Sniper Elite Phwoar: a Slapstick Masterclass of Bullet Porn

By Rich Stanton on at

When you get a hold of Sniper Elite 4, glance at the back of the box, and see these words - “Includes DLC Pack: Target: Führer!” - you know this isn’t going to be one of those terribly worthy stabs at realism. I remember being at a preview event for an EA shooter that was being marketed on 'respect for the military,' and listening to the special forces guy they’d hired extol the authenticity of a standard FPS template. The intersection of games and the military and current or recent conflicts is a fraught one, and can be crass indeed, but it’s something SE4 feels completely divorced from. The tagline under the DLC, again, says it all. ONE BULLET CAN CHANGE HISTORY.

How often have we done that? Yet here we go again with Jawman McArm, a killing machine in the form of a bland American, dropped off on the coast of World War 2 Italy with a variety of mission objectives that basically boil down to shooting people. SE4 is one of those games where, if you wanted to go for it, you could easily find stuff to criticise: the thirdperson movement isn’t quite as smooth as the competition; the environments may be more open than they’ve ever been, but they’re also full of inaccessible ramps and solid bushes; enemies can be functionally blind most of the time but, when you’re discovered, seem to gain Terminator vision; even the radial menu isn’t quite ‘sticky’ enough to make weapon selection sleek.

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And yet none of that matters because SE4 is a spectacularly weird game, a series that has clearly built a devoted following because of one mechanic that contains multitudes: the X-Ray bullet camera. The barebones description is that this is a slow-mo camera that, when you pull the trigger on a good shot, temporarily takes over the screen and follows the bullet fired - from various angles, with dramatic SFX - and then, as it hits the target, an ‘X-Ray’ shows the unfortunate soul’s skeleton and internal organs as they rupture and break apart from the awesome impact. Some might be thinking this is mere gun pornography, and surely it would be - were it not so freewheeling, outrageous, and funny.

Triggering ‘empty lung’ is the easiest way to get these X-Ray kills, a heavily-assisted form of aiming with its own slow-motion effect and targeting crosshairs - which makes you feel good for executing ‘difficult’ shots with a bit of help. It can absolutely save you from certain death, as in this snippet, where a few seconds of empty lung let me pull off three headshots in an ‘instant.’

I’m not one of those that especially enjoys brutality or gore, but I adore the combination of 'empty lung' and X-Ray bullet cams - because I don’t think it’s really either of those things. Whatever the original intention behind the two mechanics they have become a kind of glorious rat-king at the core of Sniper Elite, everything else holding together or leading up to it. The ability to line up shots in slow-motion initially is such a good fit for sniping, the extra little boost of zoom it provides just feels exquisite. The added targeting reticules could be considered overkill, but only if you think this is some sort of serious simulation: for me, everything's about waiting for that red box and pulling the trigger. Then the slow-motion short clips provide incredibly satisfying feedback after several seconds of lining up a shot. Beyond even this it's also temporarily removing the player from a stressful stealth-shooting game where they’re less powerful and numerous than the enemies, crouched in some grass near a massive fort.

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But practical considerations aside, SE4's slowmo headshots are a thing of aesthetic beauty. The camera often whizzes around the bullet, giving different angles and hovering over the sharp, pointed front end - before revelling in the bone-shards as the shot plunges into a skeleton’s forehead, following its passage through the grey matter, and lingering over the now-battered bullet casing as it flies out the other end. Look at the X-Ray skeletons, and you will notice they have permanently-surprised eyes. I know this might sound grim but you really need to see the eyeballs in action to appreciate how humorous they are - reminiscent of Mars Attacks! -  and the further cavalcade of comedy props that Rebellion has lined up around this feature.

Not many games are funny, is the truth, but SE4 is hilarious. I don’t say this in any way to diminish it. Maybe it's the way their bodies cartwheel backwards, limbs a-flopping. Sometimes it’s just outright slapstick, like the ‘ping’ of a helmet popping off - perhaps the game's single greatest feature is this sound effect. I defy anyone to watch this and not find it funny.

As the camera’s orgiastic delight in skull-splintering became clear, again and again, I found that I couldn’t stop laughing. I meant to try SE4 for an hour, and ended up spending several just in the first level. I started to savour the process, praying each time for those shots that make helmets go ping, and almost every time the X-Rays cropped up and showed a Nazi's anatomy crumpling and exploding all over the shop, I laughed again. This one was the first time I noticed how certain shots apply a black and white filter: very classy.

There’s such an effort to give these shots oomph. It’s not just the unblinking surprise in the X-Ray eyes or the splinters exploding out that makes the bullets feel so impactful, so ludicrously overpowered, but the great crack of the rifle and the whooshing SFX implying such awesome pace.

After a while, everything’s amusing. You can boobytrap generators in the levels and, while mooching around minutes later, you’ll suddenly be greeted by this.

These moments become not only the punctuation of your time in SE4’s world, but define it. At the start of this article I listed some of the game’s infelicities but, in those videos, you can see why it's one of those games where they eventually come to mean so little. The semi-open structure makes approaching and exploring the various checkpoints feel stealthy, feel assassin-y - but I’m only ever there for one reason.

It sounds sociopathic, but Sniper Elite 4 makes killing fantastically amusing. Perhaps some see a real-world link to these grinning skeletal marionettes, but to me they're as innocent as little boys mashing army men together. We often forget a great part of the adult experience, too, is the macabre, our fascination with death and mutilation, and our ability to impart humour to these situations - even in something so comically abstract. It’s funny how that works because, for a game all about up-close slow-mo highly-detailed kill shots, I spent several hours laughing and came away feeling alive. If you find other shooters a bit too weighty, a bit too conflicted about the simple joy of blasting some comedy villain, try pulling this trigger - and keeping a straight face while the heads explode.