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Sniper Elite 5 Review: Hitman But With Nazis

Sniper Elite 5 is the game I need right now. That’s become a cliche ever since the pandemic began, but I don’t need this game to help repair my mental health or temporarily fill bonds left empty by a continuous stream of lockdowns – I just want to kill Nazis.

There’s a simple, almost animal pleasure to murdering a fascist from hundreds of yards away, watching as the bumbling soldier is utterly unaware of the bullet about to tear through his throat. He’s down, and his patrolling cabal of friends will soon follow as I pick them off one by one before skulking in to pick off the remaining fools unlucky enough to still be alive.

If you’ve played previous games in the series, Sniper Elite 5 is very familiar. You play as returning protagonist Karl Fairburne, a gravelly voiced sharpshooter who hates Nazis and loves justice. He isn’t much of a character, but more of a blank slate for us to inhabit as we explore levels and conjure up inventive new ways to complete objectives and bring down the fascist regime. The same goes for the narrative, which involves piecing together clues surrounding a Nazi superweapon and doing everything we can to stop it. None of it is very interesting, and instead acts as a framing device for sprawling virtual playgrounds with immense amounts of replay value for us to lose ourselves in.

Rebellion has taken clear inspiration from Hitman with this fifth entry. The campaign itself remains a linear shooter experience, but each level is massive. Your first playthrough has you starting from a standard position dictated by the narrative, but you will soon unlock alternate points of entry and intel that will lead to customisable loadouts, secrets, and optional objectives that turn each location into a classic war movie of sorts. My personal favourite was an earlier level set in Beaumont Saint-Denis with the Nazis occupying a war-torn French coastline with vicious control.

We begin on the outskirts, with the sprawling town dominating the horizon as we must formulate a strategy to infiltrate the tallest building without being spotted, or instead walking through a path of loud, unrelenting bloodshed. I went with the former option, hiding amidst tall grass scattered across the beach, only silencing the guards unfortunate enough to cross my path. If things went wrong I could go loud as I engaged in a miniature firefight with a few alert enemies, praying they didn’t ring a nearby alarm and bring the entire legion of fascists down upon me.

Sniper Elite 5 shines at providing small moments of tension like this, making the player continuously alert and reactive in a way that only the best stealth games manage to accomplish. Even when taking the silent approach, all firearms and equipment make varying amounts of noise that even the most expensive of silencers can’t muffle completely, so taking into account your surroundings, the distance of foes, and even passing noises is crucial.

This more nuanced approach to caution comes alongside a greater focus on non-lethal gameplay. At first this puzzled me, since deciding to knock Nazis unconscious or use alternate ammo to avoid murdering them means you’re missing out on the slo-mo kill cams and grotesque violence that makes this series what it is. Rebellion has built a reputation on the joy of taking the fight to this regime by shooting the testicles of Adolf Hitler like we’re in The Matrix. Actively deciding to avoid that part of the game to hide bodies in bushes and only engaging in (admittedly hilarious) punches to the head or gentle chokeholds is something that not all players will vibe with. Yet it still works, and I found myself balancing this playstyle with a more aggressive one depending on the context of each new situation.

Side missions can feel like miniature levels in themselves, with outposts and underground bunkers often being populated with dozens of enemies waltzing around the objective. I have bigger fish to fry once this base is cleared out, so instead of drawing attention to myself I decide against killing anyone, even avoiding enemies with a classic stealth approach when possible. Not only does this earn me more experience, it also makes me feel like a trained sniper who only kills when absolutely necessary. Levels are so big that I needed to consider moments like this or I’d risk throwing my entire scenario into disarray, and I cared enough about the outcome to pull my punches instead of bathing in crimson.

While these ambitious levels are a joy to explore, I did come across a handful of annoying bugs during my review playthrough that point to a lack of polish. Guns would often appear as invisible spectres in my hands, while passageways meant for stealth would be blocked off due to parts of the terrain clipping through one another. I also had an instance where none of my weapons would reload until I restarted the level. Enemies are also very stupid, and will often rush towards your exact location once you’re spotted, basically lining them up to be murdered indiscrimately until nobody in the vicinity is left standing. Small niggles like this aren’t a dealbreaker by any means, but were more than noticeable when playing on PS5.

I mentioned earlier that the narrative and characters don’t matter much, and that point stands, but they’re so unusually bland and poorly acted that I wish more effort was put into making this world feel more compelling. The focus is on the gameplay systems and level design, and it feels like Rebellion realised at the last minute that it needed some thematic layering to link all of its cool ideas together. This results in a narrative that just gets in the way, and retreads the steps of previous games while failing to provide us with any reason to care.

Parts of the campaign hint at an uneasy alliance between Germany and Japan, and it would have been cool to see that expanded upon with specific assassination targets or levels that see us taking on both armies in a joint-operation of sorts. Sniper Elite 5 doesn’t need to bother with realism, but wants to be an edgy war drama for some reason. It fails, and that holds back what is otherwise some of the most fun I’ve had with a third-person shooter in ages.

Online multiplayer consists of traditional modes, wave-based defence missions, and a Dark Souls-esque invasion mechanic that allows a rival sniper to infiltrate your solo missions and hunt you down. This rules and turns these massive levels into claustrophobic tunnels of anxiety that must be navigated with the utmost care. Phones can be activated across the map that provide a rough idea of where the sniper is hiding, allowing you to hunt them down and bring them out of hiding for a swift death. I loved having to leave my mission behind for an impromptu game of cat and mouse, but did end up turning invasions off part way through the campaign purely so I could finish the damn thing. If you’re a sick, twisted masochist who loves ruining the fun of others though, invasion is for you.

Sniper Elite 5 is a great little shooter, and I had a lot of fun sinking into its sprawling levels and inventive mechanics. It doesn’t change the formula or even introduce anything particularly new to the wider genre, but perfectly understands what it wants to be and delivers on that expectation with significant flair. I viewed it as a palette cleanser of sorts, an experience that harkens back to a different generation of single-player shooters we don’t tend to see anymore. It’s almost nostalgic, and aside from Wolfenstein there is no better Nazi-murdering simulator out there.

A review code was provided for the purposes of this review.

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