There’s always been something satisfying about the Sniper Elite series from Rebellion, especially as it’s developed over time and improved on its third person action roots. No matter how many different pistols and machine guns get added through, it’s the sniping that’s the star. Patience, reading the environment and choosing the right timing lay the foundations for success, and it was hard to work out how the principles could be improved. It turns out that one option was to hand development duties over to Just Add Water and make it a virtual reality game. Sniper Elite VR squarely plants you in that role of a World War II marksman and wants you to experience the visceral action with total immersion. Does it manage to bring a new experience to gamers, or is likely to put more distance between it and the target?
Fortunately for Karl Fairburne, he’s been sidelined for the adventure in Sniper Elite VR, and this time you’re taking control of a member of the Italian partisan resistance. Set in the south of the country during 1943 and 1944, it’s up to you and your friends to fend off the advancing German army and keep your families safe. The veteran in question narrates his time in the resistance and tells the story in flashback whilst watching his family play without a care in the world. It’s a clear juxtaposition of the horrendous acts he had to commit during the war to enable his family to grow up in a safer, freer land. I say the acts he had to commit… it’s obviously you that’s committing them, and getting as up close and personal with killing soldiers as it’s possible to be in a game. Flicking through his old journal, he’s reminded of what happened and you relive the events and help him overthrow oppression, with each chapter making up a mission. From church tower vantage points to creeping along cliff faces, this is a lesson in how one man can make a difference.
Each mission is a short, objective based, self-contained level where you’re typically responding to whatever is happening around you. Sniper Elite VR isn’t concerned about throwing you in at the deep end and letting you figure things out for yourself. It’s probably a testament to the intuitive VR setup and having a familiarity with the series that I managed to get over halfway through before realising I’d not seen much in the way of tutorials, and it hadn’t hampered progress (even if it did mean I had no idea what the weapon challenges were and how to view them). The gameplay is pretty simple, especially with the Aim Controller – point, look down the scope, pull the trigger. Get it right and the enemy drops to the floor, get it wrong and they start shooting at you. However, this is a full FPS game and one that brings in stealth elements too, so it’s not quite as simple as just blasting away at everything that moves. As with the mainline entries, distraction and sound masking are needed if you want to get through undetected, and explosive traps and secondary weapons are very useful to have in your arsenal. Being slow and methodical is as much a part of a sniper’s repertoire as is the ability to hold their breath.
For those that aren’t as good with their breathing, a squeeze of a button allows you to focus and zoom in on the victim. Depending on the difficulty level this will also add an aiming reticule that shows where the bullet is going to land within the scope. The model for the ballistics is in full effect and distance, gravity and movement all play their part in finding the target. As an added complication, physically holding a piece of plastic that now represents the rifle means that unsteady hands are going to cause the shot to miss, and focussing dampens this down as well. That said, making a shot over distance without any kind of assist becomes more special than just aligning analogue sticks, and it undeniably makes you feel good. If it trips into an X-Ray killcam as well it’s all the sweeter, though only until you start to see the damage in its gory 3D glory. The destruction detailing is as impressive as ever and is clearly not for the fainthearted. Having the separation of scope and environment is a really neat effect and a tough one to describe outside the headset as distant objects are unfocussed and blurry, but getting behind the scope brings clarity, and still allows glancing around to make sure no one is flanking. Swapping to other weapons like shotguns, pistols and machine guns can’t quite match the heights of the rifles, yet they serve a purpose and will definitely get you out of sticky situations where reload speed is king.
Each map is relatively linear, and the size of them does hint at the human limitations that need to be worked in. It’s not the processing complexity that’s reduced as everything is well populated and nicely detailed, it’s more about being clear on a players comfort in VR for long periods of time. There’s an efficiency at play in Sniper Elite VR that seems like it’s maximising the experience without stretching it out. Most missions are 10 to 15 mins long, and there are 18 in all to complete. Some reuse the same maps and switch up starting points, objectives and time of day; some are definitely there for making you feel like a patient sniper; and some feel sprawling and propel you from one scenario to the next. Typically it’s the early missions that put you in the lone wolf mindset and restrict where you’ll be moving to, but it does open out somewhat around the halfway mark, and you find there’s a lot more traversal and stealth needed. It’s in line with the fully fledged SE games, but a little like the early titles for their slightly rough close combat. Movement is a tad clunky with snap turning, and there are delays with loading weapons the first time you switch to them. Why would you not load a pistol with a magazine when you’re starting out on a mission? That loss in fluidity when you come face to face with MP40 toting enemies can result in a number of game overs, not least because they are crack shots no matter what the distance is, and have a sixth sense for exactly where you’re hiding.
Getting through a mission then can be challenging, even on lower difficulties if you’re not prepped and ready, so it’s handy that manually activated checkpoints are dotted around. Taking the form of radios, there’s the option to save if things are quiet, and there’s no limit to it either. Very handy in some of the wave based defence missions. Opening up the next mission is not as simple as finishing the last one though, a number of stars are needed to unlock them. Much like some of the other features, it’s not really explained, and it’s possible to get to near the end before it becomes a problem and you have to start revisiting previous chapters to earn more. At least each requirement is very clearly labelled on the mission select page, and don’t take too long to achieve when you’re dedicating time to them. Going back has an advantage in letting you try different loadouts as finding weapons in the game adds them to the shed at your home, and you can mix and match rifles, secondaries and sidearms. Get far enough in the game and a silenced rifle unlocks which doesn’t have great power or range, but does mean the pesky task of sound masking shots to avoid alerts goes away. I can’t be 100% sure, but I think this a first in the series to introduce this weapon, and it’s very welcome. Each one levels up too, simply turn your controller sideways to view the profile of the gun and you’ll get its challenge info, and they typically add score bonuses with each increase in level. Just keep killing to improve the stats.
Sniper Elite VR’s gameplay is quite deep, probably more than you realise on the surface, and there’s quite a lot to uncover as you progress. The usual shootables and collectables are scattered around the environments so exploration is rewarded, and the challenges add replayability. Heading back into familiar territory also lets you appreciate the aesthetics as well, because despite the resolution caps on the PSVR, this is still a good looking game (though granted, the PC version looks stunning). It’s very smooth and responsive, and draw distance isn’t a problem either, which is pretty essential for a sniping game. There’s a risk it’s too responsive, and this relates directly to the Aim Controller and may not be Just Add Water’s issue to resolve, but the drift on the tracking is absolutely horrendous at times, and can make it virtually unplayable. It’s not the the camera failing to find the lights, there’s just a gradual rotation of all the weapons till they’re offset from the physical by around 45 degrees. Having tried all sorts of things to compensate or eliminate it that didn’t work I just had to persevere, and I can only put it down to the sensitivity of the gyros in the controller rather than the coding in the game. It needs mentioning though if you’re thinking of playing with that device that about a third of the time you’ll be fighting it rather than the Germans.
What Sniper Elite VR does really well is capture the essence of the series and make you experience it from a different perspective. That’s not just from the partisan’s point of view, but from an entirely new immersion in the world. It’s well executed and delivered pretty seamlessly in terms of the gameplay, and the niggles I’ve had with it are probably more linked to the Aim Controller and not being as used to getting into close quarters battles with that as I am a standard pad. That said, overly long stealth sections in a VR headset aren’t always the most comfortable, and sometimes you’ve not got the right tools handy to stay in stealth either. I can’t knock the sniping experience though, and that’s what we’re really here for so it’s easy to overlook some of the less polished elements. Fans with the right kit shouldn’t be hesitating to pull the trigger on this game.
A PSVR review copy of Sniper Elite VR was provided by Rebellion’s PR team, and the game is available now on PSVR, Steam VR, Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest for under £25.