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Monday, October 29, 2012

Sniper Elite v2 (7.9/10)

Fans of modern shooters will always have their favorite toys to play with out there on the battlefield. Running in head first with a shotgun is the preferred method for some, others like the challenge of pistols, still others are happy with the standard assault rifle. But one thing is virtually universal: looking through a scope at an unknowing target elicits a supreme feeling of superiority. But there is a caveat that all gamers know: there is a distinct difference between enjoying playing the sniper role and being good at it. As a result, sniper missions have become a reoccurring theme in campaigns, and, as such, have become something of a cliche. So it's refreshing to play a game designed around sniping, and one that does it well to boot: enter Sniper Elite v2, the sequel to a classic on the original Xbox.

Sniper Elite v2 takes place during WWII. You play as a sniper trying to take out key members of the German v2 rocket program... and anyone else who gets in the way. Few people know just how close the Germans were to creating what was essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile, and thus having the ability to target Washington or New York. Your character is forgettable, but war torn Berlin isn't. The story is relatively clever, especially if you know much about the fall of Berlin at the hands of the Soviets. I appreciated the sense of isolation the game conjures; I really felt like it was just me against insurmountable odds, but the importance of my missions meant failure wasn't an option.

The idea of one shot kills is nothing new, but Sniper Elite v2 takes the art to a whole new level. More than anything else you have to be patient, just like a real sniper. Learning to wait is essential, and not just in terms of learning the paths the guards walk. I've met a few true snipers in my day, and you wouldn't know it by looking at them. It takes a special kind of person to do such a job. Waiting for the opportune moment isn't always easy, especially if you are on a time frame (like someone being escorted to a car, for example). As you up the difficulty, you need to be fully aware of realistic physics: things like bullet drop, wind, etc. The importance of using cover and staying out of sight has rarely been as rewarding. Taking a shot, then sneaking away to find another vantage point while everyone below panics leaves you with a sense of primacy I've rarely felt in a game.

I'm not gonna lie, the main draw of Sniper Elite v2 is the glorious bullet-tracking, slow-motion kill camera complete with X-ray vision. You really get a good view of the carnage. Watching the bullet leave the chamber, then following the flightpath until it exits the back of the target's head is beyond awesome. It's interesting from a medical perspective. It's not often we think about what actually happens to the human anatomy when it gets struck with a supersonic bullet... the results can be painful to watch, literally! Here's a piece of advice, don't shoot anyone below the belt. I accidentally led a guy too much and the shot dropped more than I expected... I actually felt queasy after watching it. But for those out there who enjoy this sort of gratuitous violence (like yours truly), it doesn't get much better!

Apart from the sniping itself, the gameplay isn't especially good. Sniping is clearly the focus here. Sadly, ironically, the game forgoes everything else in lieu of this. Using pistols or sub-machine guns for close quarters combat doesn't work nearly as well as it should. The controls suffer for it. Considering how many run-of-the-mill shooters are out there, the fact that they didn't really get the easy parts right is frustrating. Trying to be sneaky, as any good sniper should be, doesn't work particularly well either. The stealth kill thing only worked about half the time. I'd rather pick them off from distance, even if it means mobilizing everyone else.

The movement controls also leave something to be desired. The main issue is making sure that all the environments are interactable, not just some of them. At one point I died simply because I couldn't jump over a waist high wall. After replaying the scene, I actually went over to check the same wall and it still wouldn't let me jump over it. The ones to the left and right were fine... this sort of lack of attention to detail drives me nuts!

The main issue I have with this game is the enemy AI. It could have been better... a lot better. There were multiple instances off my handiwork being plain to see: piles of dead bodies with neat little holes in their heads and still some other idiot has to crash the party, run up and wonder what happened... so I'd blow his brains out as well, then sigh and reload knowing there are probably more on the way.

As fun as things can be, they could have been even more so. A mini-map would have helped out immensely, as would some kind of radar. It's frustrating not to have a better idea of where enemies are once they've been spotted. The threat indicator isn't particularly clear, which makes it difficult towards the end. When you get shot from multiple directions at the same time it's more than a little disorienting. It's even worse when you're viewing things through a scope and get hit.

Actually, Sniper Elite v2 reminds me a lot of Splinter Cell: Conviction, warts and all. In that same vein, it's just as frustrating when things don't go as planned. It feels limited in this regard. Snipers aren't supposed to get pinned down, so it's usually kill shot then move. Sadly, just like the aforementioned Splinter Cell games, things degenerate quickly when you get spotted. Once they do, it's not like being a sniper at all. You'll find yourself running in circles trying to find cover long enough to return fire!

In fact, there is almost a shameless ripoff of a key mechanic to Splinter Cell: Conviction: the "silhouette of the last known location." When you are spotted but then break like of sight, a silhouette will show up where you were last seen. Here's the problem: the enemy AI, as stupid as it can be, has an uncanny ability to know exactly where you are even after one shot. It's moderately infuriating when there is no one looking at you, yet a bullet from enormous distances inexplicably leads them all to your location. This isn't even remotely realistic. One shot shouldn't give away your position, and if it did you would be able to move to a new location before they pinpointed yours. Once you try to move from your perch, you'll see your silhouette only if they can't see you. Otherwise, the only way to know if you've been spotted is if you're getting peppered with bullets!

There is also a clever scoring system that's worth mentioning. Usually this sort of thing annoys me to no end, but at least for this one I can see going back and trying to do better. I didn't try any of the multiplayer aspects but word on the street is that it's surprisingly fun. Sniping with a buddy? Sounds like a good time to me, especially since it means an extra pair of eyes to spot the bad guys!

Some of the graphics are awesome (like the X-ray kill-cam), while others are just terrible. Don't look too closely at anything in the background. There are wallpapered floors and all sorts of weird stuff. It's difficult not to be under the impression that with the right backing and some more money this could have really been special.

I also encountered lots of glitches. Texture pop-ins and general fuzziness are one thing, but I had issues with environments and some bizarre instances where the physics went nuts. One memorable moment occurred when I snuck up behind this German infantryman and promptly broke his neck. Rather than slump to the ground he sort of revolved in place. I ended up finishing the rest of the mission, then had to ex-fil past where he was... and yup, he was still turning. Talk about taking you out of the experience!

Sniper Elite v2 is a game that does justice to sniping while failing at almost everything else. I can't help feeling like it could have been better. There are a lot of glitches to contend with and the controls can be a burden outside of aiming down a rifle barrel. You're going to have to look past some technical issues and the fact that it suffers from the same problems that most stealth action games do. When it gets it right, you are a ghost that kills Nazis' from anywhere and disappears without a trace. But when you're spotted, and you inevitably will be, and things go to hell... well, then it becomes an exercise in frustration. However, don't get me wrong, Sniper Elite v2 is absolutely worth your time. Hell, it's worth it just for the kill-cam!


Score = 7.9 / 10

PS. The Kill Hitler DLC isn't much to write home about apart from the fact that you get to, you know, kill Hitler. So yeah, from that standpoint alone it's worth the money!

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