In Sniper Elite 5, your job is as simple as it is gratifying: killing Nazis. A third-person shooter, the WW2 game follows American marksman Karl Fairburne as he shoots, stabs and strangles his way across occupied France. As with the rest of the series, how you do this is up to you – a stealthy approach is always encouraged, but there’s nothing stopping you from loudly eviscerating every baddie in your path.
During a hands-on preview for Sniper Elite 5, developer Rebellion is keen to highlight that this sort of player agency is something it has expanded on. The preview takes place during an early mission, as Fairburne joins up with a local resistance cell in France to investigate rumours of yet another dastardly Nazi plot. Sniper Elite has always done well with its gorgeous, gory playgrounds, and 5 is no different – Rebellion’s French countryside is pretty and colourful, in a way that’s at strange odds with the next few hours of violent bloodshed.
When you’re done admiring the scenery, it’s off to work. Your objective is to retrieve classified Nazi intel from a fortified chateau at the opposite end of the map – and if you’re feeling extra ambitious, there’s a high-ranking officer to track down and assassinate. Between you and your target, there are countless German patrols, checkpoints and machine gun emplacements.
Right from the get go, Sniper Elite 5 feels like it’s a bit more willing to give the player more agency in how they complete the level – a local resistance operative immediately presents with several potential routes to the chateau, each option coming with their own set of pros and cons. If you veer east, there’s a river crossing that – while fairly heavily patrolled – has enough foliage for sneaky players to crawl through. Likewise, a lightly-defended point at the opposite end of the map will have less foot soldiers to avoid, but it will be vigilantly observed by a well-placed watchtower. Of course, if you want to just shoot the Gordian Knot, there’s always the direct approach – a fortified pathway that leads right up to the castle’s front door.
There’s a refreshing sense of freedom in these options, but at the same time it’s all hindered by Sniper Elite 5‘s reliance on invisible barriers: a thin row of bushes will inexplicably stop Fairburne dead in his tracks, while waist-high picket fences – often the same height as other fences you can usually hurdle – will bar your path elsewhere. It’s a bit frustrating to try and dive into cover to avoid a patrol, just to have the invisible hand of Rebellion swat you away, and unfortunately immersion takes a hit when you find that your path across the map isn’t as open as it first seemed.
While this can be annoying, Sniper Elite 5 is still undeniably less linear than its predecessors. As you approach the chateau, the environment becomes more supportive of player agency, and there are numerous ways to gain entry and sneak around the castle. Vines can now be used to scale towering walls, whilst ledges can be shimmied across to clamber into locked rooms. On the approach to the chateau, one particularly memorable moment involved climbing the ivy of an out-of-the-way mill to dispatch a rival sniper whose perch made further sneaking impossible.
After a brief but bloody knife fight, a blind spot in the castle’s defences was opened, and Fairburne was free to shuffle-sprint across an open field and move silently into the chateau. Close-up combat can be a little clunky – there was an awkward dance in trying to get the melee prompt to appear – but nonetheless, Sniper Elite 5 feels like it offers tangible and satisfying rewards for taking a meticulous, quiet approach.
However, complete stealth wasn’t always possible. As with the series’ prior entries, enemy detection is a mixed bag, and the hands-on was frequented by soldiers with impossibly good vision. It’s always irksome to have your best-laid plans foiled due to reasons seemingly out of your control, but in Sniper Elite 5 it’s a little more of a sore point because you’re given more tools to tailoring your approach – and having your perfect plan spoiled due to finnicky AI sucks. This has long been a problem with the Sniper Elite series, and it’s frustrating that despite the game getting consistently better with each outing, one bad man with an MP40 has remained eagle-eyed and ready, throughout the franchise, to dispatch you at a moment’s notice.
There was at least one silver lining. When you’re given no choice but to go loud, firing in Sniper Elite 5 feels magnificent. At this point in the series, Rebellion has all but mastered its very particular brand of gratifying gore – if you’re unfamiliar, a cinematic bullet camera will follow many of the shots you fire in X-ray vision, allowing you to see the exact damage you’ve done to your victim: ribs will shatter, hearts will burst, and skulls will pop. There’s a gratifying routine to lining up your shot, steadying your aim, and watching your bullet do its work, and long-range combat feels clean and well-polished.
While gunplay isn’t directly improved on from prior games (it’s still solid), there are some neat touches in Sniper Elite 5 that make combat more personal. In-game weapon benches mean you can customise your weapons to far greater effect, and a wide variety of your gun’s parts can be tinkered with. Though the preview’s single level didn’t offer a huge amount of room to play around with weapons, a nose through the bench’s offerings suggests a wide scope of modifications available for each gun. The system is very rewarding to dabble in – having that extra layer of customisation and using it to craft a gun that’s tailor-made for your preferred playstyle feels fantastic, and again really feeds into Sniper Elite 5‘s focus on player agency.
Eventually, the preview’s slow, stealthy crawl ends as a violent sprint. After stealing intel for the resistance and learning about a Nazi plot to invade America, Fairburne’s cover is blown and alarm bells start blaring. The last five minutes are a gory rush: there’s no more careful sharpshooting, and during the rush to escape from the area, a dead soldier’s submachine gun is seized up to hose down some aggressive pursuers. When Sniper Elite throws you into the deep end naturally – without dodgy AI or flaky invisible walls to blame – it’s a genuine adrenaline rush.
Sniper Elite 5 probably won’t win over anyone who’s not already a fan of the series’ gratuitous gore, and still won’t impress anyone who can’t come to terms with the shooter’s light clunk. That being said, Rebellion has made some compelling tweaks to the formula that makes 5 feel like a Hitman-style sandbox, and that’s very good news for players.