Ladies and gentlemen, Karl Fairbourne is back. The buff, very American super sniper makes his return in Sniper Elite 3, joining ranks with the allied countries during World War II to help them gather intel and scout areas of interest. Although, chronologically, this isn't a return as such. Sniper Elite 3 is set some-odd years before Fairbourne moves to Germany and Berlin, which is the setting for 2012's Sniper Elite V2. It's meant as a prequel to the previous game; but whether it supplies any background story you felt like you were missing in V2, is completely up to you to judge. The game works well as a stand-alone title.
Set in Africa, Sniper Elite 3 offers exploration of a part of WWII that has rarely been portrayed in games before. You play as hero of the day; Karl Fairbourne — a worldly man of war, who's probably been smoking and drinking for the bigger part of his life judging by the very deep and melancholic voice that he has. Being the brave, unafraid sniper that you are, you're sent in to help out with intel and support fighting the German Afrika Korps. You're soon embarking on a lonely journey — a man with his sniper rifle — in the stunning environments representing the North African landscapes.
The story is thin and heavily loaded with Hollywood clichés — you're the American hero, the loner with a tart response to everything. You're there to save the day. The dialogue is also very much anchored in clichés and cheesy words. It works, though it serves nothing new and is less than thrilling. It doesn't make you connect more to the historic era that the game has chosen to represent. It is as if it wouldn't really matter where the game is actually set, as the story is very generic and very black and white. In fact, the way Fairbourne takes out enemies up close looks more like something spectacularly brutal and co-ordinated you'd see a Black Water agent do, rather than a WWII sniper. As an historic shooter, the game seems very detached to the actual history.
In that aspect, your arsenal of weapons are more representative of the time period. You've got the famous guns from the era; such as the classic Carcano rifle and the Luger pistol. You'll encounter Tiger Tanks (which might be stretching it a bit, as they were first developed in 1942), an infamous tank used by the Germans during WWII.
You'll navigate through dry mountain passes, little clay house villages and rural farmlands. All of which are very neatly put together, as the level-design is very nice. You're more than often given the option to go up high for greater overviews, or you can keep to the main road for a head-on assault, or sneak through bushes, taking shortcuts for a surprise ambush.
The way the game shows the carnage that you're laying down is unique, and is one of the reasons the series has had so much attention. You'll witness your bullets perforate your target in slow motion, and with x-ray animations you'll see it blowing up their inner organs and shatter their bones. It's wrongly thrilling at first, but in the long run it's like watching a montage of only the gooey bits of a season of Bones, ending up feeling like you're missing important bits. You harden and what in the first couple of missions can probably be considered a blood-splattered reward for your stealth and tactic, soon becomes a overly violent feature that only attracts a yawn.
The game will, with its design, push you into playing more stealthy, taking your time and planning ahead. It does make the missions slightly longer, but it's also what sets Sniper Elite apart from other bigger shooters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. The gameplay, however, is very same-y; you move in, you snipe, you sneak, you extract the information you need or free the prisoner, you'll fight something big and then you're out — the missions are all roughly designed in the same manner. By the third or fourth mission you've seen almost everything the game will throw at you; enemies, levels and optional side missions. On the plus side, Sniper Elite 3 is clearly inspired by sandbox games and is attempting to leave its predecessors very linear and flat story telling, making it possible for you to go about things in your own way. Sneak up for close encounter action or stay comfy in your sniper's nest, taking out enemies from afar; anything will work to finish the mission, as long as you've got a rough idea of how you want to do things. This is where the game finds some of its strength — the tactical aspect is really appealing.
That said, this isn't a sandbox in which you can freely roam. Not at all. The maps are very much laid out for you and there's only so much you can do while exploring. Yes, you can tackle the maps in your own way and you're free to move around, but the bottom line is that you're still supposed to move from point A to point B, or do thing A to finish thing B and there's not enough to explore or do outside of that. Very often you even end up finishing the optional quests, whether you meant to or not, by just following the route and flow of the main mission. The game has some collectibles — diary pages and playing cards — you could spend time chasing down, should you want to or need to in order to finish the game to 100%. But other than that there's sadly very little of interest.
Still, all of the above aren't the main issues with Sniper Elite 3. The main issue is the inconsistency in animations and gameplay, and the irritating bugs. When the game in general looks as pretty as it does, stuttering animations and teleporting AI really stands out and quickly become a comical annoyance. Also the famous slow-motion kill animations are very inconsistent and choppy. Overall, the animations do not fit the generally great visuals of the scenery.
At times, you'll find yourself a happy sniper with a seemingly clear view of several targets; you'll take your time, aim, pull the trigger expecting a headshot... and invisible walls will bounce your bullets right off. Other times you'll find yourself in seemingly clear view, pull the trigger and the bullet will blow up in your face because you apparently were too close to the wall you used as a cover. If these incidents are more proof of how Sniper Elite wobbles on the edge of being linear or another example of poor animation is hard to tell. Again, even though there is a lot of freedom, seemingly you're still pushed into playing the game in the way in which someone else designed it to be played.
The audio work also seems off — you can clear a full room and its surroundings, and still hear NPC conversations. And don't be surprised if you overhear an enemy speak as if he was right next to you, when after further investigations he'll turn out to be several rooms down the corridor from your original position. It's sadly more common than not.
Adding to that, we've also experienced corrupted save files and problems starting the game — as pretty, poetic and calming as it is to watch a soft breeze run through grass for hours, it isn't something the game should force on you when all you want it to do is to load the game and get into the action. Hopefully this is something not everyone will encounter.
With the many issues the game still experiences, it kind of makes you wonder what the massive (16GB!) first patch really did. If there are plans for a fourth installment in the series, the developers will have to have a long good look at the waves of issues that the game is currently plagued by.
Sniper Elite 3 is an average game. The sneaking around, hiding, scouting and tactical aspects are very enjoyable. But it gets repetitive pretty fast, especially when the actual gameplay and the enemies don't really change. Serious technical issues are here too., as the stuttering, broken animations are annoying and so very hard to overlook. The game is really bipolar, featuring some clearly good elements but also some really rough ones. All-in-all, it's decent enough to pick up and play through a mission when you have a little bit of spare time, but not really something worth making the time for.