Are next gen graphics enough of a shot in the arm for the series?
It's kind of fitting that on my way to see a game set under the burning North African sun, I get lost along a flooded riverbank in the middle of a miserable English rainstorm. By the time I sit down to watch Sniper Elite 3's protagonist Karl Fairburne inch his way further across enemy lines at the Halfaya Pass, near the border between Libya and Egypt, I'm soaked through, my feet are wet, and I'm vaguely wishing we could trade places.
That thought passes fairly quickly however; I'm not sure I'd last too long in Fairburne's position. Set during WWII and actually taking place a few years before the events of Sniper Elite V2, this third instalment in the franchise has set out to capitalise on next gen technology and include a range of features and mechanics that will test even the most skilled of snipers.
For instance, in the heat of the desert, your heart rate must be carefully monitored to ensure you don't push yourself too hard. "One of the things we wanted to discourage and move away from the more traditional shooter titles is the run and gun approach," SE3's producer Andrew Shenton explains following our hands-off demo. "Basically, the heart rate is not just important; the player needs to be able to control it. So, there's a number of ways you can do that. For a lot of the demo there, I was moving reasonably slowly and being quite patient; that was because keeping my heart rate down means that I can shoot more quickly.
"We have the option for the player to be able to sprint and get out of the environment, but that spikes your heart rate up quite high. It's better for you if you're calmer. You've got control over that though; you can bring your heart rate down much quicker by resting and lying prone, that sort of thing. So we're giving the player agency over choosing it, but the emphasis is this isn't a run and gun game. It's a sniping game."
If you're looking for something a little more fast-paced, best you get your kicks elsewhere, as Sniper Elite 3's systems are built around rewarding patience and thinking before you charge into the fray. You could do things head-on, and in fact the game's larger, more open environments have been crafted to allow you to do so, but you'll only be making things harder for yourself. "It's all about giving the player a bit of choice and freedom," Shenton says. "We have machine guns in the game - you can use them, you can move around with them - it's just not necessarily a brilliant idea. The AI is appropriate for you running around with a machine gun, if you do that in an area where there are other snipers you'll quickly find limitations in it, especially now since your health doesn't recover automatically."
To counteract these threats, your sniper has a larger number of tools at his disposal. You're encouraged to combine items to craft specialised traps and explosives, for example. In one sequence the demo handler booby-traps a building with tripwires and bouncing betty bombs at each entrance, so that Fairburne can hole up upstairs and concentrate on sniping. In another part of the demo, the handler combines flint and tinder with a stick of dynamite to create a timed charge, which is used to destroy the enemy's heavy artillery.
And as to that all-essential piece of kit, your sniper rifle itself? It'll be a lot more customisable, allowing you to tailor your sniping style further. "We've got an enormous amount of unlocks, and every time the player ranks up they get an unlock," Shenton says. "I believe our sniper rifle is broken down into four parts. You can customise each one of those individually and then you've got options on the reticule.
There are personal preferences like that that help you to build something that's unique to your rifle, but we've also go customisation options for things like your binoculars - you can make those more powerful, allow you to tag more enemies and get a more detailed view by unlocking different binocular optics. These are useful in the single player mode but they really come into their own in multiplayer; we allow the player to choose between four loadouts that they select and customise themselves, so they can have one for competitive modes, one for co-operative modes and one for story, or whatever configuration they're comfortable with."
Sounds pretty standard, but hang on - don't all those customisation options interfere with the historical accuracy the team is apparently going for? "We did actually - so erm, we've been doing our DLC as well, we're not talking about this at the moment but the game is going to get more weapons - and we ran out!" Shenton replies. "So we basically, between the series, we have covered everything that was available in the theatres of war, and certainly with the DLC plans for Sniper Elite 3, we've got all those weapons in the game."
WWII setting aside, there's little going on in Sniper Elite 3 that you haven't seen before. The most interesting new feature is the relocation mechanic, which allows the game to adapt to your muck-ups and helps you to rebalance the status quo if and when you're discovered, without having to resort to murdering everyone else on the map. Not that many players will shy away from murder, especially since the game's trademark X--ray killcams have now been upgraded to include not only a surgeon's eye view of your victim's bones shattering, but their muscular and circulatory systems as well.
Thankfully, that increase in graphical fidelity isn't limited to killcams. "We're pleased and happy to report we're able to run at 1080p on the Xbox One," says Shenton. "We're quite happily within that range. I think it's a choice for every title, and every title needs to make the choice that is right for their game. For our title - detail is important while you're sniping, being able to see the detail in the environment, particularly when we're asking the player to look quite a way into the distance and pick out small amounts of movement. Having a higher resolution naturally lent itself to that.
We're quite grateful that things are based around PC. We spent quite a lot of time getting our tools and technology mature for PC, so the transition over to Xbox One was quite natural," he continued. "We have had a fair bit of support recently from Microsoft, helping us out and getting the most out of the machine - one of the features we weren't able to demo in there was that on the triggers we've got - on the Xbox One pad - we mentioned heart rate being very important when you're sniping, it's important to be able to feel that. So we've got haptic/tactile feedback in the triggers so as you aim you can feel your heartbeat."