Sniper Elite 5 Review: Heads-A-Poppin
When the Sniper Elite series first appeared some 17 years ago, few could have predicted the upward trajectory the series would take. Remasters, zombie-themed spin-offs, a VR experience, and now five mainline entries – what started as a relatively linear series that relied heavily on its brutal x-ray kill cams has blossomed into something entirely more substantial.
Whilst Sniper Elite 5 doesn’t feel as impactful as some of its predecessors in terms of providing a drastic jump forward for the series, it still manages to be the best entry in the series yet due to its focus on meaningfully refining and building upon the already solid foundations of Sniper Elite 4.
Release The Kraken
It’s 1944, and we find ourselves once again strapping up the boots of Karl Fairburn, right around the time that the Second World War starts to slip through the fingers of the Axis forces.
With an Allied push on mainland Europe set to take place imminently, it falls on Karl’s shoulders to push behind enemy lines and weaken Axis defenses in anticipation of the Allied assault. Things ultimately go south, and Karl finds himself stranded in France, which is still under Nazi occupation, and it’s there that he learns of the existence of Operation Kraken. Operation Kraken is an ultra-confidential Nazi operation that could see them once more turn the tides of war back in their favor. So it falls on Karl to push further across France, learn more about Operation Kraken, and hopefully put an end to the Nazi’s last gasp attempt at domination.
I’ll be honest – there’s no denying that the narrative set-up for Sniper Elite 5 treads a lot of familiar ground. It’s admittedly well written, and Karl, as well as the supporting cast, are all engaging characters, but I’d be lying if I said the plot didn’t quickly become background noise, given how recycled the various tropes all feel. It’s ground we’ve covered in numerous games across numerous franchises, and unfortunately, Sniper Elite 5’s narrative beats can’t help but suffer because of this.
Blood Soaked Sandboxes
As formulaic as the story can feel, this series has become known for its visceral stealth combat and its ruthlessly satisfying sniping action. Thankfully, Sniper Elite 5 provides the most robust and immersive Nazi busting action in the series to date.
As I alluded to at the top, Sniper Elite 5 is more of a refinement than a reinvention. Players are again dropped into massive, sprawling levels, handed the main objective, and given very little else in terms of direction. As you explore a level, side objectives will become available, as will members of Karl’s kill list, high ranking Nazis who can be taken out but are entirely optional. As with the main objectives, minimal direction is given in how you approach the side objectives. You’ll be told what you need to do, but how you reach and achieve your goals is often entirely up to the player.
How you will stumble across additional goals feels incredibly organic. One mission saw me tasked with taking out a radar tower as part of the critical story path. Deciding to skirt the coast of the island on my way to the main objective, I stumbled across a cluster of enemy-occupied bunkers that I was advised should be taken out. Later, whilst exploring a small coastal village at the bottom of a mountain, I inadvertently ran into a high-value target from Karl’s kill list that sat out front of a heavily fortified church in an armored vehicle. It makes the levels feel like living, breathing worlds, designed to reward curiosity and those willing to venture off the beaten path.
The organic feel of Sniper Elite 5’s levels is only enhanced further by the flexibility with which you can approach your targets. Taking the kill list targets as an example, like Hitman’s mission stories, you’re given a suggested way to take out your foe. That doesn’t mean for one minute, though, that you’re locked into that method. You can get as creative as you like, with Sniper Elite 5 quickly becoming a sandbox within which the player can create their own memorable stories and set pieces.
One of the unfortunate souls on my hit list happened to be surrounded by a small army, all stationed at different locations in the surrounding village I was in. Had I just gone for the kill and taken out the primary target, the commotion would have been immense and would have made escaping a bit of a nightmare. With that in mind, I proceeded to take cover in a nearby graveyard overlooking the target’s vehicle and pinged one solitary shot off the side of said vehicle. With the attention of Nazis now solely focused on the noise I created, they circled the car and my target, allowing me to loop around to an alleyway from which I was then able to roll a grenade under the vehicle, detonating it, my target and the surrounding enemies.
It’s incredibly satisfying seeing your master plan come together, and the malleable nature of how you approach your objectives extends to the main story missions as well. Multiple approach points exist for most objectives, as do various options for completing them. It’s a game constantly asking you to survey your environment and weigh up the pros and cons of the various choices on offer, with the ripple effect of said choice often having ramifications for how the rest of the mission plays out.
It goes without saying then that Sniper Elite 5 is a title that oozes replayability, with its diverse sandboxes serving as something I can see myself returning to for a very long time.
One-Shot, One Kill
Of course, the majority of what you’ll be doing in Sniper Elite 5 is underpinned by the incredibly gratifying sniping action.
Largely relying on the same mechanics already established in prior installments, Sniper Elite 5’s gunplay will feel familiar to series veterans. Elements such as heart rate, wind speed, noise cover to mask gunshots, and bullet-drop all function in the same way they did previously. Lowering the difficulty can remove some of the challenges from the sniping as it nullifies the impact of those factors mentioned, but doing so entirely misses the point of Sniper Elite 5 and turns it into a pretty standard shooter.
Enjoyed on the higher difficulties, however, it retains that butt-clenching tension that has given the series its identity over the years, and there are still very few moments in gaming that can rival the relief of seeing your bullet make its way towards a target’s vital organs in slow motion, safe in the knowledge that you assessed the situation correctly and landed the perfect shot.
Of course, your trusty sniper rifle isn’t the only firearm at your disposal, with a decent range of sidearms and automatic weapons also becoming available as you progress through the levels. In a welcome change, fully pulling in the left trigger now enables these weapons to be fired in first-person mode, rather than being restricted to third-person, as was the case with the previous entries. It’s a welcome change, if only because it makes using these weapons more tolerable and reliable compared to how lackluster they feel to fire in the third person.
In another change, there is now a pretty robust weapon customization system available. Each level holds three workbenches, and upon interacting with one for the first time, you’ll unlock a bevy of attachments that Karl can then use to alter things like the damage, range, and reload speed of his weapons. Truth be told, I didn’t tinker with my loadout all that much. I did swap out a few pieces here and there to increase reload speed, and perhaps if I wanted to play in a bit more of a gung-ho fashion, I would have paid more attention to the options available. But, as a player who takes my time to stalk my foes and line up perfect headshots for one-hit kills, I rarely felt like I needed to critically assess my loadout.
More impactful is the returning skill tree. As you take out enemies and objectives, Karl will level up via experience and gain access to skill points that can be used, for example, to lessen the speed of his heart rate increasing when performing various actions, or to give him the ability to carry additional equipment such as mines or TNT.
If there is one issue that continues to impact my enjoyment of the series, it’s how clumsy Karl can feel to control at times. There’s a weightlessness to his movement that pulls me out of the experience and never quite gives the impression that you’re a hulking soldier with a giant sniper rifle strapped to his back.
Adding to this awkwardness is the unpredictable way in which he interacts with the environment. A lot of effort has been put into making Sniper Elite 5’s levels the most realistic and immersive to date. Photogrammetry has been used for the first time in the series, meaning the landscape and terrain you’ll be crossing throughout the eight levels all look stunningly realistic. The issue is, though, despite some efforts to increase Karl’s traversal abilities (he can now climb vines, nets, and use zip lines, for example), there are many times where it feels like his movement wasn’t coded with the more realistic terrain in mind.
Countless times I would try to vault something that looked as though it should have been scalable, only to have Karl bounce awkwardly away. It led to more than a few frustrating deaths as what appeared to be foolproof escape routes would suddenly turn into downright nightmarish obstacle courses.
Besides the substantial single-player offering, Sniper Elite 5 continues the series tradition of providing a variety of multiplayer modes, should you want to stick around once credits have rolled.
Your standard deathmatches and co-op survival modes are all present. However, I couldn’t connect to a game during the review period, presumably due to the lack of activity on the servers. I was able to join a few rounds of Invasion, a mode that sees you inserted into the campaign playthrough of another player who has opted into being invaded. It plays out like a mix of Dark Souls PvP and the recent PvP component of Deathloop, as tense games of cat and mouse play out until one player meets their demise. Invasion comes with its own progression systems as well, complimenting the already moreish nature of the game mode, and it’s certainly something I see myself dumping hours into once the servers become more populated.
Sniper Elite 5 opts for refinement over reinvention, and that’s absolutely fine when the building blocks of its predecessor were already stellar. Its tense sniping action and massive sandboxes are best in class for the series, allowing for creativity and player agency in a way that so few action games do. If you can overlook a narrative that suffers from fatigue due to its subject matter and the somewhat clumsy way in which Karl interacts with his surroundings, then Sniper Elite 5 and its open-ended approach to gameplay provide a stunning, experimental sandbox that you will likely find yourself returning to again and again.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS5 (reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Rebellion; Developer: Rebellion; Players: 1-16; Released: 26 May, 2022; MSRP: $59.99
Full Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.