Sniper Elite is my guilty pleasure. I know, conventional wisdom says there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure – “like what you like, without guilt”. There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s a more complicated issue and one that’s worth unpacking. Sniper Elite 3 was a game I loved despite its uncritical militarism; Sniper Elite 4 is a better a game in almost every regard. It even tries to address the moral quandaries of gamifying war, but those attempts are almost always overshadowed by the “fun” of the game. Thus, “guilty pleasure”.
A Sniper’s Playground
Let’s start with the good: Sniper Elite 4 is an excellent game. It’s a stealth game that casts you as a World War II sniper, and gives you all the tools you need to make that an enthralling experience.
You’ve got huge maps that make perfect sniping playgrounds. There’s plenty of high ground where you can set up and take out a dozen enemies without moving a muscle, aside from those in your trigger finger. Find the right spot, and you can see from one end of a map to the other – and maybe even shoot that far, with the right gun and some deadly accuracy.
At the same time, it’s not just a shooting gallery. Easily-identified sniper’s nests aren’t as common as they were in Sniper Elite 3, so you have to use your wits and get creative in order to find the best spots. Each map is riddled with interesting topography, architecture, and environmental quirks, making the search for a perfect spot almost as exciting as making that perfect shot. Stealth games live or die by their level design, and Sniper Elite 4 has some of the best I’ve seen in a long time.
Sniping is obviously the main attraction in Sniper Elite 4, but there’s a lot more to the game than that. You can’t rely on the trusty rifle wherever you’re navigating claustrophobic tunnels or when you get caught off guard; luckily, you’ve got plenty of other tricks up your sleeve. There’s the usual array of guns pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, and shotguns for the times you’re forced into a firefight; a few different types mines for laying traps; environmental hazards you can take advantage of; and good old rocks and whistles for distraction purposes.
With all these tools at your disposal, you have a lot of freedom to approach Sniper Elite’s challenges how you please. Pure stealth is difficult, but if you’ve got the requisite patience, it’s a very viable approach. For me, the “poltergeist” style worked wonders: I make my presence known, but not my location, with bombs and hit-and-run shots, then I use the ensuing chaos to pick people off while they search. Sniper Elite 4 kindly shows you where you were last seen, and, therefore, where enemies will investigate which is a great way of setting up some cheeky head shots from the flank.
Really, unless you’re a Sniper Elite expert or have the patience of a saint, you’ll fall into these kinds of cat-and-mouse scenarios far more often than a perfect ghost run. But Sniper Elite 4 gives you the tools to improvise and turn the tables, in terms of both the equipment available and the design of the levels. That’s the mark of a really good stealth action game.
For the most part, Sniper Elite 4 tends towards realism, but the franchise-staple X-ray kill shots are a crass, funny turn towards the absurd. When you land a good shot, you get a slow-motion view of the bullet as it speeds through the air and into the target, shattering bones or rupturing internal organs along the way. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, and usually worth a laugh or two; if you ever wanted to shoot a Nazi in the balls, this is your game.
All of this takes place in an absolutely gorgeous world. Sniper Elite 4 takes place in Italy, around the time of the Invasion of Sicily, and each map shows a different slice of the Italian landscape. Quaint Mediterranean towns, sunbaked vineyards, lush forests, an ancient monastery, and a coastal Venetian city are just a few of the locations you’ll visit, amid the more typical military installations. There’s a vibrancy that you don’t often see in military-themed shooters, and it’s easy to get distracted by the grand views and intimate details.
A Game of War
Taken purely as a game – a form of frivolous entertainment divorced from social context – Sniper Elite 4 is brilliant. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s breathtaking. It’s an expertly-crafted stealth game that knows what makes the genre tick, and plays to those strengths. But games are much more than that; they’re works of art. Intentional or not, they’re products and reflections of society, because they’re made by people for people. To ignore their social context is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst.
This is something that Sniper Elite 4 (and the franchise as a whole, really) struggles with. Like so many military-themed shooters, it glamorizes and glorifies war by making it into something fun and exciting. Not some fictional war, either, but a very real war in which millions of people died. It doesn’t quite have the full-blown “ooo-rah” nationalism of Call of Duty, but it’s still a game that uncritically presents war as a fun, exciting time.
Sure, it takes place during World War II, and I doubt many would claim that shooting Nazis is morally questionable. But Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t engage with the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in any meaningful way; it has a shallow, simple story with run-of-the-mill caricatured villains. The Nazis and fascists of WWII could just as easily be swapped out for German soldiers of World War I, the Viet Cong of the Vietnam War, or Iraqi soldiers from America’s invasion, and the “fun” would still be there. Although the text says “Nazis are bad and should be stopped”, the subtext says something far more sinister: “War is fun, and being a sniper is fucking awesome.”
To its credit, Sniper Elite 4 does try to offer a more thoughtful critique of war, mainly through collectibles that show a more human side of the people on the business end of your rifle. When you scope in on an enemy and mark him, you get a brief, one- or two-line bio: “Conscripted 1938”; “Worries his child will be orphaned”; “Secretly admires the British”; “Regularly steals chocolate from his best friend.” They’re just snippets, but they give some sense of the person underneath the Nazi colours.
Among the many collectibles strewn about each map are letters – those that soldiers and and receive from home, and “Last Letters” that they write, to be passed on to loved ones when they die. These, again, give insight into the lives of your enemies; their struggles, hopes, and dreams. The Last Letters are particularly grim, poignantly capturing the thoughts of a soldier who knows that alive is an unlikely prospect the chances of coming back alive are slim.
With these little things, Sniper Elite 4 touches on the sad reality of any war: the soldiers on the ground are people first and foremost. There’s no argument that fascist and Nazi ideologies are abhorrent things that should be always be resisted, but the German and Italian troops on the ground were, for the most part, there without choice. Some were conscripted, some brainwashed by nationalist propaganda, some driven to the armed forces by desperate circumstances. Sure, there were those who genuinely believe in the Nazism and fascism, but war is always a more complicated thing than some sort of good vs evil. In these brief, optional moments, Sniper Elite 4 captures that well.
Then the moment’s gone, and it’s back to joyously lobotomising people and booby trapping corpses, amid a story about a fearless, stoic American hero fighting against caricatures of Nazi evil. Those heartfelt, human moments are at odds with the rest of the game, and they get drowned out because they’re optional collectibles. It’s more productive and more fun to run around killing everyone in sight, because that’s what the game encourages through every facet of its design.
Even if you want to play non-lethally, or at least avoid killing the people who seem least deserving, Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t really support that approach. There are no tranquilliser weapons and no non-lethal takedowns; your only pacifist option is pure ghost, but the sheer number of enemies makes that almost impossible. You need to be able to neutralise at least some threats, and you can only do so by killing them. This makes sense to some degree, given the WWII setting, but I’d love to see a future Sniper Elite game actually engage with the moral conflicts of being a sniper in wartime, and find ways to encourage pacifist play despite those limitations.
At worst, the brief touches of humanity only highlight the Sniper Elite 4’s militarism through contrast. They feel out of place and at odds with the the philosophy that underpins the rest of the game, like they’re an afterthought. As moving as they can be, they aren’t impactful or influential enough to stand up to that “war is fun!” subtext.
A Guilty Pleasure
I’m not trying to say that Sniper Elite 4 is a bad game, because it really isn’t. I’m not trying to say that playing it is going to turn people into killers, or make them run out and join the army. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t play it, or even that you shouldn’t enjoy it – hell, I love it, and it’s a game I’ll keep coming back to until there’s a Sniper Elite 5 to take its place.
My point, rather, is that it’s important to think about the messages that a game sends, explicitly or implicitly, whether or not they’re intentional. This is especially true for the games that you love, because it can be so easy to just ignore these sorts of things and relish what it does right. Entertainment is good and vital, but entertainment without critical thought as to how a work fits into culture and society is a dangerous thing.
Play Sniper Elite 4. It’s a very good game that’s a thrill to play, with all its stealth antics, expert level design, and sniper fantasy. Play it and have fun, because that’s really what the game is about, and the development team have put their all into making it as fun as possible. But also take a moment to stop and thinking about why it’s fun, and the sort of messaging that lies beneath the surface, and you might see why Sniper Elite 4 is my “guilty pleasure”.
Sniper Elite 4 is developed and published by Rebellion Developments. It’s available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A PS4 press copy was supplied by Rebellion Developments for this review.