It’s with a certain morbid glee that we head back into the lethal world of Karl Fairburne as he sets out on his O.S.S. missions to support the Allies war effort. Whether it’s hunkered in a bombed out ruin observing enemy patrols, or creeping across what will soon be a battlefield, we know we’re in for a tense stealth experience punctuated by satisfying shooting mechanics. For the latest instalment Rebellion has moved the action to France and sets Sniper Elite 5 in the days leading up to D-Day and the Normandy Landings. Fans of the series so far will have an idea of what they’re in for, but will stumble across a few surprises too, and newcomers need not worry about the legacy of the games to date. What you’re in for is a classic WWII espionage story about an expert marksman working behind enemy lines and needing to hold his own in the occupied French towns and countryside, married with the sublime sniping mechanics that gives the series its name.
Sniper Elite 5 starts out with infiltrating a French coastal town in an effort to begin clearing the way for the impending Allied assault, and has Karl teamed up with a small incursion force to take out gun emplacements and thin the German army’s presence. All goes smoothly as Fairburne heads to meet up with the local resistance leader, but as you’d guess, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse and our hero gets embroiled in a plot that has him seeking out a secret Nazi project and battling his way through waves of enemy soldiers. Pretty much left to his own devices across Northern France, each mission has Karl searching for intel on Project Kraken and trying to establish what it is and where it’s being made; and this will take him from remote farmhouses to the centres of towns. Whilst there’s limited help from the resistance in the form of supply caches, he’s largely doing this solo and will need to make the most of his skills with his rifle, traps and stealth to manage against the variety of foes he’ll encounter. Sniping might be the first thing that comes to mind with this game, but it’s far from the only approach to take.
There’s always a difficulty in making gameplay improvements in a sequel, and when there’s a pedigree behind that too there’s a chance that you can lose what made the original feel unique. Fortunately, it seems that Rebellion have learned a few things from Zombie Army 4: Dead War in terms of the third person shooting, because Sniper Elite 5 feels like it flows better than its predecessors to make use of the ever increasing levels of close quarters combat. It’s less clumsy by far than the early iterations of the series, and it steps up a lot from Italia too. Sniping is front and centre of course – that’s the hook that keeps us coming back – and whilst there are nips and tucks, it’s fundamentally the same mechanics previous players will be used to. Finding a target, zeroing the sights, holding your breath, and squeezing the trigger all combine with ease to send the bullet to the target… and the X-Ray killcam kicks in to show exactly what type of damage you’ve wrought. With the increase in resolution and fidelity these are now obscenely detailed and border on nauseating, like when I shot a trooper in the mouth and watched all his teeth scatter to the four winds. These are the horrific punctuations to what you’ve planned and setup and aren’t limited to rifle shots. Explosions, small arms fire and hand to hand combat can all trigger the slo-mo killcam, so you can view the damage first hand.
For one of the biggest evolutions though, there’s a hint of picking up techniques from IO Interactive’s Hitman. Sniper Elite 5’s maps are much larger, more open for traversal, and feature more staged killings and accidents. There are also multiple insertion points to find that can be used for switching up missions when they’re replayed. Each mission is set in an open area and for most of the time you’re free to tackle the objectives in any order. Listening to conversations, finding intel and using the resistance sources open up secondary objectives or points of interest, and might even offer clues for alternate approaches to the main task. It’s all very organic in the way it works, and though the levels are large, each area seems to be like a self contained piece of the puzzle. Getting spotted and triggering an alert in one section doesn’t mean you’ll get the whole Third Reich brought down on your head, there’s the ability to contain any alarms, but there will be a higher awareness state for a while and when the AI has your position they are brutal. Nicely, you can clear the entire map if you’re that way out, or you can choose to leave as few bodies as possible, and all non-primary objectives can be ignored to make quicker progress. Trying to complete everything in each map is not a quick task, and you can expect to spend 2 – 4 hours on each of the core missions if you’re thorough, and Rebellion have been considerate with your time by giving an option to save anywhere.
Bombing through each stage only tackling the main mission will have an impact on Karl’s capabilities as XP makes an appearance, and weapon upgrades are tied to exploration. Levelling up awards a point to spend in one of three different skill trees, and each adds incremental improvements to supplies, combat or health. Finding workbenches unlocks new attachments for the core firearms, and performing specific kills on optional targets will unlock new weaponry as well. Add collectibles to the mix and there’s quite a lot waiting for players to find, and it’s unlikely all of it will be found on the first playthrough. As a first in the series there are silencers available for all guns, and when they’re unlocked there’s a good chance you’ll find your playstyle adapting. Silencers are not completely quiet, so you need to be aware of distance, but they remove the need for sound-masking and waiting for noise to cover your shots. This increases the pace of the game and brings (for me at least) more aggressive combat into the mix. If you’re more suited to staying in the shadows and not leaving a mark, there are non-lethal options for bullets and traps, and it’s possible to leave everyone alive and unaware you were even there.
For those that want more than just singleplayer, Sniper Elite 5: France brings a host of multiplayer modes to the table. Most are familiar PvP matches and have been in the last couple of games, and returning is the co-op mode where you and a friend can play through the campaign missions together. Given the size of the maps and the multiple approaches to each objective, this is probably the one that will get the most use on the Codec Moments team. New for 2022 though is the mode du jour – the Axis Invasion. In this you can take on the role of a German elite troop and head into an unsuspecting players game to stalk them and try to take them out. For the invaded player they will know someone new is trying to stop them from completing the mission, and for the invader, they will have the help of all the AI soldiers. If the Ally gets spotted it’ll flag up on the map and the Axis side can hightail it to the location and join the search. It manages to create quite a tense addition to the game and there’s something really quite cool about searching out another sniper, or listening to firefights erupt in the distance. With bonus XP and rewards for having the mode enabled, there’s decent encouragement to give it a go, yet it is all optional and can be turned off at any time.
Sniper Elite 5 is a title that straddles hardware generations, and to a degree that’s visible in the cutscene character models – these won’t be the best you’ll ever see. However, the detail in the levels themselves is quite impressive, and clearly the routes around the maps have been designed to force exploration or face tough challenges. Authenticity comes across in the audio as well with the right atmosphere being created depending on the environment. Footsteps are overly loud to help you track enemy movements if you’ve not tagged them, and the focus mode emphasises the important ones as well as highlighting people in range. Of course, the sniping sounds are on point with the satisfying thump, crack and zing of explosive projectiles, and playing on PS5 with the DualSense is absolutely sublime. Sorry other platforms, but the adaptive triggers are amazing and allow for much more controlled trigger pull as well as quick aim/iron sights modes. There’s a shout out for the customisation and accessibility options too because they’ve very comprehensive. Whether you need to tweak certain settings for disabilities or just want to have the full physics sniping without punishing combat, it’s all there to play with.
You’ve probably figured up to this point that Sniper Elite 5 is a good game, and it’s one I’ve a lot of love for. However, if you’re expecting a bug free time then you’ll be a bit let down. There are a lot of little niggles that crop up in the missions that are a consequence of how intricate the maps and actions are trying to be this time around. We’re not talking the odd animation glitch here, there are points where you can fall through the map, stealth routes that don’t let you pass through, enemies and vehicles that just vanish, and awareness markers that never remove from the minimap. I didn’t encounter any barrier to progression that couldn’t be fixed with an autosave reload, and in fairness a disappearing tank was a blessing rather than a curse. What I think you need to be aware of is that even after several release patches there are still elements that might do odd things. Does their presence affect enjoyment in any way? No, not in the slightest, and probably does more for reminding us that Rebellion is a relatively small scale developer that remains fully independent and we should be impressed by that in this day and age of massive publisher acquisitions.
Initially, the nine level structure made me think that Sniper Elite 5: France might have been skimping a bit, but after 22+ hours to finish the campaign, and seeing exactly how much is in each level, that’s really not the case. Making the missions broader, adding more optional objectives, and turning the maps into semi-sandboxes has been a great move to evolve the series. With additional campaign levels coming soon, the fairly comprehensive multiplayer in place, and Rebellion’s typically stellar post-release support, this is a game that’s going to go the distance. It’s definitely one to pick up for those that like methodical shooters, and if you happen to have Game Pass it’s there right now with no strings attached. It’s also still the only game where you can perform an orchidectomy with a Karabiner 98 at 300 meters.
A PS5 review copy of Sniper Elite 5: France was provided by Rebellion’s PR team, and the game is out now on PlayStation, Xbox and PC for between £40 and £50 depending on platform.