It's World War Two again and when I opened up the package on Friday and read the title my blood turned to ice. I thought, oh Gods not another WW II inspired shooter, not with things like Brothers in Arms already out there, don't do this to me. Then I read the title, Sniper Elite Preview: Xbox.
I have a liking for the old Sniper Rifle and there is something cool about playing that particular kind of character class, made so by such movies as Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates.
So I booted up the disc in the hope that this might be something special.
You're not that far from me!
My gut reaction was wrong and I am really glad that I gave this one a chance. At first I wasn't too impressed; it seemed like the standard affair with the usual objectives dipped inside a fairly decent menu and a number of configurable options, such as custom difficulty.
But what did I miss? Wind speed, gravity, Hollywood or realistic grenades? This should have been my first clue that Sniper Elite isn't just a bog-standard FPS, it's far from it. Those fans of tactical shooters and games like Operation Flashpoint will start to see where I'm coming from on this.
Atmosphere, Atmosphere and Atmosphere are the keys to getting a player immersed in any genre. Sniper Elite produces the dark and gritty atmosphere of WW II and puts you in the shoes of a US special forces Sniper disguised as a Nazi operating in dangerous locations against the Russians.
Sniper Elite is shaping up graphically quite nicely, there were a few glitches in the early code but on the whole the look and feel of the game produced keeps to the realistic broken rubble and patchy uniforms, there's a real feeling of dried-in grime and greasepaint to the characters and everything looks suitably bombed-out and dilapidated.
There's a war on and you can tell, as the first mission has bombs falling close at hand and scaring the living daylights out of you.
The game is played from a third-person view with all sniping taking place in first-person. There are various sub-weapons and items throughout that can make your life easier, from med-kits to bandages as well as trip-wire grenades and even a rock to distract patrolling enemies.
Sniping can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be, taking into account gravity, lung space, wind and other factors - or you can turn them all off and play a simpler game - but be warned you will not earn any points of fame for this. (POF are gained for various cool tricks, such as shooting through one foe to hit another or sniping a long range target)
Bodies are searchable and you can quickly search or take your time, you can even pick up a corpse and move it out of the way. This is useful if you're trying to take a really stealthy approach and you don't want a patrolling guard to find his friend you happen to have just killed.
Ammo and weapons are found in places where you might expect them, on the bodies and in caches in various bombed out buildings. And the buildings themselves allow for higher vantage points and excellent sniping spots (one mission has you ensconced in a bell tower picking off troops as they try and take down an escaping agent).
But what makes Sniper Elite special is something that's been seen all too briefly in both Max Payne games and that's the bullet-cam. While those games are both excellent there really isn't as much of a sense of satisfaction from them compared to Sniper Elite where a 128 metre headshot on a moving target compensating for gravity and wind earns you a follow-cam on the bullet as it speeds towards the hapless victim.
When it hits you are treated to a view of the victim taking damage and the effects are pretty gruesome, nothing in a league of Private Ryan but close.
There's a pretty good damage system in the game as well as it's possible to injure a soldier and take him out of the combat where he'll bleed to death or roll around in agony, the enemy AI will pick up wounded comrades and attempt to get them out of the line of fire.
So far the AI seems to be pretty well done; they take cover in all the right ways, employ an impressive array of flanking tactics and use grenades when they can't get a clear shot. I witnessed one hurl a grenade at me to flush me out while his friend used suppressive fire.
Enemy Armour is dangerous stuff, some of the APCs have petrol caps though and a good shot to one of these will ignite the fuel and blow the thing to kingdom come. Or you can take the riskier method and lay down a bit of TNT on the route it's going to take if it's patrolling and snipe the explosive from a safe point afterwards - the risk you run of course is coming face to face with a couple of hidden soldiers and being discovered before you can lay the trap.
There are some impressive pyrotechnics in the game so far and the explosions from bombs and devastated enemy Armour are pretty impressive already, there is adequate time left to add more to the game and tune some features, perhaps even some different cameras like a slow motion camera that kicks in when something big explodes.
The game will also run on Xbox Live but details of the game modes apart from Deathmatch were not available at the time this Preview went to press. What is implemented is an amazingly addictive two player co-op where a team of Snipers are inserted into the mission zone and must work together to achieve the various objectives.
This mode is great fun and has been thoroughly tested this weekend where the second Sniper was able to get a clear headshot compensating for gravity on a partially hidden enemy soldier at a distance of 128 metres - the follow-cam indicated that the poor guy got hit in the right eye - now that had to hurt.
Down the barrel of a gun
Sniper Elite is shaping up to be a great game it seems, the control method is pretty tight already and it's certainly one that I think rivals the likes of Ghost Recon 2 for addictive fun and quality gameplay. Normally I think that WW II games have become a dime a dozen, very few break the mould but if the developers polish, add and tune this gem it could become a truly solid contender in a genre that is plagued by similar games.