Sunday, 29 June 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Exploding Skull Simulator 3 or as it's more commonly known Sniper Elite 3.

Info:
Platform: PC
Release Date: 27 June 2014
Developer: Rebellion
Publisher: Rebellion
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £39.99

Sniper Elite 3 is by far the best entry in the series yet but in the interests of being fair I am a little biased towards this one as I'm quite fond of the series as a whole.

Set in Africa during Rommel's buggering about with the Commonwealth forces around Tobruk you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole game would just be sandy plains and dilapidated mud huts but the new open level design philosophy that seems to have caught Rebellion like a case of the flu lends itself incredibly well to this particular setting by allowing for fairly sizable towns, huge factory complexes set into canyon walls and splendid night-time oases and forts.



While the graphics may not seem that impressive in a screenshot (Steam's screenshot function seems to butcher the quality for some reason) or Youtube video the engine offers an impressive array of incredibly well optimized options including 4x Supersampling and 16x Anisotropic Filtering as well as other fanciful functions such as obscurance fields and tessellation.
While I can't speak for less powerful machines, my own which is admittedly rather beefy manages to run the game with everything turned on, up and maxed out which results in some spectacular visuals and draw distances that are almost enough to make the ArmA engine drop its pants. The graphics settings however have all the usual knobs and checkboxes for turning things down to scale back the engine to get a smoother framerate on more modest hardware.

The sound design in terms of the sounds themselves isn't very impressive. There's all the usual bangs, groans, snaps, rumbles and gurgles you'd expect from a shooter but none of them particularly stand out amongst the racket. Even the iconic Nebelwerfers that show up in a couple of missions manage to sound slightly less intimidating than a tipped over Furby.
More impressive however are the sound cues that precede incoming sound cover - a mechanic that allows you to take a shot from an unsilenced weapon such as your sniper rifle while remaining undetected - these sound cover moments can be planes flying overhead or a truck backfiring or a spluttering generator but all are preceded by a little sound cue like a bit of rattling from the generator or the hearing the plane's engines before it's directly overhead. Listening carefully and being prepared for incoming sound cover makes all the difference between getting off a shot and getting away with it and making a fool of yourself by making distinctly non-German sounds at the Nazis.
Other pieces of sound cover may have a visual indicator such as the spotter for an anti-aircraft emplacement pointing out an incoming plane to the gunner so watching carefully can be a valuable tool too.
Another interesting bit of sound design is a kind of spooky sting that plays when an enemy sniper is looking at you. It starts low and gets a little louder and more intense as you remain in his line of sight and if the sound is allowed to finish playing without you getting out of the way the sniper will begin to engage you. Unlike other detection methods this often doesn't result in the entire Afrika Corps coming after you but your return fire on the sniper or hasty scramble to avoid long range dentistry may alert a few patrols if you're not careful.

The Nazi forces themselves are modelled well enough, there's enough variety in their uniforms and faces to make them not feel entirely stale but usually the only up-close look you'll get at one is when your bullet completes a 100 meter flight to make his insides his outsides.
Enemies operate on a simple, consistent logic set that's easy to manipulate but just complex enough to allow the enemy to surprise you from time to time. Normally enemies are in their passive state either patrolling or standing around smoking or propping up doorways and other soldier-y things. This can change however based on their two detection methods; sound and visual.
Visual detection is your standard fare; when you get spotted a little yellow bar starts to fill up and when it's full you're seen by the enemy and he'll come over to the spot he saw you to investigate. If you don't break line of sight a little red bar will fill and the enemy will go into attack mode. The speed at which these bars fill depends on how visible you are to your prey, things like long grass, shadows and your stance all affect how easily you're spotted by the enemy.
Sound detection is a kind of three-strikes system wherein your first shot without sound cover results in the enemy all diving for cover and ineffectually trying to hide from the direction the shot came from. Your second shot will allow the enemy to get a better bead on your position and they'll start closing in and searching in the general direction A third shot results in the enemy pinpointing your position and aggressively attacking you.
In either case you can re-enter stealth mode after being detected by relocating, another simple system whereby you have to move a set distance, usually about 25-55 meters from the point you were spotted to successfully relocate. Getting out of the search radius is often rather easy and some of the later missions allow you to exploit this system to devastating effect, picking off enemies one by one and dashing back up a corridor only to take another shot and run back down the corridor all while the enemies remain panicked and running around like headless chickens just waiting for you to make them truly headless.
So the AI isn't spectacularly bright, it's not going to organize a search line or call in air support or artillery to flush you out but there's an appeal to such a simple system in that you can always understand a given situation and react accordingly, you can plan ahead and exploit the enemy wanting to dive for cover to slip by a patrol or sneak into a sniper nest and almost always you can regain the upper hand to some measure.

Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of variety in weapons. While there's not much variety to be had in World War 2 era sniper rifles the 4 on offer are almost insulting considering the previous game had 8 (including DLC weapons). Similarly insulting is the 3 SMGs and Pistols on offer.
Thankfully the developers somewhat redeem themselves with the pretty robust customization menu, each rifle is made up of four components (scope, stock, barrel and trigger) and each component has three variants that can be unlocked to help tailor the rifle more to your personal tastes. Additionally a reticule selection menu means that you're not stuck with the default crosshairs of a particular rifle and can instead have any one of about 20 different crosshair designs though many are minor variations of about 5 basic models.
The rest of the loadout screen is made up of SMG and Pistol selection and the chance to choose up to six gadgets to bring with you. These range from grenades and trip mines to armour piercing bullets and bandages. This allows you some leeway to either carry lots of grenades and medpacks if you plan on being loud and direct or a selection of static bombs such as anti-personnel or anti-tank mines with which to lay traps or secure your rear while sniping.
Another interesting addition is the ability to pick up the mines or dynamite you've already placed and relocate them as needed, meaning that one trip mine might serve you for several sniper nests and hunting for constant resupplies becomes a non-issue even on the largest of maps.

Collectibles and side-missions also abound on these sizable maps. Some as straightforward as assassinating a high ranking officer or snatching intel from a tent and others a series of clues that'll lead you around the map picking up documents and doodads to locate a visiting general to put him out of his misery.
Other side objectives include spectacular explosions such as blowing up fuel or munitions dumps which result in brilliant chain reactions of fiery mayhem caused by a single well placed bullet.
The collectibles are a mixture of interesting and asinine all at the same time; war diaries and letters make up the bulk of the kleptomaniac bait and range from plain boring or irrelevant to funny or even a handful of reminders that even Nazi riflemen are people too, though in this case they're just a bunch of pixels so you don't have to feel too bad for demolishing their skulls.
The most interesting of the collectibles for me are the "Long Shots", one per mission these are a single target in an inaccessible part of the map, usually so far away that a ZX Spectrum could render their pixels perfectly. The joy of finding these is that you have to observe the area carefully, climbing into sniper nests and checking windows, sand dunes, hillsides and cliff faces for tiny little hints of movement. They provide rare moments of actual sniping amidst the target practise regularly taking place.

That leaves the series main attraction then; the X-ray kill camera. For those who don't know the kill cam is a cinematic camera that's triggered when you take a shot with your sniper rifle that kills a target in an interesting way. The frequency of these shots can be tuned or even turned off to help make the experience more tolerable or authentic for those who prefer more or less gore in their games.
While the new character models feature veins and muscle mass along with internal organs and bones there's still a level of disappointment to the whole system; muscles aren't torn, veins aren't severed and even the less important (if there is such a thing) vitals don't reflect any damage. Shooting someone in the intestines will net you an XP bonus and kill message but the internals of the character model don't so much as twitch as the bullet passes through.
Lungs, hearts, kidneys and testicles will all deform in a basic manner, usually torn in two by the passage of the bullet, though not along the bullets actual trajectory. Oddly enough for a subject matter where remote lobotomys are the whole point the brain is also impervious to damage, remaining a static pink lump that looks like pre-chewed gum even while the more expressive bones are cracking, shattering and exiting someone's face in a hail of teeth and popped eye goo.
Similarly basic are the newly added vehicle kill-cams. Previously we got a slow motion explosion but now we get an internal view of the fuel igniting in the tank or a punctured engine block's pistons exploding and rupturing violently but the effects are all pre-canned and with each vehicle only having one or two weak points it's a matter of choosing which animation you'd rather watch.
The disappointment is only amplified by the amount of care that's gone into modelling the flight of the bullets, wind and gravity affect shots, elevation lessens the drop of the bullet and they even deform upon impact, tumbling away or even entering a second person if you lined up a two-for-one shot. It seems like wasted potential when modern physics engines and fluid physics would have allowed for demonstrating real-time cavitation and internal damage though I suspect it might have been outside the budget of the developers.

Verdict? It's the best entry in the series by far. They've managed to take almost everything about the previous games and make it better, slicker and prettier but a few missteps along the way mar the experience as a whole but not to a staggering degree. For fans of the series there's plenty to love but for those looking for a "AAA" blockbuster experience it might leave a lingering sense of buyers remorse.
Still, it's a fun game that mixes scouting, planning, stealth and shooting with an occasional dash of giant explosion and the tried and true pleasure of shooting Nazis in the dick over and over again until you get bored of it.
It might be an easier recommendation at a lower price, but at £40 it's a bit too much to say it's a game everyone should give a go. Anyone who loves Sniper Elite will happily pay it and anyone who is just curious or on the fence will probably feel a little let down so it might be best to wait for a bit of a price drop if that's your situation.

Score: Sniper Elite 3 gets 7 out of 10 gore fetishists hard.