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Sniper Elite 3 Review: A corpse rotting on the grave of the video game industry

Vast open levels, Nazis, one American, his gun, slo-mo cam. The right ingredients for mindless fun are there. The final product however leaves much to be desired, much to be hated, and much to regret. Make no mistake: Sniper Elite 3 isn’t trying to push boundaries so much as sustain them, to remain perfectly immobile with bated breath like its protagonist; to that extent, it could be fun. But that is not something worth celebrating or supporting. This is no sniper in a field in its immobility: it’s a corpse, rotting on the grave of the video game industry.

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When you’re first introduced to the game, you have no idea who you’re playing. He’s a typical gruff-voice middle-aged white guy, with a gun and hard-on for killing (Nazi’s). The small attempts at character development seem more like a child’s interpretation of soap operas than adult interaction. I only found out via multiplayer that his name’s Karl. It was quite clear that Karl wasn’t a character, he was a way for me to hold a gun. That can be fine – Half Life, Doom, etc., did this well and still had fun and amazing plot develop around their silent protagonist.

But that, of course, implies not only a good plot but a plot at all. Like character, Sniper Elite 3 cares about as much for story development as it does character. It’s there in name only, as a way to move you forward – but if you had to ask me what “it” is, I couldn’t possibly do so.

Every level is the same: Karl must kill (almost) every Nazi in smart ways. It really doesn’t matter why, to the game and, eventually, to you. Sometimes the game throws in tanks, so there's that. You had to protect your “friend” at one point, but that’s about the extent of the game’s variety. Instead, the game relies on you to create multiple paths of play to accomplish the mission: the range being pure stealth to all out brawl. But there’s little incentive to replay missions.

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You level up, gaining military rank. This unlocks perks in terms of your rifle, items, etc. It was nice to see crafting implemented to a small extent – but rifle parts to upgrade your weapon are difficult to find and there’s little reason to do so once you learn how to make your rifle an extension of your destruction.

Now again: all this could actually work. If you want mindless Nazi murdering, then Sniper Elite 3 is perfect. It makes no pretences at reworking the traditional American solider killing Nazis – as character and story – as Wolfenstein: The New Order so beautifully did. This is a straight up (male) power fantasy contained within a carbine rifle and scope.

The game feels solid. Karl handles well, the sniping is – thankfully – excellently balanced. You will perhaps melee as often as you snipe, but occasionally you’ll use the worst gun in any game I’ve played: his silent pistol.

The pistol’s aiming is bizarrely off, seeming to hit every area around my target like we’re performing at a carnival. Frustrating to say the least, especially when said target alerts everyone to your location.

The unique focus (excuse the pun) on this game, of course, is the X-Ray Slow-mo Kill Cam. When you take a sniper shot while in Focus, the game goes ultra-slow tracing the bullet’s trajectory. Then, upon entering your target, you see an x-ray of his body, complete with muscle and bone. You witness the bullet ripping this interior apart, hear his gurgling as he dies. Testicles explode, hearts dissipate, kidneys shatter, lungs ignite. This is fun – more so than I thought it would be, though you do start skipping it when you’re taking out a lot of enemies at a time.

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Sniper Elite might have claim to the KillCam as its perfectors, but it’s actually significantly less gory than Max Payne 3’s last-man standing destruction (where Max would rip the final enemy apart with bullets, in slow-mo and you’d witness flesh, blood, and skin fly off at brutally slow and adjustable speeds.)

Another interesting aspect is its silent mode: There is no actual silencer for your rifle, so you have to fashion noise-makers to mask the sound. Generators, malfunctioning cars, etc, all do the job. I like this element of the game, since it forces you to make shots from one location – no matter how difficult – and wait and plan. This increases tension, since someone could stumble into your location.

The sound itself is adequate. Every mission has the same intro music, every loaded game has the same jingle. Trucks and tanks are indistinguishable. The guns sound solid – especially the rifle – and the heavy, full-throated roars during the KillCam mode are excellent.

Visually the game is less than adequate, looking like a last gen game with mid-level graphics but smoother. Textures are almost laughable, Nazis all look alike. Karl is flat skinned and unscarred. Physics are also strange: there’s little impact of, say, wind on Karl in terms of ripples. His clothes show no sign of knowing what air is. You’d think wind would play a big factor for a sniper game, but it exists in the same domain as plot and character: non-existent except in name only.

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The game can be fun, but it’s not new. And it’s certainly not worth full-price. Every level seems to be a mere regeneration on assets from a previous level, there’s no character or mission variety. There was one part – when a storm hit and you had to protect your “friend” – that was excellent. The storm masked your shots as you killed nearly a hundred Nazis.

The game has some fun multiplayer modes. The survival co-op was fun, since it has you and a friend dancing around rooftops, making the enemy think you’re in locations you’re not, while the other one snipes, etc.

But the multiplayer brings up a big issue: homogeneity in games.

When you examine the character models for the game, in general and as displayed in multiplayer, you will find no non-whites and no non-males. Representation and sexism in games is a major issue no one – even those who hate hearing about it – can escape. It’s quite striking when you examine the game and see only those of one particular race, particularly when it is set in Africa. It’s on the game’s title!

Many people respond to issues of representation by proclaiming their apathy toward race, indicating they don’t care what race they’re playing (as long as it’s a good game, etc.).

This is not, actually, as helpful as it sounds.

As a non-white I do notice because non-white lead characters are a minority. It’s easy not to care about race or sex or sexual orientation when yours is almost always the one represented – ubiquity is aligned with normality, after all. I do see race, I do see sex because we all need to care about how our favourite creative medium is dealing with race and sex. Ideally, we’d all like to not care about race or sex or sexual orientation, but we can’t escape that almost any group that doesn’t fit into white straight male is, even today, treated as pariahs in all sorts of ways. It’s not “just a game”, it’s our favourite artform, a way to have ourselves represented in a world that is not the current awful one, with its homophobic laws and everyday street harassment. Yet, even here, your identity is non-existent. How hard would it be for the developers to darken one model’s skin colour, for example?

Sniper Elite 3 isn’t a game that must cater to every identity, just as – for example - Ubisoft’s games aren’t. And no claims about “greater” means “all”. I don’t expect my identity as an Arabic-named, ex-Muslim, South African to ever be represented. But, at the very least, one more option that isn’t white, that isn’t male, would be great. We would like the world of games to make persons out of more than just white straight males; there are other persons, black people, gay people, women people. No one is forcing developers to do this – there is no law. There is only morality and appeals. Pointing out the invisibility hopefully points out ignorance that we can all learn from.

I’m not claiming games that only have whites are racist or that the people making them are. That’s too simplistic. Instead it’s a bit more insidious: they just don’t realise, there’s just no reason to think “Oh, hey. Maybe we should have someone who doesn’t fit the same mould?” It’s just accepted. And the point is it shouldn’t be.

You can ignore all of this. You can roll your eyes. But it’s horrible to think that wanting to be treated like a person is met with cries of “I JUST WANT TO PLAY A GAME” – well so do I, so do we all. But it’s difficult to look past character models that are all, basically, the same – and, worse, the same as we’ve come to expect. Other people exist, too. A tiny recognition of that would be wonderful and isn’t asking for much.

This game doesn’t bother and I think that’s it’s major issue. It maintains a status quo, of gaming, of character, of race, of mechanics. It does nothing, it says nothing. It just sits rotting in its own fetid completion, dangling rewards like chains on a skeleton’s arm. It can be fun, but it’s not worth buying and not worth investing in.


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