Sniper Elite 5 is rooted in the past

I am exactly halfway up the wall of an exorbitant chateau in rural France when my cover is blown.

As I hang suspended from vines that have outgrown their trellis, bullets pelt the area around me, punching concentrated holes in musty stone. Bizarrely, not a single slug connects with me until I have scaled the wall and entered the building, at which point I take a huge amount of damage from … somewhere? I take cover, stitch my wounds, and wait for things to calm down. Someone off screen with no line of sight on me sounds an alarm. I have no idea what is happening.

The above vignette is a perfect diorama of Sniper Elite 5, a third-person tactical shooter that is both helped and hindered by that chaos. It is, put plainly, a game that is equal parts tactile and coarse, tight and janky, clever and zany. This review would probably have constituted a shopping list of minor complaints had I not been lucid enough to constantly remind myself how much fun I was having.

For what it’s worth, I don’t rate that word: “fun.” It’s a near-useless descriptor that is usually lazy and imprecise, but in this specific instance, it’s the most accurate term I can possibly use.

Image: Rebellion Developments

Sniper Elite 5 is set in Nazi-occupied France toward the tail end of World War II. For all the gravitas this context should demand, Sniper instead insists on force-feeding you bombast. The contrast between being a ghillie in the mist and seeing an X-ray of your mark’s skull at the time of impact (think of Sam Raimi’s worst early-aughts impulses) is both immediate and unapologetic. Should a firefight break out, it will ironically be more akin to the messy, disorganized warfare of actual history than the hyper-refined tactics we have come to expect from contemporary war media.

Basically, it’s all very silly. And, as is the case with most games that lean into their silliness — rather than being ashamed of it — Sniper Elite 5 finds the fun lying dormant at its heart.

For the most part, Sniper Elite 5 is a pretty standard third-person shooter. You’re kitted out with a sniper rifle (duh), a handgun, and a submachine gun, as well as a variety of equipment including grenades, mines, medkits, and decoys. The “ideal” way to play is to slowly but surely skulk through each level, discreetly picking off opponents with well-placed crackshots from across the map. There are multiple routes to each objective, which incentivizes experimentation and encourages replayability for run optimization — so far, so good.

That is Sniper Elite 5 on paper. Sniper Elite 5 in action, however — at least on your first run through each of its maps — is something wholly different. It is rare that you will meticulously pick off lone guards as you slink through the shadows like the spectral sniper of Nazi nightmares. On the contrary, you are far more likely to accidentally alert a wandering enemy as you klutz and kerplunk your way through the French countryside. Sure, you might catch him off guard enough to knock him unconscious or incapacitate him with a silenced pistol — but, once in a while, this rogue Nazi will round up all his Nazi pals to ruin your day. This is when the action of Sniper Elite 5 well and truly kicks in, for better and for worse.

Karl Fairburne uses a zipline on Sniper Elite 5’s Chateau level

Image: Rebellion Developments

As with most stealth games, enemy alertness is a reversible state. You can, if you’re clever, lose your pursuers by twisting and turning through towns and thickets, eventually resuming your status as The Shadow who is universally feared by the Nazis. In the same way that pro-Hitler propaganda has convinced foot soldiers that they’re winning a losing war — a detail that is subtly baked into enemy barks — news of your deeds travels like wildfire across France. In this way, the atmosphere beneath the game is highly effective, with enemies gradually beginning to fear you as a sort of Grim Reaper figure as you progress through the campaign. There is also a real sense of place on your missions (Guernsey, the Loire Valley, and more), which is further compounded by the ragtag group of Resistance fighters who help you along the way.

But it’s hard to be impressed by even the best bits of Sniper Elite 5 when almost everything it attempts is better executed in other games. I often worry that comparative critiques run the risk of near-immediate redundancy, but a game founded upon stealth and sniping in 2022 is innately burdened with the Sisyphean task of holding its own next to Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. They’re totally different games in many respects, but I’d be a liar to claim I didn’t think of my days in the desert as Snake while I lined up shots in French forests as … Karl?

Pure stealth games are a dying breed these days, so reminders of the greats, especially in quiet moments between firefights, can make comparisons feel inevitable. Sniper Elite 5 cannot handle its chaos and potential for emergence anywhere near as well as something like Hitman, while even more streamlined experiences like Assassin’s Creed feel much more competent when it comes to managing stealth and enemy alertness.

A landscape at night in Sniper Elite 5

Image: Rebellion Developments

It’s important to note that even some of the parts of Sniper Elite 5 that aren’t derivative of stronger stealth efforts don’t quite meet the mark. While the level design is excellent, offering you the kind of freedom that makes replaying these games worthwhile, the animations are pretty damn uncanny — literally the first character you meet in the entire game looks like he belongs several years in the past. The voice acting is also unconvincing, making an already stressed script even less authoritative. You could skip every cutscene in the game and not miss much. You could strip the script away and Sniper Elite 5 would not be radically different for it — it would still be the fifth main entry in a self-proclaimed prestige sniper series where you snipe Nazis as an elite marksman, but for the fifth time.

All of this is especially intriguing when you consider the facets of the game that seem to have received the most attention. Physically correct X-ray animations that clearly delineate the trajectory and damage of a bullet are extremely impressive and a staple of the series. They’re also inherently gratuitous, and an odd darling to keep alive in a game where so many other areas are on life support. In an industry where the stakes become exponentially higher with every passing year, it has become more important than ever before to know what your game does and doesn’t need. In this respect, Sniper Elite 5’s scope is pretty fogged up.

But there are also strong points, all of which the series would do well to learn from in the future. The level design is perfectly conducive to your identity as a roguish, one-man army and facilitates some incredible set pieces, like sniper duels across church aisles, sleuthing your way through munitions factories along railway tracks, and holding towers against dozens of adversaries. This is all accentuated by the fact that the sniping itself is excellent — slowing your heart rate to pick off an unsuspecting sentry from the shadows never becomes any less satisfyingly tactile, while high-octane duels are arguably the most exhilarating part of the game.

Karl approaches a Nazi soldier in Sniper Elite 5

Image: Rebellion Developments

There’s also the all-new invasion mechanic to consider, and it’s fantastic. Essentially, you can infiltrate other players’ campaigns as a Jager, instigating a game of cat-and-mouse that enables you to halt their progress in a similar way to games like Dark Souls or Deathloop. It’s not as elegant a system as its counterparts in those games, but it’s a solid effort — particularly when you get a message from someone you know saying, “Was that you who just shot my face off?” Sniper Elite 5’s worst moments are made much more apparent by how good its best ones are.

In the end, though, the game’s name alone is probably more than enough to inform you of what it’s all about. It’s a third-person shooter with first-person sniping that puts you in the boots of Brittany’s deftest deadshot. It might sound silly, but Sniper Elite 5 is a game that cares about its titular vocation, and as the fifth entry in the series, proves that — for the most part — Rebellion has become pretty good at designing virtual sharpshooter experiences.

It’s worth returning to that earlier word — “fun.” While much of the design seems rooted in the past, if there’s one feeling that endures after a session of Sniper Elite 5, it’s that Rebellion hopefully has a solid blueprint to do something truly innovative and worthwhile with Sniper Elite 6. Until then, raucously silly fun will have to suffice.

Sniper Elite 5 will be released on May 26 on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox using a pre-release download code provided by Rebellion Developments. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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