It's been seventeen years now since we first got a taste for Rebellion's superlative Sniper Elite series and, in the years that have followed, it's a franchise that has steadily grown and evolved into a sure thing, a safe bet, in terms of serving up slick, satisfying and highly replayable slo-mo sniper action for fans of exploding skulls and X-Ray testicle shots alike.
As fun as it's always been, this is a series you can sense has been restlessly shifting over the years too, as it attempts to find some sort of perfect balance between its sneaky stealth shooting and the all-out action gameplay that results from best laid plans gone awry. The Sniper Elites of old, for us at least, were save-scummy affairs first and foremost, games we simply had to play a certain way, remaining as a ghost as we spirited through enemy lines, picking off grunts, officers, generals and celebrated Nazi bastards. Being detected in any way meant an instant revert to a previous save and, although we've given in to some of the more bombastic aspects of the game as Rebellion has finessed the mechanics and AI around "going loud", we've never really been 100% comfortable outside of a pure stealth route.
And so it is that Sniper Elite 5 really does feel as though it ushers in a new era for the series. This isn't just the best looking adventure that Karl Fairburne's ever been on, it doesn't just have the biggest, most free-flowing levels this developer has ever put together or the most convincing enemy AI in the series to date. No, the big change here, the change that makes this feel like Sniper Elite firmly planting both feet in the top tier once and for all, is in the underlying flow of the game and how its merged with mechanics that, for the first time, really do allow for you to seamlessly switch things up between stealthy sniper ghost and absolute Rambo party time without deteriorating into a situation where you'll reach for that reload button.
This is an entry that cleverly steps back on some key aspects of what's been added to the franchise over the years, most notably removing much of your ability to work under a constant blanket of sound cover. Sniper Elite now feels as though it wants you experience the heat of close-quarters encounters, the tension of having to constantly relocate from enemies as you search for routes forward, as much as it does the thrill of coolly picking off an elite Nazi Sniper from several kilometres away - and this is a decision that fundamentally alters the basic rhythm of the game for the better.
As good as Sniper Elite 4 was, and it was very good indeed, it too often allowed you to sit back, to settle into a slow routine of just waiting for a big blanket of noise to arrive in the form of AA gunfire or a passing plane and then clearing out your enemies from range, rinsing and repeating until the numbers were sufficiently thinned. Here that clockwork rhythm is interfered with, and it makes for a much more free-flowing experience that forces you to pull up your inventory of tricks and traps and get stuck into using them in tandem with your surroundings in order to pull through.
Yes, you can still slowly and meticulously work your way around the labyrinthian levels on offer here, ensuring that nobody ever lays an eye on you - you can even choose to pacify or use non-lethal bullets and traps if you think you're hard enough - but it feels more organic this time around and getting caught out more easily allows for a change of plan in the heat of the moment, with slick and quick transitions from whiffed silent shots to CQC takedowns. Much work has been done over the years to make the all-out action elements of Sniper Elite feel viable but it's always been a little too clunky for comfort in our opinion, until now. Going loud, when the occasion calls for it here, feels as slick and smooth as moving from cover to cover and silently picking off your foes from the shadows.
Your choices with regards to the weapons and gadgets you can tool around with during missions are enhanced to an impressive degree here too with the inclusion of workshops dotted around environments that allow you to unlock and equip new scopes, stocks, barrels, triggers, suppressors and so on, making for a game that offers you every incentive and opportunity to experiment freely with how you to choose to go about taking on its challenges. At its best Sniper Elite 5 feels like a great big action-packed puzzle game stuffed full of challenges to be solved as stylishly as you possibly can. It's incredibly addictive stuff.
It helps that enemy AI also feels the best it ever has in the series' history, not so sharp-sighted that you can't move from cover without being seen, but smart enough that they'll be on to you quickly should you make even the slightest of gaffes. It's been a bit of an ongoing issue of ours with this franchise, that it can be hard to read whether an enemy's going to be able to see you or not when you move from cover, it's often felt a little random in this regard, but this time around it feels perfectly balanced and consistent. On the game's default difficulty enemies are a satisfying challenge, clever opponents who are a ton of fun to engage and toy with, and there's lots of adjustable sliders in the settings menu that allow you to dumb things down or ramp things up to the point you're having to consider a wealth of variables before pulling the trigger on a shot, from the Coriolis Effect to how hard your heart's pumping after running for an extended period of time.
In terms of the levels on offer this time around, it feels as though Rebellion really has gone all out with a campaign composed of non-stop bangers. From a thrilling opening in Colline-Sur-Mer to a close quarters episode in Chateau De Berengar, an incredibly atmospheric jaunt through a nightmarish Nazi industrial complex and a showstopping visit to a Spy Academy level that may just be the best location in the entire series, Sniper Elite 5 just never lets up. Each and every one of these locations - thanks to some fancy "photogrammetry" graphics shenanigans - looks absolutely incredible and, as you sneak and/or storm through them, you'll pick up intel, overhear conversations and stumble upon info that dynamically adds to your objectives list. You'll arrive in one location charged with taking out a huge radar array, for example, but as you progress and explore your environs, other missions and opportunities to help the resistance appear on your map. You could - and we did - spend hours in each location here, soaking in the atmosphere, lapping up collectibles, carefully studying Nazi enemies and investigating every outhouse, ruin and underground bunker for opportunities to complete objectives in new and exciting ways.
There are new mission starting points to find and unlock as you explore too, allowing you to restart chapters from fresh staging areas, and this very Hitman-esque inclusion isn't the only thing about this latest entry that reminds us of IO Interactive's stellar stealth series. Sniper Elite 5 really is of comparative quality; there's a similar commitment to exacting detail within its environments and enemy routines, and a complex clockwork mechanism at the heart of each and every level here that constantly reminded us of our most recent adventures with Agent 47. It really is that good. Yes, the actual plot is the same secret weapons and experimental facility nonsense that it's always been, and the cutscenes are still pretty rough around the edges, but when your boots are on the ground here, when you're crawling slowly through enemy lines or laying prone in some tower and using your scope to ascertain a safe route forward, this is as tense, as thrilling and as tactical as action games tend to get.
Of course the whole campaign here is also playable in online co-op and there's a brand new PvP Invasion mode to get stuck into this time around, which we've found to be a pretty thrilling addition to the core gameplay so far. Invasion mode sees you invading, or being invaded by another player, in the guise of an elite Nazi sniper, with invading players using the eyes and ears of Nazi soldiers around the map to ascertain the whereabouts of their prey, whilst as an allied solider you'll need to use phones dotted around levels to get a read on where your foe may be hiding. Every mistake you make, every alarm you sound or loud shot you fire off as an allied soldier trying to get through your mission objectives gives your sniper foe a read on your location here and, although we're glad this mode can be turned on and off, it certainly adds a ton of tension to gameplay when you know you're being stalked by an actual human player.
We've had a limited amount of time to spend with Invasion mode so far, but we have managed to get involved in a few protracted duels and it feels like the kind of mode that will really come into its own in the long-term once hardcore players start to sink their teeth into it. Add a co-op survival mode and a bunch of other multiplayer offerings to the mix here and you're looking at a huge offering all things told.
In terms of negatives, well, we did encounter a few bugs here and there, with enemies rag-dolling through scenery, one occasion where Karl decided to disappear into the floor and a bug that saw us unable to reload our sidearm until we switched it out for another, but considering the size, scope and intricacy of the levels on offer here these things feel like pretty small niggles in the grand scheme of things.
Overall then, Sniper Elite 5 feels like a real high-point, like the long-running series reaching its full potential at last. Its predecessor got close, for sure, but this time around everything just comes together that little bit more seamlessly, resulting in an action game of truly epic scope, one that delivers hugely addictive, highly replayable slo-mo sniper action that we're planning to explore and enjoy for a long time to come.
Sniper Elite 5 is the very best entry in this long-running franchise to date. Karl Fairburne's latest WW2 adventure effortlessly mixes jaw-dropping campaign environments, improved close quarters combat and ruthless enemy AI, resulting in a game that puts this series firmly into the top tier of action titles once and for all. With highly replayable missions stuffed full of secrets and side quests, a clever new PvP Invasion mode, full campaign co-op and a ton of unlockables and multiplayer modes to dig into, this is a hugely entertaining offering that's sure to delight long-term fans and new recruits in equal measure. It's time to get to work perfecting those slo-mo X-Ray ball shots.