Sniper Elite 4 isn't a serious sniper game. There is something vaguely silly about it, and Rebellion knows it. They've leaned into it for the lifetime of the series, showcasing shots with Matrix style-rotating slow-motion camera angles, Mortal Kombat style X-Ray images of rounds passing through bodies and, of course, testicle shots.
It reminds me more of messing about on a mate's pool table than it does the meticulous and careful adjustment you might make in a 'real' sniper game. You're just cracking off shots and seeing what sticks in Sniper Elite 4 — while on higher difficulties you might feel compelled to try, messing around in coop is sandbox play, as you goof around with little care for the consequences.
Set in the Italian theatre of World War 2, the first thing I noticed was how much the preview level we were playing San Celini reminded me of the mediterranean level Sapienza from last year's Hitman. Just as it did in Sapienza, the colour palette of sandy oranges and bright sky blues creates this compelling canvas for you to create murderous art upon. The area in Sniper Elite 4 is massive, too, which is a nice change from Sniper Elite 3's long but narrow levels — here you start at one side of a large, round island and make your way across.
It's a fantastic change for the action sniping game, because it means you're able to attack objectives from a handful of different angles. Where in Sniper Elite 3 the idea of scouting a location was as simple as spotting high ground in a level, the multi-layered, canyon-riddled island of San Cellini forces you to continuously identify enemies, vantage points to fire from and items of usefulness about the place.
The series has always held player hands a lot, especially on lower levels, and it can feel like a necessary crutch at times. By pressing the focus button you're able to see where a bullet will drop to when you fire it, and the tiny diamond will even highlight in red when you have a kill shot, and I have mixed feelings about it. It eliminates a degree of skill, especially when you're going 'loud' for the first time. That initial shot that you take before the enemy is alerted to your presence (assuming you can't create the conditions to mask your shot with other noise) is about as close to simulation sniping as the game gets, and the addition of a focus diamond telling you where to aim negates a lot of the skill involved. The flipside is after the initial shot, after all pretense of stealth is dashed, the diamond is almost necessary — especially for new players who aren't yet accustomed to the shooting mechanics.
When you're trying to pick off a near overwhelming number of bad guys, the focus diamond is a huge help — even if you're not waiting for the diamond to turn red, it's a good idea to use it to get your eye in. If Sniper Elite 4 is like the other games in the series, the focus will disappear on higher difficulties, forcing you to judge distance on your own — and that's a good thing, but only if you're ready for it.
In my review of Sniper Elite 3
— which you should revisit if only for my amazing gifs — I noted that in co-op the AI was easily tricked and exploited but that didn't seem to be the case in Sniper Elite 4. They still seem to stick to zones around the (much larger) map, but they will trade aggro much more naturally now — in Sniper Elite 3 they were liable to get tunnel vision on whoever annoyed them first. I didn't get to chain together a series of wounded bait kills in Sniper Elite 4 — I couldn't tell if the AI worked out that I was trying to bait them or if it just didn't want to send more people out after my third bait shot.
Speaking of the zones, the areas the AI is trapped within seem much larger, and there's a decent chance they didn't make their way outside of their perceived zone simply because the area is large enough that they weren't aware of any need to move. The map got much bigger with the jump from Sniper Elite 2 to Sniper Elite 3, but the jump is bigger again from 3 to 4. It really does feel like a bite-sized open world for you to play around in.
One of the key things I spoke of in my Sniper Elite 3 review as that I thought the gimmick — the slo-mo X-ray kill cam — was wearing thin and wouldn't be able to carry another game, but it seems like Rebellion is genuinely committed to improving with Sniper Elite 4. And three years is enough time for me to want to get lost in a World War 2 game where I can explode Nazi testicles two-at-a-time — unless I'm shooting Hitler, available as a pre-order bonus, where I'll have to be satisfied with putting a hole in the ace.