Rebellion’s WW2 sniper sim returns with bigger open world levels, more weapons, and even more ways to assassinate Nazis.
There’s something about sniping games that’s unreasonably compelling. Find a vantage point, search for enemies or props to shoot, to cause an ‘accident’, line up the shot while taking into account distance and wind, gently squeeze the trigger, and then wait. The exquisitely agonising few seconds before you find out whether your bullet successfully connects with a head hundreds of metres away, or triggers an alarm that will probably result in your death, is just about as tense as gaming gets.
That loop is something the Sniper Elite series understands very well. To heighten it, when your perfectly aimed bullet does connect, it’s celebrated with the series’ trademark X-ray kill cam, showing in graphic detail how your round punctures lungs, livers, brains, and testicles – the shower of squelchy viscera and bone fragments serenading your skill with a rifle. It shouldn’t be so savagely addictive, but it is.
Sniper Elite 5 tells more Nazi-killing stories featuring the game’s longstanding hero Karl Fairburne, aka The Shadow. Once again you’ll be winning the war one bullet at a time, this time in pursuit of a German wonder weapon, codenamed Operation Kraken. It’s a mission that takes you from the rainy fields of Northern France, through underground U-boat pens to a final showdown with Kraken’s inventor.
As usual, the main problem faced by British developer Rebellion is how to spice up the core sniping with enough variations to the game’s rhythm and pacing. Sniper Elite is not in any way an action game, making the sections where you’re operating at short range or relying on close-up stealth, nowhere near as much fun as the long distance stuff. But keeping everything at long range would make it monotonous and too much like being at a shooting gallery.
The result is that some of the levels can feel a bit arduous. Although architecturally beautiful, the third chapter, Spy Academy, is especially guilty of this. It plonks you into an ancient walled city with the job of fighting and stealthing your way to its abbey, in search of secret documents and a Nazi VIP. Getting there means picking your way through alleyways and buildings, desperately trying to avoid raising an alarm that will result in your rapid death at the hands, and machineguns, of wave upon wave of guards.
To help in those sections Karl can now rely on focus, a Hitman-esque skill that lets you see the outlines of nearby enemies though walls and behind cover. It makes the close-up work feel a little less random and helps you make your way through sections that would otherwise be next to impossible, especially given that even suppressed weapons are audible in a radius measured in tens of metres.
As before, you can time shots to coincide with moments of background noise, but when real silence is needed you can reload with subsonic ammunition, which makes your guns even more stealthy. However, even more than past outings, this special ammo is in monumentally short supply, often forcing you to rely on carefully timed melee attacks, quietly stabbing enemies in the face as you lower their corpses to the ground.
You’ll also find armour-piercing rounds to blow up vehicles; soft point bullets, which do extra damage to squishy infantry; and wooden non-lethal rounds to incapacitate rather than kill. The latter is joined by a non-lethal melee attack, where you choke Nazis or neatly bop them on the head with a billy club, a process that rewards you with extra experience points but that can result in more enemies to fight if they’re discovered and awoken by their comrades.
Earning experience lets Karl level up, in the process acquiring skill points that you can trade for upgrades, letting you carry more ammo, add to your health bar, and auto-tag enemies who shoot you. In practice, relatively few of these prove particularly useful, but it gives a pleasing sense of progression, and combined with weapons upgrades performed at workbenches you can find in each of its levels, eventually starts to give you an edge over your more numerous prey.
Sniper Elite 4 started the process of opening up the level design, replacing what were effectively thinly disguised corridors with genuine open world sections that let you decide how to approach objectives in your own time and style. That’s taken much further in this instalment, with open areas that take in everything from sandy beaches and twisting trench systems to labyrinthine villages and air raid-battered towns.
It also makes good use of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, the adaptive triggers letting you feel the click from shouldering your rifle and peering through the scope. You can hear your heartbeat as you hold your breath and feel the trigger’s resistance as you squeeze it to take a shot. Combined with the subtle vibration of its haptic feedback, it makes sniping a significantly more intense and involving experience.
Enemy artificial intelligence, while not perfect and prone to repeatedly triggering investigations as they discover and then rediscover bodies you’ve left behind, is still an improvement on past games. And you can now find and unlock new starting points in levels, letting you approach them from a completely different angle on subsequent playthroughs.
Sniper Elite 5 is not without its problems though. The cover system’s still a bit wonky, and the same button is used for melee attacks and searching dead bodies, which can cause confusion when you need to do a little quiet face stabbing while crouched near a corpse. The same happens with the identically mapped button to apply a bandage or booby-trap a dead body.
There was also a point in the War Factory level where sabotaging the controls of a crane did nothing, the objective sullenly remaining in place, as did the next goal to destroy a smelter – effectively halting progress. By restarting the chapter and repeating over an hour’s stealthy gunnery, both objectives triggered as intended and we were able to finish the level. With any luck these glitches will be ironed out in a day one patch, but it was irritating nonetheless.
The game as a whole, though, works. From Karl’s new focus power to its sharper 4K graphics, to levels that offer greater openness and tactical choice, Sniper Elite 5 is the best of the franchise to date, despite the odd mechanical hiccup. The sniping loop especially, boosted by subtle use of the DualSense’s haptics, is the most compelling it’s ever been.
Sniper Elite 5 review summary
In Short: More highly addictive Nazi cranium popping, that improves almost every aspect of the experience – especially in terms of the open world and expanded weapon options.
Pros: More open levels create extra tactical choices. Improved enemy AI and new focus skill lets you spot and target nearby enemies. Excellent use of the DualSense’s haptics.
Cons: Even with focus, short range sections just aren’t as much fun. Some minor mechanical issues and bugs.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Release Date: 26th May 2022
Age rating: 16
By Nick Gillett
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