Technology has caught up with the ambitions of Sniper Elite, finally letting it be the sniper sandbox it was always on the cusp of being. In this case those ambitions are giving you a giant sandbox where you can see a man's testes exploded by wrench.
The early Sniper games tapped into the fantasy of being a sniper in the middle of a chaotic conflict but the environments couldn’t shake the feeling of being linear — bombed out cities collapsed down into being wide corridors. Sniper 3 began to shake off that feeling but it’s nothing compared to the levels I was shown of Sniper 4.
The first, an Italian coastal town, was a picturesque vision straight from a tourist’s guidebook — except for the battalion of German soldiers, their trucks, and the hundreds of crates they seem to have littered the place with. Oh, and the gun battle going between German forces and rebels in the town square. Its colourfully painted buildings rise up with the slope away from the calm Mediterranean ocean, reaching a summit topped with a grand old church that backs onto a graveyard filled with statues and olive trees. Down by the coast, where you’ll start the level, is an old dock that gives you a view up the hill to the church. However, if you were to follow the coast to the south of the town it would take you up a road towards the hillside. An old light house sits up there that will give you a perch to view the whole town below.
Not only is it a big level to explore, it’s completely open. From your start down at the docks, you’re free to fight your way straight up to the partisan troops battling in front of the hilltop church; or you can sneak along the coast to the lighthouse; or, you could find your way around the town heading away from the lighthouse, ducking between the old boats and crates that are piled in front of fishermen's homes. What I’ve seen of the town itself it’s filled with buildings shot through with different routes and vantage points that give you the options and opportunities to approach the level’s objectives however you want.
Besides the space you’re given to play in, Rebellion has expanded the ways you can move and exploit the areas, too. It’s not Assassin’s Creed, but you can now climb up walls, shimmy along overhangs, and pull unwary soldiers off ledges. You can whistle to lure people to you or throw rocks at distant walls to draw them away.
If you want to play a sneaking game then your combat knife can be used for some quite brutal up close kills, with your character stabbing soldiers in the head, like something out of The Walking Dead.
There are other new tactics that let you play with the AI. For instance, the AI is now aware of the bodies of its comrades. Seeing a body will make them alert, it will check to see if they’re OK, and if it sees a lot of bodies in an area it will avoid it — recognising you probably have a bead on the area.
This more open world and new AI allows you to be a right, heartless bastard.
You can use these new AI smarts against the computer. You can booby trap bodies with landmines so any compassionate NPCs who go looking to care for the wounded will be blown up. And, if there are two paths to your position you can lay our bodies on one to encourage the AI to take the other path – straight towards where you’re lying in wait.
From what I saw of the level being played through, the AI has become a significant threat. As soon as the developer demoing the game fired the first shots he AI started to triangulate his position. Troops moved in to surround him and hounded him as he moved around the map. Once the AI’s been alerted it will never go back to its previous sedate state, so any time you’re spotted or heard then they will begin to move in on your position.
Again, as with the booby traps, you can use this against the AI. Escaping down the side of a building after firing a shot and leaving the AI behind searching for where you were as opposed to where you are. But usually they’re going to be a constant thorn in your side once you make yourself known.
The X-ray camera makes its return and now it doesn’t just activate when you shoot someone: environmental kills will set it in action, too. There was one point when the player had managed to climb up onto the second floor of a building where they could look down on a truck being repaired below. Rather than shoot the mechanic directly, the player shot at a fuel cannister next to a work bench. The blast sent a wrench so hard into the mechanic’s testicals that the camera slowed down and switched to X-ray as his testes exploded and his pelvis was pulverised under the impact.
So, it’s still a sniper game.
The second level Rebellion showed me was much, much larger than the first. It takes place in a long sweeping valley with forested slopes leading down to a lake. Crossing the centre of the map, over the lake, is a long train-track-bearing viaduct. I wasn’t shown this level in action, instead the developers gave me a flyby tour of the map. It is vast. More than a kilometre across. Rebellion is giving us a map that we can finally test the limits of how far away we can score a headshot.
Rebellion wasn’t talking much about the story of Sniper Elite 4 but the team’s chosen a really interesting point in history. In 1943 the allies hadn’t started their main advance into Italy so you won’t be entering a war-torn country. However, Italy wasn’t a coherent region at the time. There were lots of competing factions in the area: Italian Fascists, German soldiers, partisans, even the mafia were making an impact. I’m really hoping the campaign will take you between all these competing factions and let you steep yourself in the politics of the time.
From what I’ve seen of Sniper’s alpha build, Rebellion is trying things with the series I’ve wanted to see in a Sniper game for years. All the new features feel iterative but finally there's a space big enough to make use of them.