A near-perfect run in most stealth games involves the player moving with confident purpose, weaving through scenery at speed, dodging NPC patrols, stealing silent through the shadows. There's reverence to the purity of a clean run, where no hair on a single enemy's head can be harmed lest that run be tainted. Most contemptuous of all are those moments when all hell breaks loose and bullets set sail with reckless abandon.
Sniper Elite 4 isn't like those other stealth games, though. Rebellion's long range shooter revels in the act of pulling the trigger, and it wants you to do so all the time, to the point of rewarding your kills with murder-porn x-ray kill-cams and points by way of prizes. Whether it be the muted thud of suppressed rifle fire, or the booming clatter of artillery used advantageously to drown out the sound of your shots, the emphasis here is on inflicting violence on your enemies and doing so with clinical accuracy and perfect timing.
They've made aggressive play more feasible by tightening up on some mechanics. The bullet physics have always been decent in this series (as they are again here, especially for those who turn off the various assists that make the game more accessible), and leading man Karl Fairburne feels more natural to control than ever before, and this improved responsiveness makes him more useful in a pinch, in those moments where everything goes wrong. And they will go wrong.
But it'll probably be fine, because even if the shit does hit the fan, Rebellion has given you everything you need to defend yourself. The gruff-voiced protagonist is capable at close, mid and long range, and he's got a variety of tools at his disposal, from traps to tricks and everything in-between, most with alternative functions to further boost diversity. As the name of the game so subtly implies, the emphasis here is on long shots of skill and daring, but at least it's good to know that when the action draws closer and you need to mix it with an onslaught of enemy soldiers, Sniper Elite 4 still stands up.
It helps that loading times between failed attempts are lightning quick, so even if you do mess up you're back in the action in no time at all. Similarly helpful is the fact that the AI isn't the sharpest. At times you can see guards scurrying around, patrol patterns all activating in unison, movement coming in short concerted bursts (it's most notable when guards are on high alert). Using your binoculars you can tag patrolling soldiers, granting the boon of seeing which way they're facing when consulting the intuitive mini-map. The enemy moves and behaves in a largely predictable way, and at times it can be a little exploitable. When things do get chaotic it's often easiest to retreat behind the nearest bottleneck and wait for trouble to come to you.
Rebellion's shooter certainly looks good, no longer held back by the shackles of old-gen consoles. The enemies aren't the most interesting you'll encounter, but given the period that's hardly a fault of the developers. You notice the lack of personality in the guards more because you spend so much time tracking them with either scope or binoculars. The levels they exist in, however, look good, are interestingly decorated, and are distinct from one another. There's surprising variety in terms of locations, something that becomes even more pronounced if you recall the dusty excursion to North Africa from the last outing.
The most impressive thing about the levels is their size. Careful players will find in each one a significant challenge to overcome, and there's a decent selection of optional side missions that if completed will bring the running time of the eight campaign levels to well over an hour each. The maps are huge, and the wide open spaces encourage you to whip out the rifle and scope out the opposition, planning your next moves with more tactical flexibility than your average shooter can muster.
Traversal of the world feels natural, and Fairburne can get around with relative ease thanks to a more polished movement system, but there's still work to be done and there are moments where actions don't feel as seamless as they could. He doesn't, for example, move with the same finesse as Sam Fisher, and when it comes to stealth-action, that's certainly the benchmark. The levels themselves offer more verticality, a welcome change, but also something that we'd have liked taken further.
We experienced a handful of crashes, this because for some reason a couple of auto-saves were corrupted (although the game saves very regularly, so it was a minor inconvenience). However, our chief complaint relates to the narrative. There is a story that emerges throughout the campaign, but it doesn't pack as much punch as we'd have liked. Beyond the wider events surrounding the imminent invasion of Italy, the story that holds everything together isn't all that compelling; given the grandness of the setting, that's a pity. Cutscenes are for the most part in-engine, usually initiated in base camp as you talk to your various comrades before each mission. All you can do is wander between them and initiate short scenes that add a bit of context to the upcoming mission, highlighting objectives and detailing side quests.
Looking beyond the campaign, Rebellion has bulked up the offering this time, with more multiplayer modes to entertain players once the campaign credits have rolled. There's surprisingly expansive co-op missions where one player (Fairburne) snipes and the other player (a fantastically British sidekick called Harry Hawker) moves around under cover to take care of those guards that can't be removed from range. You can also play the campaign missions in two-player co-op should you wish, changing the feel of a given level and allowing for a different brand of tactical planning. On top of that there's a wave-based mode for up to four players, similar to Nazi Zombie Trilogy but with a bit more depth and added challenge thanks to the fact these enemies have, you know, brains. Players guard an objective as waves of soldiers attack from all angles, and every third round sees the team relocate to a new defensive position.
Finally there's competitive multiplayer. Previous game types return alongside a more action-focused alternative. The new Control mode changes the formula somewhat, moving away from long range combat and bringing the action in a little closer. It's hard to gauge how the adversarial side of the game will feel and evolve when it's better populated, but everything seems to be in order and there's fun to be had here; it's certainly a viable alternative to all the fast-paced action we get from the traditional shooters.
For the fourth main entry in the series, Rebellion has certainly upped its game. Sniper Elite 4 is a complete package that offers a decent campaign, plenty of co-op action, and solid multiplayer. It marks a step up for the franchise, and the extra time that the studio took to apply polish to the final product certainly paid dividends. It's not perfect, the lack of a compelling story being the most notable omission (and the area that we'd like to see addressed in whatever Rebellion does next), and there are other areas that could be further refined. This isn't a subtle shooter, on the contrary, it revels in violence and glorifies warfare in a way that few other games dare, and some might find this approach a little distasteful at times. But for those with a stomach for the fight, and for fans of long range action, Sniper Elite 4 offers an expansive and engaging experience. Not quite a classic, then, but still another step in the right direction for both studio and franchise alike.