Sniper Elite may not be the most glamorous of games franchises, but since the first game was launched in 2005, Oxford-based developer Rebellion's stealth-and-sniping shooter has quietly amassed a notable following – cumulatively, the franchise has passed the 10 million-sales mark.
Previous iterations of the game have typically been characterised as good, but with some shoddy elements. Sniper Elite 4, however, boasts an impressive level of overall polish, while its various elements and systems, honed over the years, congeal into a highly seductive whole.
Sniper Elite 4 marks the game entering the big league.
Sniper Elite 4 review: Refine your focus
As in Sniper Elite 3, you play as Karl Fairburne, an American sniper operating for the OSS, who is essentially a one-man army.
This time around, the action takes place in Italy in 1943. The Allies are early in their plans for Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings, but there's a problem: the Nazis have developed a new missile that can take Allied ships out, which puts any idea of a push into Europe in extreme jeopardy. It's up to Fairburne to save the day – with the help of a rag-tag bunch of local partisans, and even the Mafia.
Luckily, Fairburne has some supreme skills. He's one of the finest snipers ever, with the ability to empty his lungs, lower his heart-rate and nail targets up to 300 metres away, which is represented in the game via an excellent focus system.
It takes a while to setup though (if Fairburne has been running, for example, you need to rest him to reduce his heart-rate) and gives you a limited time-window in which to hit the pinpoint target.
In conjunction with Rebellion's Kill-Cam system – a very guilty pleasure indeed, which shows bullets taking out individual body-parts and organs – there's an immense amount of (albeit gruesome) satisfaction to be had from Sniper Elite 4's sniping engine. And yes, you can shoot the bollocks off Nazis... literally.
Sniper Elite 4 review: Stealth plays a key part
But there's way more to SE4 than that. Stealth plays a huge part.
Fairburne has a devastating take-down, and can creep around, hiding in patches of vegetation or behind cover. The stealth system is very reminiscent of the Metal Gear games: whenever an enemy claps eyes on you, a yellow awareness meter grows until, when it turns red, you've been detected.
Because Sniper Elite 4's artificial intelligence is more rigorous than most, once you've been detected, swathes of Nazis will descend on you if you don't take evasive action.
Fairburne is given a selection of mines and traps for incoming enemies; dead bodies can even be booby-trapped. And if you've managed to escape detection but have merely aroused suspicion, all the Nazis in the vicinity will still search for you for a while.
You can employ classic stealth-game ruses like throwing stones in the direction in which you'd like enemies to go. Ammo and objects like health kits are in sufficiently short supply that you more or less have to search everyone you kill (a longish process which can put you in jeopardy), and some items, like the suppressed ammo which lets you snipe silently, are very rarely found, so you often have to modify your tactics in the later stages of missions.
Sniper Elite 4 review: Level design longevity
Those missions constitute one of Sniper Elite 4's standout elements: each one has a distinctive flavour, thanks to extremely clever level-design.
Although there are only eight missions, they are very long, and as you work through them new objectives pop up. Which, invariably, you feel compelled to take on, as Sniper Elite 4 is one of those games in which you will become obsessed with doing and finding everything you possibly can.
For example, safes holding crucial secret documents abound, and you can noisily blow them open with satchel charges, but it's infinitely preferable to find and kill the local Nazi officer, who will have the safe's combination on his person.
Exploration is rewarded by collectibles, short-cuts and secret passages. We took about 20-hours to complete the single-player campaign and, while you could speed-run through Sniper Elite 4 in a fraction of that time, that's an approach which just seems a bit rude and counter-productive, as one of the biggest pleasures on offer in the game is the satisfaction of completing an objective, then plotting how to take on the next one.
The levels themselves are huge and varied: sometimes, you will find yourself in well-lit towns with virtually no cover or sniping spots, through which you will have to proceed by stealth; at other times, you can set traps for the Nazis who will come looking for you, then snipe away blissfully for ages.
Sniper Elite 4 review: Co-op play
Two-player co-op play constitutes the main element which is new to the franchise, and includes an excellent asymmetric mode in which one person snipes while the other acts as a spotter on the ground; you can even play the entire single-player campaign co-operatively.
The mostly sniper-centric multiplayer modes from Sniper Elite 3 are present, too, including No Cross – which places two teams either side of a no man's land, and Distance King, in which the team with the highest cumulative kill-distance wins.
We found the sniping multiplayer modes infinitely superior to the likes of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, and Sniper Elite 4's multiplayer side, in general, contains a mixed bag of modes you will either love or hate.
This time around, the storyline – a source of previous criticism – at least hangs together and builds to a crescendo; it's fairly minimal, but none the worse for that. Cut-scenes are mercifully rare but, when you do find them, are serviceable rather than particularly impressive.
Sniper Elite 4 really impresses is the way its stealth and sniping systems mesh with the enemy artificial intelligence and level design to create something which, while recognisably a videogame, nevertheless has a ring of authenticity to it. It's bollock-poppingly brilliant.
It really gets across the thrill and danger of being a rogue operative behind enemy lines in World War II, and proves to be way more satisfying to play than you might imagine if you've never previously experienced a Sniper Elite game. And if you have then, well, like we say, this is Sniper Elite entering the big league.