You’d think a stealth game shouldn’t share much in common with Mortal Kombat, but try telling Rebellion that. Sniper Elite III sees the return of its predecessor’s slow-mo, X-ray-vision killcams, which lovingly follow a bullet’s path from barrel to bollock. When a round hits home, skulls fracture and eyeballs explode. Lungs, hearts, testicles and the bones that surround them are torn asunder by hot metal. It’s shocking at first, but that soon wears off. Violence is a powerful thing, but so is the law of diminishing returns.
There is, thankfully, a lot more to Sniper Elite III than fracture porn. This is a game of surprising systemic complexity, one that ranks stealthy play far above running and gunning, giving you a spread of options to achieve the former and punishing attempts at the latter. Protagonist Karl Fairburne can’t take much damage, while being spotted means reinforcements arrive and enemies close on his position. This is, in many ways, an old-fashioned game – you’ll need bandages and medkits to refill your non-recharging health bar, and given Rebellion’s miserly checkpointing, you’ll quickly come to rely on a manual save system.
Yet there are a few new tricks beneath the surface, too. The result is a game that’s full of contradictions.
Take Sniper Elite III’s use of sound, for instance. Fairburne can use ambient noise – rumbling generators, or aircraft overhead – to mask the crack of his rifle. It’s smart, yet the general sound mix is anything but: with surround-sound headphones on, guards a hundred yards away and round a couple of corners speak so loudly that you’d think they were right on top of you. The AI is similarly uneven. When you’re spotted, enemy troops close in at pace, flanking your position intelligently. If one stumbles across a body and can’t find you, he’ll give up and return to his normal route after a minute or so.
As you guide Fairburne across WWII North Africa, you’ll bump up against invisible walls, fail to walk over ankle-high scenery, see tutorial text pop up 30 seconds late, have button presses ignored, and come up against a slew of bugs. We failed one mission for, apparently, shooting a general before he had retrieved crucial intel; we’d winged a guard on the other side of the arena.
Campaign missions are lengthy, packed full of optional objectives that smooth your progress, such as taking out searchlight operators or disabling vehicles. A levelling system doles out new kit for your customisable loadout, and there’s co-op and online multiplayer to contend with when Fairburne’s mission is complete. But content is no substitute for quality, and while Sniper Elite III might have made for an engaging design document, it isn’t much of a game.