Somewhere, someone is having a goddamn blast with Sniper Elite 3. The game's location-based alert system is working as advertised, and the AI isn't alternating between abusive and easily abused. Sniper shots are zooming impressively through the cracks and crevices of the game levels, rather than crashing uselessly against invisible barriers. I know that's the case because every few missions, I would have a glorious run where everything went my way. The rest of the time, things didn't work out so well.
That makes Sniper Elite 3 a tough game to review, because I know some people will have no issues and wonder why I'm hatin', while others may think I'm going too easy on a hugely flawed game. In one instance, I sneaked through an entire facility undetected on my first try, like the ghost we all wish we could be in most stealth games. In the next mission, I was hit with a glitch in the game's relocation system, where players must get away from their last known position, except I couldn't, because my last known position was following me around wherever I went.
Glitches aside, sometimes the game fails to play by its own rules. I can't count the number of times I'd fire my sniper rifle under other loud noises to mask the shot, only to initiate an alert status anyway, or fail a mission entirely. Other times, I'd carefully sneak and spot my targets, only to be spotted by a distant sniper who wandered into view without any way for me to know about it. That's the difference between my trial and error stealth failures in Sniper Elite 3 versus other games — they were failures I couldn't anticipate or even explain, and it felt unfair as a result.
It's unfortunate, because the framework surrounding these frustrating moments is everything you'd want in a stealth game. Each mission takes place in a huge complex or base that you must infiltrate and explore while performing a series of objectives. The structure isn't unlike Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, except instead of one huge base, you're getting eight. It's hard to argue with that value proposition.
Beyond that you have access to a repertoire of gadgets like trip mines, noise-makers, and silenced pistols. The variety of tools helps to create a good balance between stealth and action, giving you plenty of options in an all-out firefight, but limiting your ammo and accuracy so that stealth feels like the better option.
The sniping mechanic is, of course, an integral part of the picture as well. The sniper rifle is easily your most powerful weapon, allowing you to kill just about anyone from any distance, but at the risk of alerting the entire area to your presence. Firing off one shot will get the attention of nearby guards, but if you relocate, you can fire again without setting off alarms. It’s a system that allows you to use a loud, powerful sniper rifle — blasting through enemy organs in slow-motion X-Ray-vision perspective — while still playing a stealth game. At the same time, the cycle of alerting and relocating can be easily abused. In one sequence my best option was to move between two sniper positions, picking off one guard at a time, with the remaining guards quickly forgetting why their friends were dead at their feet.
When sneaking doesn’t work out, sometimes it’s best to just set up somewhere and kill everyone from a distance. This was often a viable way to play the game, especially if I worked my way up to a designated sniper point ahead of time. The ability to alternate between cautious sneaking and gratuitous, bone-shattering, organ-disintegrating sniper madness is certainly one of the game’s strengths.
If you don’t get your fill of long-distance shooting by the end of Sniper Elite 3’s 6-8 hour campaign, you can take on endless waves in survival mode, grab a friend for some co-op, or snipe online in competitive multiplayer. There’s a charm to the occasional all-sniper FPS match that’s hard to deny, and Sniper Elite 3 delivers this in spades. Smart modes encourage the cat and mouse sniper battles you’d want, though with other shooters offering sniping as one option among several others, I can’t imagine being entertained for very long.
Without a strong setting, characters, or story to hold it all together, Sniper Elite 3 lives and dies on its gameplay mechanics. That makes every flaw with the stealth, AI, or sniping stand out that much more. Smooth controls, open-ended missions, and a diverse array of tools keep Sniper Elite 3 interesting. On the occasions when those elements fall apart, though, I was reminded that this isn’t a game to fall in love with, but to keep around when I wanted to pass the time.
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