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Sniper Elite 5 review: Ain't that a kick - or bullet - in the head

By Lewis Packwood. Posted

Why is shooting people from a long way away so enjoyable? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself while playing Sniper Elite 5. I’m not normally one for violent games, yet I’m hooked on popping Nazis’ brains out from half a kilometre away. I suppose it’s that feeling of power, of holding another person’s life in your hands: a bit like that guy in nineties sketch show The Kids in the Hall who’s always pretending to crush people’s heads with his thumb and forefinger. Sniper Elite heightens that sense of empowerment with its iconic X-ray kill cam, as the camera cuts to show your victim’s brain exiting through their earhole in gruesome slow motion. “I’m crushing your head!” I yelp with glee – followed immediately by a pang of guilt.

The X-ray kill cam’s even gorier here, with bullets ricocheting off bones and puncturing organs. I found it a bit much, to be honest, but thankfully there are options to tone down the gore, reduce the frequency of kill cam cuts, or even turn them off completely. Other than more gruesome kills, the gameplay changes in this sequel are minor, mostly amounting to adding zip wires and a few more options for weapon customisation.

This time around, the setting is the 1944 invasion of France, beginning with those Normandy beach defences cinema seems obsessed with. It’s a solid opening, and there’s a particularly lovely re-creation of a French seaside village, but the level design really hits its stride on mission three, set in a fictional version of the island of Mont-Saint-Michel. Not only does it look stunning, but the level also introduces a pleasing amount of verticality as you sneak your way to the roof of the towering abbey at its centre. It’s a sniper’s paradise, with turrets to take pot-shots from, walls to scale, and zip lines to make a quick getaway, along with myriad hidden shortcuts and twisting alleyways to explore. In short, it’s a beautiful piece of design.

If your cover is blown, all is not lost – Karl is pretty handy with a machine gun, so you can usually take down a few pesky Nazis with little problem.

Later missions don’t quite reach those highs, but there are still plenty of memorable moments, from the brutalist seafront towers of Guernsey to cavernous V2 bases and exciting shoot-outs in the ruined streets of Saint-Nazaire. The levels encourage exploration, and there’s almost always a sneaky back route to get to where you’re going, plus conversations to eavesdrop on to gain information about things like hidden weapon caches.

In addition to each level’s main objective, there are optional ones that you can pursue to increase your score. These almost always involve blowing something up, which I suppose makes sense for a sneaky saboteur behind enemy lines, but it does get a little repetitive. Slightly more interest comes from the assassination targets, where the aim is to gain little pieces of intel to work out where your high-status mark is hiding. In addition to shooting them in the head, there is usually a bespoke, alternative way to eliminate them, like slipping poison into their meal or dropping a V2 rocket on their bonce. These are fun diversions, and clearly a nod to the ‘opportunities’ in the Hitman games – but inviting such comparisons does Sniper Elite 5 few favours. Whereas IO Interactive’s games offer murder playgrounds with myriad ways to approach each target, here the opportunities are much more limited.

Rebellion’s game does have the edge over Hitman in its gun-play, though. Screwing up a kill in Hitman and being seen is generally disastrous, leaving you little alternative but to peg it and hide in a box for a bit. Choosing to stand and fight with Agent 47’s weedy pistol is nothing short of suicidal. But when the stealth wheels come off in Sniper Elite 5, Karl Fairburne is a bit more capable in a straight gunfight – being spotted won’t immediately have you reaching for the ‘load game’ button to start over again.

The gruesome X-ray kill cams now trigger for melee attacks as well as sniper rifle shots.

Ah, Karl. The most generic of gruff, manly heroes, like Duke Nukem with a side parting and a humour bypass. Every action-film cliché is ticked off along this hero’s journey, from the ‘You’re a maverick, Karl!’ conversation with superiors to the comically evil bad guy – in this case, a general in charge of a fictional superweapon programme. It’s all pretty forgettable nonsense, frankly, but the huge and beautifully laid-out levels go quite a long way towards making up for the narrative shortcomings.

Lovely level design aside, Sniper Elite 5 is essentially more of the same – except, that is, for the invasions, which add an enormous amount of appeal to the whole package. At any point in the single-player campaign, another player can invade your game as the enemy sniper Jäger, at which point it evolves into a tense bout of cat and mouse as you try to find and eliminate the invading player before they can do the same to you. Getting that ‘Axis invasion’ message rapidly quickens your heart rate, as suddenly you know there’s a German soldier out there who doesn’t obey the rules, who won’t stick to set patrol patterns, and who won’t stop until they’ve tracked you down.

Invasions aren’t a new idea, of course – we’ve seen them before in games like Deathloop and Dark Souls – and as in those games, they do a brilliant job of mixing up the gameplay here, forcing players to think on their feet as they adapt to an unpredictable threat. There are other multiplayer modes, too, like co-op survival, co-op campaign, and 16-player team matches, all with cross-play, but the invasions are the real highlight, mixing up what could otherwise have become a tired re-run of past glories.

Highlight

Playing as the enemy sniper Jäger can sometimes result in tense, Enemy at the Gates-style stand-offs as you sneakily track each other around the map, trying to get the drop on your foe. But it can just as easily result in farce, as you comically blunder into each other, firing wildly. Often, you’ll spawn into a game where the alarms are already blaring and the hapless player is taken out by German troops before you even have a chance to find them. The unexpected pick-and-mix gameplay is a big part of the appeal – you never know what you’re going to find.

Verdict

Ingenious level design and a clever invasion mechanic elevate an otherwise business-as-usual sequel.

79%

Genre: Action Adventure | Format: PC / PS4 / PS5 | Developer: BlueTwelve Studio | Publisher: Annapurna Interactive | Price: £24.99 | Release: Out now

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