Developer: Rebellion Software
Release Date: October 18, 2005
In accordance with Video Game Reviewing Law #435-324b, I must now say this: enough with the World War II games already.
It's April, 1945, and Berlin is under siege. The German army has been depleted by years of fighting a losing war, and many of Berlin's defenders are conscripted civilians. At the same time, the Russians are pouring into Berlin by the dozen, angry and looking for revenge.
You're thrown into the middle of all this as an American agent of the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Your job isn't to win the war; that's pretty much already done. Your job is to prevent all these angry Russians swarming all over Germany from getting ahold of Germany's research into the atom bomb. Really, this isn't so much a World War II game as it is a very, very early Cold War game… but it's set in Berlin in 1945 and you're shooting Nazis.
Due to your mission objectives and the nature of your opposition, this is weird, as third-person shooters go. It's not quite a balls-to-the-wall action game, and it's not quite stealth-based; instead, it's a combination of the two. Accomplishing your goals requires a lot of stealth, as well as the occasional use of some good old-fashioned twitch reflexes.
If you're a big fan of playing with sniper rifles in other third-person shooters, you'll probably like Sniper Elite's approach to the game. I'll admit there's a certain degree of frustration in that your sniper rifle isn't silenced -- had they not invented silenced rifles back in 1945 or something? You've got a silenced pistol, so why can't you have a silenced rifle? -- but the rest of the game is all about sneaking around the periphery of urban combat zones, subtly eliminating or evading enemies before they have any idea you're there. This isn't a game where you are there, fighting your way through the thick of the greatest battles of WWII; instead, you're one of the secret guiding hands that makes sure history has the chance to unfold as it did.
You also assassinate Martin Bormann at one point, which seems… odd. The historian in me raised an eyebrow at that one.
Since the focus is on sniping, there's a lot of attention paid to the intricacies of doing so. Pulling off a successful shot means you have to take wind, gravity, and your character's breathing into account. If you manage to line everything up correctly for an instant kill, you'll be rewarded with an incredibly gratifying slow-motion sequence where your bullet flies directly into your victim's face, complete with a chunk of said face bursting into a fine red mist.
You're also given a lot of other weapons, like confiscated German rifles and a variety of grenades, but the focus remains squarely on stealth and sniper fire. The amount of opposition you're usually up against and the relative fragility of your character forces you to play Sniper Elite patiently and slowly, waiting for just the right opportunities and picking your fights very carefully. You can get through the lower difficulties with a bit of run-and-gun, but you know what? War's kind of dangerous. Don't do that.
One of the dangerous factors comes from the game's graphics, unfortunately. The PS2 version is somewhat washed out and colorless compared to the other versions, which can make it difficult to spot opponents before they open fire. This is doubly annoying because the opposition, unlike you, has invented the flash suppressor and only fields soldiers with nearly superhuman vision. I've lost count of the number of times I've been killed by a near-invisible sniper, detected by troops I had no way of seeing first, or been blown to hell by a tank I could barely see. Some stages in the singleplayer or co-op modes have a certain Hitman vibe to them, where you've gotta go through them over and over again until you find the secret hidden path that'll get you to the end.
On the plus side, Sniper Elite doesn't fall prey to a lot of the silly little mistakes you get with sniper-based games sometimes, like textures radiating an invisible and invulnerable wall, or enemies being able to make shots that you never could. (Okay, there's a little of that, but on the whole, enemies do tend to have relatively realistic aim. No CPU opponent will open up on you from three blocks away on full-auto and hit with every bullet.)
All of this transfers, more or less, to the online mode, which is easier to set up than the involvement of Gamespy software would have you believe. As long as you've got a network configuration on your memory card, playing online Sniper Elite on your PS2 is remarkably painless; just plug it in and go.
I can tell you now, though, that this is a love letter to a specific type of online deathmatch player. Sniper Elite online is a long game of "king of the hill," which is won by the smartest and fastest camper. Playing it well involves finding the high ground, staking it out, getting a few quick kills, and hopefully getting out of there before somebody gets the drop on you. It's a slower and smarter sort of deathmatch, which has its place, but it'll drive diehard twitch junkies mad.
There's a lot to like about Sniper Elite. Its setting and antagonists are among the most frequently-used in the genre today, and frankly, neither of them add so much to the game that they couldn't've been removed. This could've easily been set in Baghdad or Somalia or some future city without compromising its gameplay.
Besides that gripe, picking up the PS2 version of Sniper Elite gets you a solid multiplayer game, and a singleplayer game that's challenging, but at least as much so for its grainy graphics as for its unforgiving enemies. If you've got the means, go for the Xbox port on this one.
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