My fascination for history and love of the shooting sport meet at a crossroads in the video game Sniper Elite V2.
The game’s premise places the main character, Karl Fairburne, in war-torn Berlin at the end of World War II, with the directive of tracking down and assassinating Nazi scientists involved with the V2 ballistic missile program.
The plot of the game takes a backseat, however, to the unique gameplay experience Sniper Elite offers.
This tactical shooter encourages the player to develop a skill set of stealth and tactics, rather than brute firepower force, in order to eliminate targets and accomplish missions. This review will focus on the sniper rifles at the player’s disposal, the interface within the game, and the enemy behavior. Each element has its own components that either add to or detract from the game’s realism and enjoyable playing experience.
Throughout the game, in addition to his American issued loadout, Fairburne also gets access to a number of iconic arms from the Eastern European front, but this article will focus on the five sniper rifles that serve as main weapons.
M1903A4 Springfield, .30-06 Springfield
Fairburne begins his first mission armed with the M1903 in the sniper configuration designed in 1942. The video game gun has a good balance between scope, flat trajectory, and rate of fire. But, historically, the A4 was the least well received 1903 model despite the high powered cartridge (the M1903 has a muzzle velocity of about 2,800fps), largely because of the underpowered optics (2.2x M73) and lack of iron sights.
Mosin/Nagant 1891/30, 7.62x54mmR
The Mosin achieved a great prominence in the USSR during the World War II era for its ease of production, and for its use as a sniper rifle by accomplished shooters like Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Vasili Zaitsev, and Ivan Sidorenko. The sniper model was equipped with a heavier barrel and a 3.5x PU scope. In Sniper Elite V2, similar to the M1903, the 91/30 has a good balance between flat trajectory and rate of fire, but with slightly improved optics.
Gewehr 43, 7.92x57mm Mauser
The Gewehr43 has a muzzle velocity of approximately 2,300fps, the lowest of all the rifles on this list. Sniper Elite seems to reflect this performance by giving the Gewehr increased bullet drop. But what the Gewehr43 lacks in trajectory stability, it compensates in capacity and rate of fire. These features are especially appreciated when the player must face multiple threats simultaneously.
Karabiner98k, 7.92x57mm Mauser
In the time period, the Kar98k was often equipped with a 4x ZF42 scope, giving it an edge against the optics on the M1903, SVT-40, or the Mosin Nagant. Its muzzle velocity was somewhat higher than that of the Gewehr43 (in the neighborhood of 2,500fps, compared to the Gewehr’s 2,300fps). The game rifle also features excellent optics, but the bullet drop was more pronounced than in any other rifle. The enhanced zoom didn’t seem to offer enough benefit to counter the bullet drop it suffered after 100m.
Using the SVT-40 in Sniper Elite V2 was similar to using a semi-auto version of the Mosin. The capacity of the SVT is increased, but the trajectory of the round is similar. The reticule on the optics, however, is more difficult to read. That seemed odd to this reviewer considering that, historically, both the Mosin and the SVT used similar 3.5x PU scopes. However, both rifles used the same cartridge and are measured to have muzzle velocities around 2,800fps.
The “Sniper” Experience
There are three elements of the gameplay that define it as a sniper-oriented tactical shooting experience: the stealth interface, the shooting experience, and the game ballistics. This review will identify the games strengths in each area, and compare them against its weaknesses.
Stealth Interface – Strengths
Through the game’s first mission (which also serves as a tutorial), the player learns to maneuver Fairburne through the smoking ruins of Berlin, circa 1945.
The main character traverses the environment in a largely believable manner. To cover a distance quickly, he can sprint, but as he runs, he ramps up to speed, maintains it for a short while, and then tires and must move slower. However, the faster the player moves, the more noise he makes, which attracts attention from nearby enemies.
By the same token, moving upright (sprinting, running, or walking) draws more scrutiny from adversaries than does moving from a crouch or crawling in prone. So, sprinting upright is the fastest manner of moving Fairburne across the map, but it is also the least stealthy form of movement, while crawling in prone offers the quietest manner of movement with the least silhouette, but it is also the slowest method of moving the player around.
This tradeoff between stealth and speed are logical, in the game as well as in real life.
Another element to the interface that enhances the gameplay deals with the bodies of felled enemies. Once a target is dispatched, whether through setting a trip mine, sniping them from a distance, or using one of the stealth kills, Fairburne has the ability to pick up the body of the felled foe, and hide it away from the eye of any adversaries still patrolling the area. On the other hand, any bodies left within view of the enemy will raise alarm and cause them to seek out the player.
Stealth Interface – Weaknesses
Despite the game’s efforts to allow the character to “stalk” the enemy, there are still some discrepancies that make the experience more unrealistic. For example, while the Fairburne can utilize hiding behind cover, in order to emerge from said cover, he conspicuously leaps away from behind the surface (be it a wall or downed vehicle, etc.).
Another inconsistency with stealthy movement is that Fairburne cannot crawl up or down a set of stairs while in prone. He must first move into a crouch, or stand, before moving up or down any steps. A somewhat unrealistic option Fairburne has when moving crouched is to sneak up directly behind the enemy to perform an instantaneous “stealth kill” (either with a punch to the throat, or by snapping the target’s neck).
The idea of being able to dispatch an enemy by sneaking up on them holds true to the theme of covert battle, but it isn’t carried out in a realistic manner. Consider, for example, the throat punch… while certainly uncomfortable, it is not realistically the “instant kill” as it is in the game. The fact that, as long as he stays in a crouched position outside of the enemy’s immediate field of vision, Fairburne is completely undetectable to the enemy also seems a stretch.
There are also game limitations where the player cannot directly interact with the environment in ways that a sniper would likely use. For instance, there are specific, pre-scripted positions within the game setting where the character can crawl through holes or leap over obstacles. Other than in these predetermined locations, the player cannot make Fairburne jump.
Additionally, even though the glint from his optics can alert an enemy to his position, in no setting can he alter the surrounding environment to construct better concealment for sniping. In some situations, the character can shoot certain objects within the environment to interact with it, from shooting specific canisters deemed “flammable,” to packs of dynamite, and exploding trucks and tanks via shooting their gas caps.
The problem with this is that the degree of this interaction is largely unrealistic. These explosions produce little to no shrapnel, and only affect enemies directly next to the explosions, and the surrounding environment is entirely unaffected.
Shooting Experience – Strengths
The shooting experience has more of a precision “sniping” feel than many of the first person shooter games on the market. The player has to take into account some forces of external ballistics, such as the effects of wind and gravity on a bullet at different distances. Additionally, reticule fluctuation is accounted for when the player sets up a shot. That fluctuation in the target reticule diminishes as the stance increases in stability.
For instance, when Fairburne takes aim while standing, the player must cope with a larger degree of reticule vacillation than when he’s lying prone. To achieve increased aim steadiness, the player must also factor in Fairburne’s heart rate and breathing. For example, if the character has just been running before he sets up his shot, his heart rate will be elevated, and that will contribute to more wobble in his aim and placement of his shot.
To allow the player to keep track of Fairburne’s heart rate and breathing, a graphic showing a beating heart and an indicator for his breathing appear in the lower left hand corner of the screen. When the character holds his breath, he enters a “focus mode” that further stabilizes the aim. The focus mode lasts as long as Fairburne can hold his breath, and he can hold his breath longer when his heart rate is slower, and his heart rate slows quickest while he is prone.
The steadiest shot can be achieved, then, when Fairburne lies prone, waits for his heart rate to drop to about 60bpm, holds his breath, and then pulls the trigger between heartbeats.
The sniper “feel” of the game has added depth from the degree of realism involved in the ballistics. Sniper Elite V2 focuses on only two elements of ballistics that affect the path of a projectile: wind speed and direction, and the bullet drop due to gravity. While this is, to some degree, a simplification (it doesn’t account for drag, barrel temperature, air pressure, etc.), it still gives the rounds a more true to life flight path than other tactical shooters.
A creative gameplay element gives the player a cinematic view of the bullet (with detectable rifling) as it leaves the barrel and spins toward the target. When the projectile impacts the target, it deforms and tumbles through the air, sometimes passing through multiple targets.
An entertaining, but unrealistic, feature of this cinematic progression is how, once the round hits the enemy, the game gives an internal view of the body depicting the internal damage to the skeletal structure and vital organs.
For this reviewer, it unintentionally rings home the deadly nature of rifle rounds and the destruction that is capable on a soft target with a high speed heavy hitting sniper round. And while the internal view isn’t realistic, the degree of damage inflicted upon the target is. Regardless of rifle, one shot to the head or to vital organs kills (including an enemy shot aimed at Fairburne).
To further encourage sniper behavior, not only is the accuracy tracked for each mission, but this game also features a point system that rates the skill of each shot taken. Generally, the more difficult the shot is, the more points it is worth, and vice versa.
Exceptionally challenging shots, for example, a moving headshot, or shot that detonates a grenade hanging from the target’s belt, or a shot that hits two targets from 200m away are worth more than vitals shots, shots from close range, or kills with SMGs, pistols, or grenades. This system inspires the player to become more creative with dispatching their targets, rather than “ramboing” through missions, because they are not rewarded as well for any kills accomplished in an overt manner.
Another aspect that adds to the realism of the game experience is Fairburne’s limitations with gear. For one thing, he is restricted in the amount of equipment he can lug around on his missions. He is allotted one sniper rifle, one submachine gun, one sidearm, and a limited number of grenades or mines.
When he uses up the ammunition he begins with him on a mission, he must scavenge for more. Sometimes that means ditching his issued Thompson M1A1 for an MP40, because it is easier to find 9×19 Luger in the areas he’s infiltrating. Other times, that means conserving ammo and using stealth to evade targets, rather than dispatch them.
In the beautifully detailed world of Sniper Elite V2, the enemies are often the biggest detractors from the surprisingly high degree of realism the game otherwise achieves. They have some believable behaviors, such as coordinating flanking maneuvers to flush the main character from a hiding spot, or making idle conversation in German or Russian (depending upon the nationality of the troops), but many of their actions are illogical or scripted and do not depend on what the character does.
The onset of an enemy interaction is often the most believable. They are dressed in the appropriate uniforms, and they wield the weapons that form the standard loadout for each nation. Often, the soldiers will be chattering to each other, listening to music, dozing, or otherwise unaware of Fairburne’s presence. They won’t start looking for him unless, through some degree of carelessness (ex. walking past a window, leaving a body in the open, etc.) or opening fire. After an enemy is killed, Fairburne can glean a few rounds (occasionally a grenade or mine, as well) from their body.
While the enemy is not on the immediate lookout for the Fairburne, once the search has begun, they call out for and taunt the character. That continues until they discover him and kill him, or until, through verbal cue, they disengage their search.
As the player, you can choose to hide and wait until they cease looking, eliminate the soldiers before they discover your location, or openly engage them in a firefight. However, the verbal cue of the search is highly unrealistic.
Another flaw associated is that each language (the game features German troops and Russian troops as enemies during different points throughout the story) is voiced by only one voice actor. It’s a minor detractor… until you’re trying to count how many soldiers are searching for you on the other side of your cover, and cannot differentiate one soldier’s calls from another.
Some of the enemy behavior is scripted, triggered not by how stealthy Fairburne is, but rather because he crossed an imaginary threshold in his movement along the map. This “game trigger” can cause targets to suddenly appear and immediately fire at the character. For instance, at one point in the game, I was hiding behind some cover, scanning an overhead crane, and I determined that it was clear of enemies. I kept my line of sight on the same crane, so that I could see if any soldiers approached it to climb up, while slowly inching forward. When I had crawled about one foot forward, an enemy instantly appeared on the crane I was watching, and shot me.
While game trigger forces like this are unrealistic, it does force the player to pay close attention to areas like rooflines, windows, and dark recesses of broken buildings, to find potential vantage points for counter snipers. That focus is different from other third person shooters, where the main goal is to pump as many rounds as quickly as possible, because an enemy could jump out or spawn right in front of your character at any moment.
I just about grew up on video games, but that kind of fast-paced, thoughtless trigger mashing has never captured my attention in the way that a game that forces me to think does. Granted, that’s most likely because I’m terrible at that “shoot ’em up” style of gameplay, but I’d prefer to think it’s because a game that challenges my mind is more rewarding.
Why You Should Buy Sniper Elite V2
Sniper Elite V2 isn’t a brain-busting puzzle game, but it does mix an element of precision that I enjoy from the shooting sport in real life with the historical backdrop of one of the biggest conflicts in history. The angle the game takes in encouraging the player to think like a sniper makes for rewarding gameplay, but the experience could be enhanced with improved enemy interaction.
Increasing the number of voice actors, integrating enemy behavior to better match the behavior of the character, and allowing Fairburne increased interaction with the environment would reduce the frustration from scripted behaviors, and make the interface overall more believable.
Even with the shortcomings in allowing the character to interact with the environment, and that irksome tendency for enemies to appear most inconveniently, the video game thrill of watching a perfectly aimed round of 7.62x54mmR spin through the air to take out a target from over 200m away, makes Sniper Elite V2 worth a play.