Karl Fairburne is a godless killing machine.
In a mission to assassinate a Nazi officer tucked away in a mountaintop monastery, I, as elite US sniper Fairburne, managed to kill 115 people, most during a 20-minute long shootout in the ruins of an old castle.
This firefight and its steady escalation, from quiet melee takedowns and silenced headshots to the cinematic unloading of an FM24 light machine gun at scattering reinforcements, is emblematic of Sniper Elite 4.
This is what Rebellion are selling with Sniper Elite 4 – the ability to become a Hollywood-era commando, and turn the tide of World War 2 with a hail of bullets. This isn't a sniper simulation game, you won't be wetting yourself as you lay in position for hours on end waiting for one perfect shot, but it is a game where (if you've pre-ordered) you can remove Adolf Hitler's remaining testicle.
There are many deft touches in Sniper Elite 4, but as the title suggests, this is a game about shooting people from distance, so a lot of the game's success as entertainment is going to hinge on how well it manages to convey the experience of being an elite sniper.
It's satisfying. This is largely down to the strong system underpinning the ballistics in Sniper Elite 4 that factor in things like wind, bullet drop and biology factoring into your shot. These factors combine to make gunfights interesting at 10 metres or 1000, and although you'll often tangle with foes between 100-200 metres, the game will occasionally put you in a perfect sniper's nest and scatter a few guards knowingly in front of you.
Accurate shooting takes practice, but on lower difficulties the accurate ballistics are toned down to be more forgiving and there's a generous aim assist, letting you empty your lung for a steadier shot, with a tiny diamond telling you where your shot will land. Simply line up your crosshair so the diamond goes red and your target is dead. Purists will quickly learn to land shots at range and admire the system and indeed, players that want the extra difficulty of the full sniping system without the rest of the trappings of playing on hard-mode – or vice-versa – can tweak the difficulty using the custom difficulty options too.
Another feather in Sniper Elite's cap is its AI, which is dumb enough to let you walk in and plant a satchel charge on whatever patrolling troops are guarding, but smart enough to flank you and keep you under fire when they work out where you're firing from.
One of the finest touches is the way enemies will triangulate your sniper position as you fire from it. Fire several rounds from the same spot and your foes will suppress the position, call in artillery on your nest or just charge up there with a lot of guns. If you want to make it work, you'll need to shoot and move, or mask your rounds with environmental noise to get away scot-free.
This cat and mouse play is engaging, and means something as simple as taking out a four-man patrol can quickly turn into stalking your targets over the course of ten minutes.
This sort of careful stealth is encouraged by the game's array of gadgets, consisting largely of mines but also including a pair of binoculars that let you mark targets and see what they're carrying. Using these binoculars a lot is key to staying unseen, as you creep through a variety of inventive locations, including dockyards, idyllic Italian villages and dense woodland.
Slow progress is assured if you want to stay stealthy, as the crouch walk you'll be stuck in if you want avoid being heard means your effective combat speed is no better than a waddle. There's no penalty for breaking cover though, so there's no real incentive to stay stealthly, especially since you earn experience and weapon perks by destroying Axis assets, whether those are trucks, tanks or people.
With this in mind, I found I'd often sneak into an area and complete my objectives, before littering trip wires around and massacring everyone on my path to a better gun, or one of the scant few skills on Sniper Elite 4's skilltree. The amount of experience points you get for each act of destruction also varies depending on how hard it is, so the no-assist headshot you pulled off while lying in a puddle 600 metres away as thunder rolled overhead is worth a lot more experience than the guy you stabbed in the throat while he urinated in an alleyway.
There's a perverse enjoyment to be had in these kills thanks to the kill-cam, a series hallmark that shows your bullet making its bloody passage through an enemy in slow-motion. This is now more detailed and triggers not only during rifle shots but now during bone-crunching melee takedowns and explosive kills too.
Playing each level on Hard difficulty took roughly 45 minutes, not including retries using the game's generous checkpointing system. I also dipped into the multiplayer, which includes competitive and co-operative modes, and in the new Overwatch mode allow players to become the spotter for their player partner. There is a selection of co-op only missions that put one player in a position overlooking the map while another has a pair of binoculars and a sub-machine gun. The asymmetrical approach and focus on teamwork leads to a lot of close calls, but while testing it we found that individuals would often be dragged into their own personal dramas, limiting the amount of genuine co-op play.
Sniper Elite 4 is a good game by many metrics, and is the best in the series so far. It's a good shooter, a good stealth game and has exceptional shooting mechanics, but as a whole it's rarely exceptional. It's one of the better stealth games of the last few years, with several distinctive ideas combined to create a tense game that, while not all that much bigger in scope than its predecessor, feels bolder and more interesting. The generously sized levels and varied objectives offer a unique experience. The slow-motion carnage of the kill cam, in the era of Twitch and YouTube, will undoubtedly remain a big draw, but look away from the skeleton crushing rifle rounds for a minute and there's an intelligent stealth game with tons of content and plenty of replayability.