Sniper Elite III (SE3) isn't what we think of as a good game. It betrays almost everything we've come to understand about what makes a game good. There's no consistency in the way it presents its world through gameplay, it almost deliberately teaches you how to play it wrong, the story it tells is idiotic, and it tells it via poor voice acting and bad cutscenes. The entire game exists solely to sell a single gimmick to players, and the gimmick itself simply perpetuates the myth that videogames are the domain of testosterone-fuelled teenage boys.
And I love it.
Slow-Mo X-Ray Kill-Cam as a gimmick has got to be one of my favourite things in all of games. It is the ultimate step in one of my least favourite gaming trends, both accepting the move towards cinematic gaming while adopting it in a way only possible in videogames. It aggressively rejects the idea that games before it were 'too violent' by showing gamers just how violent things can get. Violence has existed in games before, but it's never looked this good and this bad all at once. The 14 year old dickhead still lurking within me silently giggles as he lines up a shot at a man's testicles, and then the 30 year old I've become chokes back vocalised horror at what we've done.
Before you say it, I know this isn't the first game to do the whole Slow-Mo X-Ray Kill-Cam thing. I didn't think the three in the name was there for kicks, after all. If anything, though, that just goes to show how persistent the gimmick is -- three games in and I can still gleefully line up gut shots on nasty nazis with no sign of stopping.
With that said though, the lustre is fading on the one thing the Sniper Elite series does well, and it's becoming simpler to see all the areas where it fails.
For example, the storyline is a turd. The main character, generic american sniper dude Karl Fairburne, is gruff and competent and an American for reasons I don't quite understand. He's saving British arse all over the North African Theatre of War, but even when he succeeds (by way of you completing your mission) the Desert Fox still pushes the allied forces back. This is only part of the game's inconsistency -- the game and the game story seem to be separate entities.
The incongruous nature of the game continues as you play it. It's a common problem with stealth-focused games -- if they punish the player too harshly for failure to stay quiet, the game is less fun (for many people). On the other hand (and as it is in the case of SE3) if they fail to punish you at all most people will abandon any pretense of stealth to just run gung-ho through the game willy nilly. While the game leaves breadcrumbs to teach you to find the many very conveniently placed noise generators (which take the form of actual generators, in many cases) the player quickly learns on their own that being quiet doesn't matter.
This is because the game has increased the size of each level, which has two effects. One, missions in SE3 can easily take 40+ minutes to complete now. Instead of being a series of outdoor corridors as the levels were in Sniper Elite V2, SE3 allows players to approach the map in roughly an order of their own choosing. This is awesome, and exactly as it should be. Suddenly you're encouraged to explore the game world to find a suitable place to snipe from, instead of just pitching your tent near the first available open window.
There's an unfortunate side effect to this, however. Because the penalty for not being stealthy was a minor reduction in end of mission XP rewards and a small increase in difficulty, I didn't feel bad going loud if I found myself pressed for time. Stealthily sneaking around a massive open map and marking targets is cool when you've got hours available, but if you can knock it out in 25 minutes by running and gunning why wouldn't you give it a shot?
The reason running and gunning is a viable strategy ties into the second effect. SE3 establishes clear and seemingly rigid boundaries for its AI , which means as you sprint your way loudly across the map enemies will gradually forget you ever existed. This makes the giant map feel more like a series of tiny maps connected without loading screens, ruining the effect the team at Rebellion had strived to create.
Another thing you'd imagine larger maps would encourage is longer sniping opportunities, but unfortunately most shots in SE3 take place inside of 100m. The problem with short sniping is that bullet-drop physics don't really come into play over that distance -- especially seeing that the effective range of the rifles being used in the game is between 500 - 600m. Even wind doesn't have that grand an effect, because your enemies will present a large enough target to negate it. As a result both bullet drop and wind adjustments appear to be exaggerated in SE3 -- obviously the idea that SE3 would present some sort of sniping simulation was out of the question from the get-go, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.
The multiplayer is also a disappointment. The server browser has a "Refresh" button, but it acts like an Update List button, so trying to see if that full server has emptied up a slot is a pain in the arse. Most of the servers around only offer default options, too, which means the game is almost already dead online. The default options allow things like tagging and an insane amount of "Scope Glint", which ruins the human-vs-human sniper experience.
The problem is that I relish the idea of an Enemy at the Gates style game almost as much as I want to see slow motion X-ray bullet tracking shots. I have fond memories of multiplayer games that gave power to snipers, like Boarding Action in Halo, Embassy in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon or Bloc in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but too often in Sniper Elite 3 you're able to wipe out an entire team by running and gunning -- just as you would in singleplayer.
Co-op play is significantly better. You and a mate can either play through the entire campaign together -- though the campaign isn't balanced for two people and it's too easy to trick the AI's aggro into never shooting you. Better still, you can play a horde mode style game which gets progressively more challenging as the minutes tick by. There's just the right balance of competition and co-operation in the Horde mode, where you race one another in kills while also being forced to drop everything if one of you gets killed and needs reviving.
Sniper Elite 3 is an idiot savant of a game, excelling in one specific area while being almost obtuse in many others. I've praised it a lot, because I love playing it despite its shittiness, but Rebellion needs to know they can't ride this one gimmick forever. If it wasn't for that one brilliant thing it does -- Slow-Mo X-Ray Bullet-Cam -- it'd be the sort of game only your dad might pick up in a bargain bin sale, years after it released. Instead it's the KFC's popcorn chicken of videogames, literal trash you cannot stop cramming in your face.
Joab "Joaby" Gilroy is a huge fan of sports games, racing games, first-person shooters and 4X strategy games. He's awful at fighting and real-time strategy games although he'd love to get better. He thinks the Halo universe is hollow and that Arkham City was the real game of the year in 2011 and that AusGamers' managing editor Stephen Farrelly only gave Skyrim the nod because he is a filthy Marvel fan. His top three games of all time are (in no particular order) Deus Ex, GTA: Vice City and DayZ.