One of the staples of most stealth games is that you're almost always massively outnumbered, outgunned and outmatched - and with a limited range of gadgets and gizmos at your disposal, you have to rely on staying out of sight instead. Not so in Sniper Elite 4. While staying in the shadows is still important here, this is a game that turns the status quo on its head, as the hunted becomes the hunter, lurking into the shadows, dropping your enemies one by one, without anyone having a clue where the fire's coming from.
Set in Italy during the midst of WW2, Sniper Elite 4 is a third person shooter that follows the story of an American soldier (who else?) who parachutes in behind enemy lines to save the world, and win the war, because apparently all the rest of us were all too busy eating our cucumber sandwiches. Or something. Under orders from SOE (which we always though meant Sony Online Entertainment, but which apparently actually means the Special Operations Executive) it's up to you to take on a range of daring missions across the vineyards and valleys of Italy, as the lone allied soldier against the entire might of the Wehrmacht.
In total, there are some eight missions to play through here - and while that may not sound like a lot, there's a lot more to each level that meets the eye. Set across an enormous amount of space, each level comes with multiple objectives to complete - some that are mission critical, others that are optional side quests - and you're free to approach them however you see fit. As just one man up against an entire army, it pays to take things slowly rather than rushing in like a headless chicken - but as a master sniper, you have several tricks up your sleeve.
The first thing to remember is that snipers love height - not only because it gives you a great vantage point for taking out your enemies, but because it lets you scout the area too. One of the very first things you should do in almost any level is to head for some high ground, whether it's finding a tower, a hill, or a bridge you can perch on, before whipping out your goggles to scout out your surroundings. Much like in real life, it's movement you'll want to watch out for, and as soon as you've spotted an enemy, squeezing the right trigger will let you "tag" them, which not only brings up a list of information about the soldier, including what weapons they're carrying, and often what their name is - but which also tags them on your screen, letting you see where they are, at all times, even if they're hiding behind cover.
Once you've tagged as many soldiers as you possibly can - and you'll want to be sure you've found as many as humanly possible - you can start to get on with the mission proper. Now that you've got a better idea of where the various groups of soldiers are, you can start to plan your route - do you want to avoid them, and tread the path of least resistance? Or would you rather pick them off, one by one, as you work your way to your target? Either option is a totally valid way of completing the mission - but the latter is certainly the most fun, and is arguably how the game's been designed to be played.
While you do carry a range of weapons - a pistol, a machine gun, and a sniper rifle - it's the latter that's designed to be your go-to here - and that's what really makes Sniper Elite stand out from the crowd. With expansive levels, and often nigh on 100 troops against you, the deck isn't exactly stacked in your favour - so picking off your foes from the shadows is the way to go. And, as you'd likely expect, a lot of thought's gone into the sniper rifle, and how you use it.
If you were planning on just whipping your sniper rifle out, and shooting from the hip, you'll be in for a surprise here, as Sniper Elite 4's sniping is a little bit more complex than that. Quite how complex it is will depend on the difficulty you're playing on, but it's fair to say, there's more to it than in almost any other shooter. For starters, your scope will bob around as you breathe in and move - crouching will steady it, and going prone will steady it further, while pressing R1 (on the PS4) will let you empty your lung, temporarily steadying your scope while you aim at your target. On the easier difficulties, this also brings up a handy on screen marker, showing you where your bullet is going to go (roughly), turning red if it's going to hit the soldier, orange if it might (if it has enough velocity to penetrate whatever the soldier's hiding behind), or white if you're going to miss. On harder difficulties, you don't get any assists like this at all, and will instead have to judge the trajectory of your shot for yourself - including taking into account wind speed.
Even on normal, you can't just empty your lung and blast away - instead, you'll have to take account of how far away your enemy is. This is why tagging them with the binoculars first is a good idea, as that gives you a read out of how far away they are. By pressing right and left on the d-pad, you can adjust for distance in 100m increments, which in turn will give you a more accurate reading of where your shot will land, as your bullet will lose height over longer distances. It all sounds very complex - and to be fair, the game could do a much better job of explaining it - but by and large, there's just the right mix of authenticity and accessibility here to make this fun. If you really don't like the sound of having to do things by yourself, though, never fear - on easy, all the trajectory simulations are switched off, and your bullets fly straight and true, damning physics in the process.
Of course, if you want to be sure of getting the kill, you'll need to be careful with how you aim. Headshots are almost guaranteed kills - but just clipping someone's shoulder, arm, or leg may not kill them in one hit - and that gives them chance to raise the alarm. Luckily, if a shot's just that little bit too tricky to pull off, the resourceful sniper does have other options. Explosive barrels and ammo caches are a regular fixture at enemy outposts, while fuel tanks on nearby vehicles - civilian or otherwise can create a well placed explosion. Even better, you can even drop a nasty surprise on more unfortunate soldiers by shooting out a pulley or crane.
There's more to being a good sniper than just being able to hit the target, though, and Sniper Elite 4 has been designed to make you think about almost everything you're doing. Sniper rifles are loud things, and the more obvious your gunshot is, the more likely it is you'll get spotted. Luckily, there's often ample opportunity to disguise your shots, by firing at the same time as something loud happens in the level - whether it's a pair of Stukas flying around on patrol, or a railway gun firing off a shot. Timing your shots lets you pick off enemies without anyone noticing - and earns you a bonus, too.
Of course, convenient sound distractions are few and far between, so you can't cover all of your shots that way - unless you want to spend the best part of a day completing each level. However, there are yet more tricks up your sleeve. For starters, enemies will only be able to figure out where you are if they can triangulate your position - and to be able to do that, you'll need to fire off several shots from the same area. The more you move around, the harder it'll be for them to figure out where you are - or even how many snipers they're being attacked by!
Even if you do get spotted though, it's nowhere near as much of a cause for concern as it is on other stealth games. If the alarm should be raised, you have two choices. First, you can bunker down somewhere stealthy, and train your machine gun on the door, gunning down anyone who dares walk past before they have time to cry "achtung!". Turning the game into more of a traditional, Rambo-style shooter, it's a change of pace, but a welcome one, and it's great that the game doesn't punish you too badly for messing up, or being spotted.
The other option - cowardly though it may be - is to simply leg it. With the levels being as utterly gigantic as they are, simply hoofing it if you come under fire is always a viable choice, and you can almost always leg it to safety, before planning another route back towards your objective, and trying it all over again.
While it may tread the line between being a simulation and an arcade experience, though, Sniper Elite 4 is always keen to reward the player for playing in the "right way", with a persistent ranking system that sees you earning XP for almost everything you do in game. Shoot an enemy, XP. Tag an enemy, XP. Shoot a tagged enemy, bonus XP. Shoot an enemy while prone, bonus XP. Almost everything you can do earns you experience points - and as you level up, you'll be able to unlock new weapons, and new perks, including increased zooms for your rifles (which are a God send).
And, in true, traditional game fashion, the levels in Sniper Elite 4 are utterly stuffed to the rafters with collectibles to be found. Certain soldiers you kill will have letters or notes on them; buildings and desks often hide important files; enemy snipers will have reports, detailing enemy troop movements; and each level also has (at least) three stone eagle statues for you to find, and shoot. In total, there's over thirty collectibles to be found in each level - and with levels are large as this, you'll be hard pushed to find them all, even after several playthroughs.
Of course, it's not all good in Sniper Elite 4, but what few issues there are here are fairly minor. One of the main quibbles is the gore. Offering slow-mo, x-ray instant replays of your best shots, it's a cool feature, but one that perhaps pushes things that little bit too far, as it actually show your bullet entering your enemy's body, and penetrating their vital organs (eye, liver, lung, heart, intestine and testicle shots all get you replays). It's more than a little bit grizzly, and puts Sniper Elite 4 up there with the most stomach churning games of all time - yet somehow, this is only a PEGI 16. We've said for a while that PEGI ratings are a little bit weird, but putting something as gory as this into the same category as the Tales of and WWE games is more than a little bit weird. Luckily, the x-ray camera can easily be switched off with a menu setting.
To be honest, the gore is one of the reasons we've never really played a Sniper Elite game before - but the fact the game gives you the option to turn the x-rays off before you even start playing does make it a lot more palletable. It is, however, a bit disappointing that the much vaunted co-op mode is online only, meaning the game's co-op heavy Overwatch mode is inaccessible to those playing on their own. Similarly, the fact that getting on for half the game's sniper rifles are DLC extras also leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth.
Still, any issues we have are fairly minor compared to the bombastic fun on offer here. In all, Sniper Elite 4 is a very pleasant surprise, and one that's well worth picking up, as it'll keep you coming back for weeks. With huge levels to lose yourself in, satisfying semi-simulatory sniper rifle gameplay, and oodles of collectibles to hunt out, it's safe to say Sniper Elite 4 is a surprise we didn't see coming.