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Sniper Elite 4 Hands-on Preview | War journal of a terrible sniper

Sniper Elite 4 Hands-on Preview | War journal of a terrible sniper
Carl 'Malkaurai' Phillips

I have a weird relationship with the Sniper Elite series. On one hand, I love how you can plan your attacks and watch the gory aftermath with the X-ray kill cam. On the other hand, I hate how absolutely awful I am at it when I’m discovered and the enemy comes swarming and oh-no-oh-no-oh-god. It’s why I much preferred the much more straightforward action of Zombie Army Trilogy, which allowed me to mow down enemies I knew were coming with all the goriness intact. Still, I was invited to try out the latest build for Sniper Elite 4 at this year’s EGX, and I was determined to not only see what Rebellion had improved, but redeem myself after my terrible performance at the Sniper Elite 3 hands-on preview (which went very, very badly.)

The demo mission had one main objective – blow up the train on the nearby bridge. A reasonable enough request from the Allied forces, as trains spawn train-spotters, but naturally there was a catch. To get to it I would have to move down a busy road, though a fortified base of operations, and then past a guarded checkpoint. Even with a sniper rifle capable of rearranging internal organs in a graphic manner, I felt this would require most of my cunning.

Which, as you’ll soon discover, clearly wasn’t enough.

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Beginning on a cliff-side opposite my destination, my immediate reaction was how the visuals were a step up from previous Sniper Elite games. The amount of detail was impressive given the level size, and the colour palette provided by the Italian landscapes that this entry is based on made everything visually engaging. Basically, after the dark and dreary locales in Zombie Army Trilogy I’m sure Rebellion are glad to return to brighter destinations with SE4.

There’s wasn’t much time to gawp at the scenery, though – I was on a timer and there was a train to explode. Grabbing my binoculars I began searching and tagging enemies, trying to get an idea of how many heads I would need to pop. Tagging works much like in past Sniper Elite games, with outlines remaining viewable through buildings, but I did appreciate how if I kept my lock on a soldier the game would reveal additional information about them. Weapons, ranks, and even a little history about them would appear on screen, almost to say “This is a person with a life, and all you’re thinking about is scrambling their brain with a bullet. You monster.”

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Having tagged everyone I could see on the bridge, it was time to start making my way towards the village by continuing down the cliff-side road. Being fairly high up, I was able to move to a new vantage point quickly and start the process again, but this time I was interrupted. Suddenly an inner monologue began to play about a truck that was moving nearby. “Taking it out would help the war effort,” my character mused, and so I started looking around for it. The truck in question was already moving through the village and towards the road I was on. With its arrival mere seconds away, I had to think fast.

Quickly jumping over a nearby wall, I aimed my rifle towards the ground where the truck would soon appear from. Suddenly everything from my time playing previous Sniper Elite titles came back to me – breathing in before the shot, using the drop indicator to ensure my bullet landed in the right spot. It was now or never, and so I fired without hesitation. Bullseye! The truck stopped moving and I thought my job was done, but nothing came up on-screen. Moving towards the truck carefully, as my shot had alarmed the guards in the village, I noticed that there were highlighted engine parts that I could target. “I know!” I thought to myself, “I’ll use this sticky grenade to finish the job!” I planted it and ran back to my previous position just in time for the truck to explode.

That was my first mistake.

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All of a sudden, the two guards that had previously been investigating my initial shot had friends close behind them. I was now going to need to deal with a squad of enemies. Once again hiding behind the wall, one soldier ran right past me down the road, but the rest didn’t follow. This was my first taste of the improved AI routines as they began to search for me. There was something eerie about how they had a rough idea of where I was and slowly moved in, all whilst covering each other. Accepting that I was going to have to shoot my way out, I waited until the last possible second to use my silenced pistol.

The sudden surprise of the guard dropping was enough to allow me to switch weapons to my rifle and take out the second guard. It was the third one behind him that became my first X-Ray kill cam victim, which remains as horrifically gory as ever. I can still see the way his jaw snapped in half. Ugh. I didn’t have time to reflect, though, as the guard who had missed me earlier came back. Switching to my machine gun, I took him down as quickly as possible. As such, I learned two things from this first encounter – the weapon switching works rather well, and that next time I decide to blow stuff up I should have a very good escape plan.

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With more guards on their way, I quickly sprinted down the road and hid in a nearby bush. With heart rate being a factor in the Sniper Elite games, I was immediately warned how the sudden dash would affect any shots I attempted right now until I had rested. Deciding I had better let things calm down and make my way towards the actual objective, I began a game of cat and mouse – or Tom and Jerry if you will.

I was impressed by the way I could use the foliage to my advantage. Sneaking up past nearby guards, I managed to crawl my way below the road I had just been on leading to a stream. It was here that I tagged an enemy officer in the village, and I knew that if I could land a shot on him the rest of the forces would be in disarray. The problem was, I could see a straight path towards the other side of the rail track, which was my actual objective. Utilising every bit of restraint within me, I let him go and made my way up the other side.

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It looked like I was on the home stretch towards my objective until an APC appeared. Diving behind a nearby wall, I put myself into crouch mode. Unfortunately, this resulted in a bug where the APC spotted me but couldn’t fire, and so I ran behind a nearby building to try and escape its gaze. It wasn’t long before the soldiers riding inside it got out and starting patrolling. Again, their search patterns seemed much more advanced compared to previous games, so I was forced to keep moving between cover. What surprised me was that once the search phase was over, they didn’t return to the APC. Instead, they occupied a nearby watch post.

They knew I was still out there, and were waiting. The swines.

Knowing I was running short on time, I went on the offensive with my silenced pistol. Waiting for guards to go out of sight of other, I struck from the nearby bushes (complete with an unexpected X-ray kill cam) and then dashed towards the fallen foes. Again, the AI surprised me by changing their patrol path when they knew something was wrong, meaning I was constantly forced to changed my tactics. While I managed to take out the second soldier inside the building, the third – who had gone outside to check on the now-missing first victim – was now in my cross-hairs. His life was unexpectedly spared, though, by the demo’s time limit being hit and I was returned to the start screen.

Damn. I’ll get you next time, evil train.

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Ultimately, what I learned is that it still very much handles like a Sniper Elite game, but it’s the reworked AI that really brings the game – and a true sense of challenge – to life. In some ways, the tension it creates was reminiscent of the classic title Hidden & Dangerous, a game I spent many hours trying to beat due to its fiendish difficulty. Sure, the visuals look fantastic, and yes the X-Ray kill game is as graphic as ever, but should the EGX demo be representative of the rest of the game it will be the AI overhaul that makes Sniper Elite 4 a must-play experience.

Sniper Elite 4 releases on February 14th, 2017 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.