Sniper Elite V2 preview

It's been about seven years since developer Rebellion's Sniper Elite took players back to World War 2, to sneak around and tactically ventilate Nazi craniums. With the release of Sniper Elite V2 just around the corner, I had an opportunity to see some of the game in action, with color-commentary by Rebellion's Tim Jones and publisher 505 Games. Towards the end of our demo, I was handed the controller to experience the methodically-paced sneaking and sniping game for myself.

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Sniper Elite V2 tells the fictional story of Karl Fairburne, a U.S. sniper who finds himself in Berlin towards the end of the second World War. Tasked with finding and eliminating (or rescuing) a team of scientists who are working on Hitler's V2 rocket program, Fairburne must accomplish his goals to prevent the technology from falling into the hands of Stalin's Red Army. It's a clever setup that puts players on the periphery of a historical, large-scale conflict in Berlin.

The action in Sniper Elite V2 is a combination of 3rd-person sneaking and shooting and first-person sniping. Rebellion has built their own game engine to support the title, and as you can tell from the screenshots and trailers, it's quite pretty. Half-demolished buildings are displayed in great detail, and often must be surveyed and cleared of enemies to get to better vantage points. In truth, Sniper Elite V2 is meant to be played at a thoughtful and deliberate pace. Though our hero was equipped a relatively quiet pistol and a submachine gun, playing Sniper Elite V2 as a typical "run-and-gun" shooter is a sure-fire way to land Fairburne in a pine box. Instead, it's much better to proceed quietly, survey a given scene, and then eliminate enemies as quietly and methodically as possible.

Being a stealthy death-dealer is a significant challenge, given how generally smart the enemies appeared. Enemies can be tagged with binoculars when spotted, which is a useful precaution to take before opening fire, just in case all hell breaks loose. As one would hope, enemy soldiers will investigate strange noises or search the area and alert nearby troops when noticing that one of their buddies has been shot. On that note, tactics like shooting one enemy in the legs will often create a living decoy that will draw other soldiers away from cover as they try to help. Similarly, booby-traps like mines and tripwires can also be set by the player--tactics that can be particularly helpful when you want to know if an enemy is trying to sneak up on your six.

One of my favorite presentational aspects of the game is its kill camera. Sniper Elite V2 takes the concept to new and ridiculously-satisfying heights. When accomplishing a particularly deadly shot, an X-ray-like cross-section of the enemy is shown when the bullet arrives, allowing the player to see their victim's skeletal structure and internal organs. When the bullet penetrates the target, its impact is dynamically rendered in gruesome detail. Bone fragments fly outward in a slow-motion crimson spray and affected organs rupture, as the bullet deforms. It's a bit depraved, but in the best possible way, and serves as both a great reward for a shot well-executed, as well as a compelling incentive to get on to the next kill.

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The mechanics of actually lining up and taking a long-range shot in Sniper Elite V2 are also quite satisfying. Factors like gravity, wind, velocity, bullet penetration, and aim stability all play a part, and how many HUD-based assists you get is dependent on the difficulty you've selected. In one of the sections I saw, the player could time his shots to coincide with the tolls of a nearby bell in order to mask them.

All in all, I was quite impressed by what I saw and played. Stealth, surveillance, and patience are all necessary to be effective. Methodical and thoughtful players (like myself) will likely find a lot to like about the way Sniper Elite V2's missions unfold, though I suspect that even some military-shooter fans who typically prefer pure-action offerings will also find a lot compelling about Rebellion's latest title.

Though I didn't have an opportunity to experience any of Sniper Elite V2's co-op modes, they sound pretty exciting. The single-player campaign can be played with a friend, and a mode called Kill Tally (the game's answer to Horde mode) also joins the mix. Bombing Run is a fun-sounding mode that has players stealthily collect parts for their escape vehicle before the sky rains explosives. A mode called Overwatch rounds things out. The players--a sniper and an operative, each with different skillsets--take on a series of co-operative missions in which teamwork is essential to succeed.

With the number of World War 2-based games out there, it's a wonder that more of them don't include the ability to confront Adolf Hitler. Apparently, Rebellion feels the same way. Towards the end of the demo, I was treated to a sample of some of Sniper Elite V2's DLC (free for pre-orders), which gives the player to opportunity to blow Hitler's mind (literally) before he boards a train and escapes. In the playthrough I witnessed, Hitler got away, but once Sniper Elite V2 is released, I get the feeling that other players will ensure the Fuhrer won't be so lucky.

Sniper Elite V2 will be available on May 1 on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.