Sniper Elite III – Final Review

Sniper Elite 3 falters narratively, an inconsistent, dull plot dampening potential successes. Part of this narrative failing is attributable to a lack of any ambition; the entire story can be condensed into one succinct statement – weaken Axis presence in Northern Africa during the heart of World War II. No intrigue ever really emerges, and cutscenes overall are very sparse, mostly present in pre-mission briefings, which are delivered as boring monologues by the protagonist, Fairburne; dialogue is largely lacking. The nature of these briefings is rather mundane, being but a series of stylized images awash with muted, dull browns, where the relatively poor voice acting is on full display, destroying connectedness to the protagonist. This failing is so noticeable because of this singularity and narrowness of focus – it is Fairburne’s perspective only which is conveyed, and his exaggerated gruffness is far from endearing. There is a basic, formulaic framework here, which sees the hero navigate from map to map, largely lacking in environmental diversity, but still united cohesively. If there is a strength to the game’s story, it is its calculated narrowness; so many games – or even films – which have war as their background are epic in scope and bombastic in tone, seeing frequent, jarring jumps from campaign to campaign, more ambitious titles focusing on the Pacific front whilst also touching on matters in Europe. This increased ambition can hamper greatly narrative resonance, overreaching quite probable. Here, there is all Africa, for better or for worse. A compelling location, it is admittedly enjoyable to explore, even as the motivations driving that exploration are lackluster and unexciting.  

Part of this success is attributable to technical achievements – the draw distance is very high, while atmospheric fog effects seek to communicate the scorching heat of the environments explored. Similarly, there are striking, beautiful god rays, while the coloration of the craggy mountains, very red, also gives the visuals some flair. Still, those same atmospheric effects, paired with the larger draw distance, can make distant textures unappealing and cheap. In the very rare cutscenes which do play out, the poor facial modeling is made apparent, though weapon modelling is highly detailed. Still, this particular setting is novel, with sandy desert stretches and interesting, exotic architecture when the more urban environments are explored. Nighttime levels also increase diversity, the dark skies dotted with millions of bright, twinkling stars, while blinding search lights are perched in towering watch towers. Foliage is abundant, which actually serves a practical purpose, facilitating greater opportunities for stealth, which is a major component of the gameplay. Enemy design is repetitive, but surprisingly, the voice acting for these infantry grunts is not terrible, as they converse in a suitable German dialect. Indeed, authenticity abounds, with accurate, well-modeled firearms from the era, and realistic tank and artillery designs, which only increase immersion, though this immersion is lessened somewhat by the large mini-map; highly useful, it is thus highly consulted, drawing the eyes away from the action, becoming almost a dependency. A weapon wheel is also present, and it is very intuitive.

The satisfaction obtained when completing primary missions is occasionally high, though far more often frustration is evoked. Fortunately, this frustration is tempered by a wise gameplay decision – rather than relying on a checkpoint system, the game can be saved manually at any moment, meaning long stretches of effort are not discarded by a cheap death or faulty gameplay mechanic. It does remove a great deal of tension, but as the narrative was nearing its conclusion, I never felt bad about exploiting this system, desirous solely of completing the story, which is unexpectedly long in length, lasting roughly twelve or so hours. The nature of those twelve hours is highly repetitive and formulaic. There is the mentioned briefing, and then control is promptly given over to the player, nudging Fairburne to navigate through sprawling environments, all to satisfy one key objective. This pattern is followed to the last. An interesting aspect of the gameplay, though, is its organic nature, tied directly to exploration. Each mission does start with one central objective, but a handful of secondary quests are attainable – merely stumbling onto a specific portion of the map can open up more opportunities, while scanning distant objects with handy binoculars can have a similar effect. It is very compelling on the surface, though the practical reward for completing these objectives is nearly non-existent; essentially, the only reward is self-satisfaction at a job well done, knowing the Axis infrastructure has been weakened. Many of these secondary objectives – and even some of the primary ones – involve the destruction of one or several objects, to the extent that the player character is less a sniper and more a saboteur; constantly objects are destroyed, and while particle and flame effects are well-done, it seems bizarre from a gameplay perspective, that someone intended to complete objectives covertly could so easily embrace boldness and loudness in engagements. 

While there are these peculiar instances of boldness, the vast majority of the game is spent in stealth – for better or for worse. There are a handful of movement options afforded the player – walking is present, as is jogging, sprinting, and then a far quieter, laboriously slow, form of locomotion in crouch walking. Sound is critical to remaining detected, to an unbelievable, almost unrealistic extent, movement produced being exaggerated, quickly alerting nearby enemies if a swifter pace is maintained for any long interval. While there are those binoculars, which can mark a handful of opponents on the mini-map for more helpful tracking, inevitably not all enemies can be detected; oftentimes, I would move at a jogging pace, only to stumble upon a foe, already having compromised myself by way of footsteps. This results in a slower pace, movement through the environments perpetually spent in the snail-like crouched state. Line-of-sight is just as important as sound produced; remain in the gaze of an enemy too long, the meter will fill up rapidly. Fair enough. But the perceptiveness of these enemies is abnormal, detection occurring at an unbelievable distance. A useful prone position can be adopted, which oftentimes sends the detection meter retreating backwards, but the stealth systems are characterized by frustrating cheapness.  

This emphasis on stealth, adequate though it may be, marks another of the game’s failing, morphing it into a totally generic title – this is game about an elite, highly talented sniper, and yet there is the repeated destruction of infrastructure, the slinking through cramped, claustrophobic bunkers and forts; originality is lacking, while stealth options suffer from a similar dearth. In completing the slow, laborious trek to the rear of an enemy, a brief takedown animation ensues, seeing his swift death. Beyond this fundamental mechanic – and a few novelty items like a trip mine, which is generally more useful against vehicles – the only reliable tool for stealth is a silent pistol. In the base game, there is only one such variety of weapon, the single-shot Welrod. In a DLC weapon pack, a secondary silent weapon is unlocked, a semi-automatic pistol with a larger magazine size. Often unreliable, they can be highly difficult to aim, resulting in frequent frustrations – and reloading of saves. One missed shot can result in detection, while the recoil patterns for the guns are a bit excessive, the crosshair taking ages to reset. Something as simple as a first-person aiming system would have done wonders for the stability of gameplay, which is already lacking in depth as an entire class of weaponry is made valueless – automatic weapons are unlockable, but their use is heavily discouraged, as such a bold, loud approach is often punished heavily, while the variance in power from rifle to rifle is miniscule.   

The sole way where the game could display its originality is through its sniping mechanics, which are never fully capitalized upon. Playing through the game on the second-hardest difficulty, there is profound depth here, even as arcadey systems are never fully departed with. Things like bullet drop must be considered, while wind direction and wind speed are other, more minor objects of consideration. But for the majority of the time spent sniping, Fairburne’s breath will be held, which steadies the sway of the rifle, also giving a completely accurate indicator of the bullet’s trajectory and ending place. This overreliance and excessive assistance does cheapen the sniping somewhat, though simultaneously escalating the self-satisfaction evoked when an enemy at considerable distance is slain without these artificial aids. There is a very detailed kill cam of sorts, following the path of the bullet as it flies through the air, before affording a visceral view of the projectile as it passes through an enemy, showing the destruction of organs and bones in a very violent manner. It is an amusing system for the first handful of times it is witnessed, but it swiftly grows intrusive, only serving to slow down the action; I skipped this kill cam quite routinely, only viewing it if the target was at a very vast distance. Environmental noise can be manipulated to mask the firing of the rifle, adding another layer of complexity – a plane flying far overhead, waiting to drop its load onto some distant, unsuspecting enemies, muffles the firing sound if the shot is timed precisely. Generators can be tampered with, which also provide an aural shroud. But even these systems are inconsistent – one minute the plane will produce ample noise, while the next there is none; their movement pattern is erratic and unpredictable. What’s here is impressive, but it is drowned out by the high emphasis placed on traditional, unoriginal stealth encounters.

When scenarios are perfect for protracted sniping – when mundane stealth is departed with – the game shows its potential for greatness. There are a few instances in the campaign where an overwatch sort of role is adopted, seeing the occupying of a sniper’s nest at considerable elevation, with clear sight-lines on the enemies moving about below. Landing shot after shot is highly satisfying, seeing the foes collapse to the ground, defeated, bloodied, and broken. In these instances, it is very arcadey, which almost contributes to the high enjoyment factor, given the contrast – while satisfying to play cerebrally, timing each individual shot in accordance with external sounds, it is more satisfying to adopt a more predatory angle, maintaining a concealed position whilst also dispatching distant enemies. In certain instances, there are even counter-snipers, who expectantly pose a considerable threat, their decease becoming a high priority. Highly tense, these encounters only serve to illustrate the flaws present in many other aspects of the game’s design. One moment, there is calculated sniping and bold sniping, each unique and enjoyable in their own manner. The next, there is the destruction of heavy vehicles and military infrastructure, the slow slinking through corridors, both unfun and generic, though present in a painful overabundance. The concluding level also exemplifies this split in focus, opening in a large, engrossing environment, with many sight-lines, and a number of enemies who can be picked off at range, made vulnerable, their movement funneled as one sole bridge is the only avenue towards the player; countless enemies are slaughtered, and Fairburne shows his talents – here he is a sniper. Then, a massive bunker is explored, and the game again devolves into rote stealth. Alternately good and bad, this mission exemplifies every aspect of the game, which ends in a very unsatisfactory manner; the ultimate antagonist is defeated, his elaborate war plans thwarted and destroyed. Fairburne, triumphant, walks away nonchalantly, already planning his next mission and next target, seeming a heartless mercenary rather than a compelling, relatable human being.              

Much of the game, then, is heavily hit-and-miss. The sniping mechanics are elaborate and commendable, even as some hand holding persists through the optional zoom method. The frequency of these engagements is unfortunately far too small, the game instead abandoning them to adopt more unimaginative systems, with a high dependence on stealth encounters, functional but worsened by cheap, abnormally perceptive AI. Narratively, too, the game is unambitious, not an objectively bad thing, as the narrative structuring here imparts a certain grounded atmosphere which contributes to the game’s originality, as does the African environment, fairly repetitive but technically and creatively commendable. Exploring the maps – large as they are – is an overall rewarding experience, though it is of a different sort of gratification, lacking in tangibility, the journey better than the destination. The level of carnage inflicted is immense, upwards of sixty enemies dispatched in a single level. More rewarding is knowing those deaths were achieved without firing a machinegun or anything of the like – here there is crouch walking, silent pistol firing, and booming sniper shots, fired at the precise moment. These successes in sniping are remarkable, but the game is let down by its generic tone and its generic gameplay systems, potential uniqueness and resonance squandered.

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