experience is used to unlock new rifles, attachments and gear simultaneously across singleplayer and multiplayer) while active.

This is the second level, which has you sneaking around a German base at night and committing various acts of mischief

As much of a general improvement as Sniper Elite 3 is, there are still aspects of it that don't quite convince. Enemy AI is much less determined to get killed here, with enemies taking cover and attempting to flank sniper positions, but they're still capable of the odd act of baffling incompetence. While cowering in a sniper tower I set off an alarm, but rather than use grenades or wait until I popped out of cover to gun me down, about six soldiers in a row opted to slowly make their way up the ladder, where I waited with a grin and a levelled Sten gun. Likewise there were a few moments when enemies were slow to react to my presence, or made odd decisions like charging towards me across open ground. The AI certainly isn't poor, and generally makes the smart move, but it's still a little more exploitable than it should be.

Although Sniper Elite 3 can be very pretty, I did notice the odd moment when the physics went a little wonky, especially when shooting people outside the slow-motion kill-cam. Every now and then a defeated enemy would collapse into an awkward and anatomically unlikely jumble of limbs, or lie prone while hovering above the ground. Slight blemishes on an otherwise great-looking game.

The time I spent with Sniper Elite 3 left me feeling very positive about the game's potential. If the campaign can maintain a similarly open feel to the two levels, then combined with some well-refined mechanics and smart new mechanics, I can see it being a big hit. The enemy AI doesn't always impress, but in every other respect the game's come on leaps and bounds as an overall package since the last game in the series. Rather than a fairly mediocre shooter stapled to an excellent sniping system, the game feels like a rounded and complete experience in its own right. I'm looking forward to seeing if Rebellion can make good on this initial promise when the game drops on June 27.

Most anticipated feature: Netting the mythical, but tantalisingly possible, triple-testicle three-soldiers-in-a-row trick shot. I may need psychiatric help.

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By stuntkid (SI Elite) on Jun 14, 2014
I started playing V2 since Steam was offering it for free a short while ago. Didn't think I would like it but am actually really enjoying it. Some minor issues like the linear level design. Sounds like the devs have worked hard to improve the game in Sniper Elite 3.