Because I am a very strange man, I enjoy prowling YouTube for footage of computer simulations. And by strange, I mean stupid. The other day, though, I took a break from the usual neutron stars and such and decided to look into ballistics simulations. Did I mention that I was strange? Well, that led me to investigate Sniper Elite V2.
It so happens that I quite enjoy sniping in shooters, which is an excellent way to get accused of camping once every three seconds. If any military was ever dumb enough to accept my silly ass, I think sniper would be just about the only position I’d be qualified for (you know, apart from living target practice). Not a lot of running around (because, in spite of a gym membership, I still have the running stamina of the corpse of a ninety-year-old anemic grandmother) or depth perception required (which is nice, because, as I’ve complained before, I don’t have any depth perception).
I watched part of a video on YouTube, and thought SEV2 (which acronym looks like something from a horrible vanity plate) looked like fun. And as it so happens, the demo was on Steam, so I downloaded it. So began the awesomeness.
You play as an extremely generic action-hero type with a sniper rifle and an infinite supply of pebbles. You start out in a bombed-out German town during World War II, on the trail of a V2 rocket engineer (which explained the game’s bizarre title; I thought it was Version 2 of something at first). Your goal is to find him and kill him, but there are German soldiers prowling the streets. You can take them on with your trusty Thompson gun (insert Warren Zevon joke here), but you only have about twelve bullets for it, so you’d better do what it says on the tin and snipe the bastards.
I must say, the sniping in the game is absolutely excellent. Unless you play on the girly-man difficulty (and really, then, why bother?), you have to account for bullet-drop caused by gravity. On the hardest setting, you also have to account for wind. Your accuracy is affected by whether you’ve just been running, whether you’re being shot in the face (always affects my accuracy, let me tell you; after all, there can be only one Simo Hyähä), and, impressively, whether or not you’re holding your breath. Holding your breath sends you into bullet-time, which is a tired combat mechanic, but it really does work here.
Then comes the best part. If you’re a good enough shot, you’ll usually be treated to a fantastic little animation of your bullet whizzing out of your barrel (and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that they got the bullet’s shockwave more or less right, instead of just going for the Matrix BS of just having random ripples behind it; I am a nerd) and flying at your enemy. Then, when it hits them, oftentimes you get a cool little X-ray or anatomy-class-skeleton view of what your terrifying projectile is doing to their innards. I thought I was the king of everything when I managed to pop both of a baddie’s eyeballs with one bullet; then my friend came over and played it and managed to obliterate one’s scrotum and make me simultaneously cringe and feel inadequate. It reminds me of that Mortal Kombat game that came out a few years ago, where you got a very gratuitous X-ray of the bones you were breaking, except here, it makes more sense and is a lot more effective. If you’re lucky (blind luck every time, in my case), you can even nail the grenades on the enemies’ belts and make them blow the hell up. It’s pretty glorious.
There’s a decent amount of strategy to the game, too. Oftentimes, the enemy soldiers will be patrolling in large groups, and if you shoot and miss or even stand up from cover for too long, you’re liable to get turned into Leberkäse in a hurry. This is where the infinite supply of pebbles (sometimes) comes in handy: you can toss one to get the enemies’ attention and mislead them. At least I think you can. After a while, it started to seem like the only way to distract the German soldiers was to ping them right in the eye. You can take quite a few hits, even on the hardest difficulty, but the game definitely rewards slow, sneaky, snipery tactics, which is good in a game with “sniper” in the title.
Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed were the enemy snipers. They’re hard to spot and even harder to shoot, but if you’re paying attention, you can usually catch the glint of sunlight off the lens of their scope. Then, you have to pop up, take careful aim quickly, adjusting for gravity and wind, and pop off a shot before the sniper can shoot you. It’s a lot like that amazing sniper duel in Saving Private Ryan, doubly so when I managed to bullseye the bastard right in the eyesocket.
All that said, though, I don’t think I’ll be buying the full version, at least not in the near future. The first reason is that, for some insane reason, the full version currently costs US$50 on Steam. That problem is compounded by another one: the demo’s too damn short. You only get to play one very short mission in the demo, and that mission contains maybe fifteen enemies total. And the problems just keep piling up: rather than letting you cleverly snipe everybody, once you’ve fired your first shot, the enemies will realistically start running around, looking for cover and searching for you. I applaud that level of realism, but that really makes the sniping part finnicky and annoying, since you spend so much time waiting for the baddies to settle down. I guess I shouldn’t really call that a problem so much as an annoyance, since it’s how a sniper would actually behave, but when I just want to pick the game up and pop a couple of Nazis in the brain, it really dampens the fun.
The enemy AI is dull at best. They’ll occasionally take cover cleverly or manage to sneak past you into the building you’re hiding in, at which point you’d best shoot them with your silenced pistol or your twelve-bullet Tommy gun, but for the most part, they’re just goofy. I took out one enemy while he was stuck running in place behind a lamppost. And on top of that, I got a bonus for hitting a moving target. Who wasn’t, you know, moving. Also, since I speak a little German, hearing the AI talk to each other was like playing the otherwise-excellent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where the enemies’ entire vocabulary seemed to consist of “Search the area!” and “Spread out!” In the case of Sniper Elite, the AI constantly holler “Man down!” and “Find him!” They also fluctuate between extremely perceptive and wildly inattentive. In one section, you have to kill a soldier who’s standing in a window you need to snipe from. I shot him in the collarbone with my slow-reloading silenced pistol. I missed with my next shot while he spun around confused, looking like he suspected that the wallpaper had done it. He was just noticing me squatting un-subtly in the doorway when I shot him in his face.
I also get the impression that the sniping mechanic is all the game designers really cared about. The plot (or the tiny particle of it that you see in the demo) is simplistic and the writing is weak. In the first mission, you’re tasked with killing a V2 rocket engineer who’s carrying a not-quite-microfilm McGuffin thing which you must retrieve to find his evil scientist buddies.
And in spite of everything I said above about how fun the combat is, parts of it are piss-poor. Whenever you’re not sniping, you go into a third-person perspective, and I hate almost all third-person shooters. If you get pinned down and need to, for instance, mow down the approaching enemies with your Thompson, aiming is pretty much impossible unless you go into ironsight mode, which makes you walk like you’re stuck in molasses. And as far as the sniper sections are concerned, they’re very formulaic and uninteresting. The enemies spawn in the same places every time and their reactions are predictable. And, even though it’s awfully fun to watch your spinning bullet punch through an enemy’s skull and ricochet off the inside of his helmet and come tumbling out his neck, after a while, the constant switch to the cinematic kill-cam just starts to get dull. And even though you can shoot out a baddy’s eyeballs, pop both his testicles, shatter his ribcage, pierce his heart, lacerate his kidneys, and perform very approximate brain surgery on him, it doesn’t really have much of an effect apart from the score you get for the shot, which doesn’t seem to affect anything, at least in the demo. For the most part (and I must say, I applaud this nod to realism), a hit in the gut will stop an enemy just about as fast as a hit in the chest, and as long as you manage to nail the thick fleshy bit in the middle, the foolish human isn’t going to be sprouting any more foolish humans, or whatever it is humans do.
So would I recommend that you buy this game? Well, no. Download the demo. It’s free. It’s easy. Play it for a few days and see if you enjoy the combat. Do like me and wait to see if the price ever comes down. Of course, like I complained earlier, the demo really doesn’t give you much of a taste of what the whole game will be like, but it’s a starting point at least. All in all, I’d say that Sniper Elite V2 is consigned to the purgatory known only as Well It Was a Cool Concept. I can see it being a lot more fun as a sort of target-shooting type game, a fast-paced heavy-replay-value simulator like the amusing Stair Dismount and Truck Dismount, if you’re enough of a geek to have played those. It would be fun if it was just you in one building sniping one street full of soldiers and one building full of snipers. Then you could properly revel in the glory of giving your foes hot ballistic vasectomies. I’d say toss out all the fiddling around with planting bombs and throwing stones and killing evil mad scientists and just let me shoot Nazis and watch their ventricles go pop.