Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts – Final Review

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is painfully generic in all aspects of its design, and this genericness is most observable in the title’s narrative, wholly unoriginal and lacking in any real innovation or ambition. Worsening this genericness is the barebones nature of the narrative, merely existing as a framework for the gameplay, which is prioritized to the last. Efforts at world-building are certainly present – the narrative unfolds in the vast wastes of Siberia, that region recently declaring its autonomy, an autonomy which instantly embroils its citizens in hardship and oppression – but beyond these aspirations, all around the narrative is disastrous. Inoffensive, certainly, but disastrous, being far too basic and lacking in any real intrigue to engage the player. The playable character is the masked, enigmatic Seeker, a bounty hunter of sorts who is contracted by an unknown, faceless entity to engage in a series of contracts, many of them involving assassination or the acquisition of some valuable object or intel. The Seeker’s backstory and motivations are never communicated, again dampening potentials for player / protagonist identification or emotional resonance; vagueness – and laziness – abound. The narrative which is present is confined almost exclusively to pre-mission briefings, typically brief cutscenes no longer than a minute or two in length, boasting basic, uninspired imagery, being derivative and unoriginal; they are devoid of any creativity or visual flair. In these briefings, the precise nature of the missions’ objectives is communicated to the player – travel here, kill this individual, retrieve this object – and then they end just as soon as they began. Efforts at conveying the menace of the assassination targets is present, perhaps in efforts to justify or incentivize their murder, but ultimately it is difficult to care about any of these characters, Seeker included. These targets may engage in acts vile, may exploit the populace for their own personal gains, but never speaking, never showing even the slightest depth, they are non-entities, people existing solely to be killed. The narrative suffers further from the lack of any larger, central antagonist, who could impart a sense of narrative focus; the absence of this figure results in a disjointed narrative, and all around the narrative is characterized by monumental failings.  

Even if the peoples inhabiting the Siberian wastes are underdeveloped, flawed, and lacking in any real characterization, the environments themselves are universally fantastic, abounding in beauty and diversity. The game is sectioned into five distinct maps, each possessive of their own distinct identity – no two environments are identical, some completely divided aesthetically. The largeness of these maps only heightens the joys of exploration, and collectively, they expertly capture what existence in Siberia might entail. Frigid atmospheres are expectantly embraced, with frigid, blustery winds, frozen over rivers and streams, sometimes towering glaciers of an icy blue, while blue generally has a prominent presence, fostering an almost tranquil atmosphere. The opening environment after the tutorial is of this frigid sort, and transpiring in the dead of night, where visibility is greatly lessened, greatest light coming solely from the bright moon shining overhead, is especially atmospheric and moody. Reflecting realism should the player submerge themselves in the regions many streams, ice clusters will appear on the screen, while the player’s health depletes at a fairly rapid rate. And then, the blues, the rivers, the snows, and the glaciers are left behind, as a decidedly different environment is promptly explored. Here is vibrancy, with a notable abundance of oranges and reds, foliage overtaking all. Humidity is expertly captured here, the air seeming steamy, and, with the sun high in the sky, greater visibility is present, this in turn revealing the game’s rather excellent draw distances. Distant textures are expectantly lacking, but the scope of the levels, and Siberia broadly, is conveyed by this draw distance. Everywhere is openness, as interior environments are very infrequently explored; claustrophobia, its unsettling after-effects, is spurned, an emphasis on player freedom and flexibility instead present. Verticality generally is of great importance in this world design, evoking dramatic sensations, while also serving a gameplay function, as, once a position of some elevation is obtained, the player is bestowed with a strategical advantage, as evinced in one mission, where a lighthouse is scalable. From this vantage point, the environments’ beauty is made readily apparent – all around is lushness and vibrancy. Owing to this relative technical excellency and surprising abundance of creativity in level design, among the game’s greatest moments is the ponderance of what precisely comes next – will the environment being frigid or bathed in sunlight? A great sense of childlike wonder is present.   

Ultimately, it is the gameplay which matters most; it is the gameplay which has received greatest attention. The mechanics present are personally very divisive, the general gameplay experience largely one of frustration though occasionally punctuated by moments of incredible brilliance and enjoyability – the combat and environmental navigation can be exhilarating, though that exhilaration is tempered by the game’s greatest failing – enemy A.I. The opposition is unfairly perceptive, that perceptiveness resulting in a certain cheapness, as the foes can become alerted, and with great rapidity, in situations where, realistically, they would remain oblivious. This failing is a monumental one, especially when considering the game styles itself as a stealth experience. For stealth games to work properly and maintain persistent enjoyability, then the stealth mechanics underpinning the game must be solid and consistent, true to life though maintaining somewhat of a forgiving aspect. Contracts realizes none of this, and it is a stealth game with very poor stealth mechanics. Secrecy is prioritized by the inclusion of especially deadly opponents, but it is difficult or downright impossible to maintain that secrecy for any protracted span of time, as the player is forced to grapple with this cheap A.I., with cheap and shoddy controls. The most depressing aspect of these failings is attached to the repeated displays of potential, the periodic emergence of greatness. Given the frequently brutal nature of the gameplay, meanwhile, a heavy trial-and-error gameplay dimension is present, the player oftentimes forced to replay certain scenarios countless times over, making steady albeit slow progress; it is a slog, and success in these especially elaborate, challenging scenarios evoked not a sense of triumph or adulation, but relief that the objective was completed, that progress could again be made. Check-points, while present, are not exactly abundant, and their scarcity only amplifies the game’s more frustrating aspects, as countless minutes can be wiped away in the span of seconds; the game would certainly have benefitted from a manual save system, which would not only increase convenience but might also encourage player experimentation. The A.I., then, marks the game’s greatest gameplay failing, destroying potential player enjoyability. Poorly implemented check point systems also erode gameplay strengths.

Contracts’ greatest gameplay novelties are of course attached to its sniping systems, rather engaging and satisfying. Efforts at realism are present, as the player is forced to grapple with external factors such as wind and bullet drop, that former concern oftentimes being the greatest determiner of success in landing the shot, in dropping the intended target. A rather steep learning curve is in place – in the game’s tutorial level, it was difficult to connect with a distant target, even as it was completely stationary. Towards the end game, however, once the mechanics have been learned and mastered, the system truly comes alive; just as player skill escalates, enjoyability escalates accordingly. Bullet drop is never as drastic as might be expected, not being some grave concern unless firing at an incredibly distant target, where compensation is oftentimes immense. Wind direction is communicated subtly, a small indicator emerging whilst gazing down a scope; it is clever, functional, intuitive, and completely unintrusive. Missing a shot, assessing why precisely it missed, and then firing again with this information in mind – it is richly satisfying, and the moments immediately after pulling the trigger are almost nerve-wracking: will the bullet connect or miss? The consequences of a missed shot are of course immense, owing to the cheap A.I., so relief inevitably emerges when the shot lands. The act of sniping is glorified by the inclusion of a cinematic, if rather intrusive, kill-cam system, which follows the trajectory of the bullet as it whizzes through the air, the cam ending with the bullet’s impact, ending also in an oftentimes especially brutal fashion, as the violence can be visceral, over-the-top, the opponent’s head or limbs literally blowing apart. It is a stylish inclusion, and fortunately it is not present upon every kill, emerging frequently yet sporadically, unpredictably. The game’s sniping sequences excel most strongly whenever a predatory role is adopted, such as when an especially elevated vantage point is obtained. Picking off distant targets, watching them move about nervously in their panic, is an immensely empowering sensation. Efforts to counter that predation are also present, some enemies having access to mortars, which can easily decimate Seeker if he is anywhere in their vicinity. Redirection becomes a necessity, perhaps the player’s greatest tool, and seeing mortar fire rain down from the heavens upon a previously occupied location, while in a new location of complete security, further results in empowerment; cleverness and locomotion are rewarded, and they directly tie into success as a sniper; it is not solely about the act of firing, but choosing where precisely to fire from. Many tactical and strategic freedoms are here afforded the player, and it is within the sniping where the game finds its greatest identity; it is exclusively within the realm of sniping where the game innovates.    

A secondary strength lies within the game’s progression systems, rather robust and unique in construction. Initially, these systems can seem needlessly convoluted, four distinct currencies on offer, each distributed in accordance to the nature of the action completed. Most abundant, and central to purchasing all objects within the gameworld, is traditional cash, awarded upon the completion of any activity, while a small source is also lootable from the corpse of a fallen foe; it is in abundance, while this cannot be said of the other currency types, oftentimes difficult to acquire and in short supply. One such currency stems from the acquisition of various collectibles scattered about the various environments. Their locations are explicitly conveyed within the map screen, and while they are never challenging to acquire, it can be rather tedious to deliberately go out of the way solely for their attainment. This precise currency is expendable upon weapon attachments, while an additional currency, awarded for completing the game’s larger contracts, the most elaborate affairs, is expendable upon weapons, themselves. The arsenal is large and diverse, comprised of a myriad of sniper rifles, while the selection of handguns is also robust. Assault weapons are also purchasable, but they are functionally useless when considering the game’s design, the aspirations for stealth; not a single such weapon was fired in the entire campaign, nor was any such weapon purchased at all. But the most crucial currency is distributed only when completing predetermined challenges, oftentimes very brutal and difficult to fulfil, boasting odd demands. This currency is so heavily cherished because it is used to purchase the more advanced skills present within the game’s skill trees, which are impressive inclusions, despite their great, restrictive linearity. The entry level skills, while useful, do not alter the gameplay in a dramatic or substantial manner. But the deeper skills can drastically alter gameplay, meaning that the completion of challenges is incentivized. It is all very clever design, despite the superficial pointlessness of these complexities. Completing a challenge, knowing all the while that such completion means more powerful skills – it is immensely engrossing and satisfying, as the Seeker grows in his abilities, capable of tagging and tracking enemies through walls, or hacking and disabling various objects in the game world, oftentimes threatening and devastating; the end game is decidedly detached from the narrative’s opening. Considerable depth is present here, though a failing is present when further considering the weaponry, choice of armaments largely being pointless – success is achievable with virtually any model sniper rifle, this fact lessening the joys which would normally be present when purchasing a new gun – theoretically, the opening sniper rifle could be employed throughout the entirety of the campaign, lessening also the need for greater experimentation.  

Contracts has great aspirations for gameplay depth, aspirations which are occasionally though not always realized. Sniping is especially enjoyable, being intuitive though all the while maintaining an air of challenge, demanding thought and concentration, such thoughtfulness and concentration oftentimes being richly rewarded. The progressions systems, also, are abounding in depth and flexibility, even as certain skills serve no or slight practical purpose, being mere stopgaps towards the purchase of more powerful abilities. But outside of these systems is a pervasive sense of shallowness, as illustrated in the narrative, unintrusive and devoid of any intrigue, devoid also of any compelling characters or stirring motivations – narratively, everything is bland and derivative. More development of the Seeker, more development of his contractor, would easily elevate the narrative, though it is not to be. The largeness of the maps is indeed admirable, while interestingly a fast-travel system in place, reflecting modern games’ valuing of convenience, cutting down sharply on the tedium, though this function was rarely used, in that some of the game’s greatest moments arise in tranquility, as those same environments are navigated, where the rich attention to detail is more easily apparent. The game’s greatest influence is also easily observable – Dishonored, that masterpiece of a game, which similarly experimented with environmental largeness and player freedom. But where that game exceled, this game fails, as it is devoid of Dishonored’s gameplay depth and abundance of charm, seeming at times a lackluster knock-off, offering barely anything which is novel. Environmental story-telling is tragically absent, and while the Siberian wastes are frequently beautiful and populated by dozens of enemy forces, the gameworld generally seems hollow and lifeless, being but an empty husk. Contracts oftentimes fails in its mimicry of that earlier title, though it does succeed in achieving a great degree of replayability, while a great deal of content is on offer here. All missions can be replayed at any moment, attacked with new tools, new skills, and new knowledge, those three things making more easy the challenges, making more enjoyable the experience. But for most players, one playthrough is likely sufficient – assuming completion can be reached at all, frustrating design decisions making incompletion a tangible reality. The state of the A.I. is unforgivable, cheapening and ruining the title, a sorrowful admission – were this one slight, easily fixable problem remedied, the game might actually soar, for it certainly possesses the capabilities to soar – an excellent framework is in place. But the beautiful environments and occasional gameplay depth cannot salvage what is otherwise disastrous; the game is incapable of shaking off its derivative nature – everything here, save perhaps the sniping, has been done countless times over, and better. Lingering enjoyment despite this unoriginality is present, though frustration and disappointment are far more abundant.

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