Sniper Elite changed with Sniper Elite 4. Optimistically, it was to refresh the series for its fourth entry, but pessimistically, it was trying to emulate Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and its impeccable stealth sandbox. The comparison wasn’t favorable to Sniper Elite 4 and while Sniper Elite 5 had the chance to better earn that comparison, it once again squanders its potential and barely manages to clear the low bar set by its predecessor.
Most of this is because Sniper Elite 5 is a lot like that predecessor. This fifth entry drops returning gruff protagonist Karl Fairburne on a somewhat large map with various objectives and Nazis littered around, all with very squishy insides. Players are left to shoot and sneak around, all the while using the game’s infamous X-ray kill cam to admire every organ as it turns into goo. The borrowed premise gives it something to work off of and potentially improve on, but the template doesn’t do much help because of the numerous oddities and shortcomings that infect almost every part of it.
Stabbing and silently shooting around can be rewarding at times when a Nazi falls into a trap or gets outflanked, but it’s often hampered by the game’s bad artificial intelligence. “Bad” doesn’t always mean stupid, and that’s part of the problem; they’re inconsistent. They’ll sometimes pinpoint Karl with an unnatural accuracy or they’ll be aloof to his presence when they shouldn’t. For example, guards can sometimes start firing on the player’s position even if said guard couldn’t have actually seen them, yet they’ll ignore a gigantic explosion when it’s just yards away. This dichotomy means that they’re too easy to sneak around or unfairly intelligent, which are both unsatisfying for different reasons.
These are extreme examples, as they can also even act obtusely and further prove their ineptness, even on higher difficulties. Snipers can abandon their safe nests and sprint down to street level if they catch a glimpse of the player. Throwing a body in the bottom floor of a multi-storey building can attract a whole platoon of guards multiple floors up. Inversely, tossing a bottle in front of a guard on the top floor can cause him to book it to the bottom floor to investigate. They’re also prone to continually loop their investigation phase for seemingly no reason, raising the threat level in the process.
Moments like this where the guards break any semblance of rational thinking to do something utterly bizarre happen all too often, and while the specifics will likely vary from player to player, the through line remains the same: They’re not fit for a stealth game. Enemies in stealth games need to be aware and somewhat predictable, yet also still a little unpredictable to maintain a challenge. In Sniper Elite 5, they often act erratically and irrationally or bend logic to ensure that sneaking is never as solid as it should be.
The game’s levels are similarly rough around the edges. Its eight maps are large and seem like open sandboxes, but it’s mostly a flimsy illusion. Some areas have multiple paths in and are more open than the ones in Sniper Elite 4 since Karl can climb vines and unlock a few more doors, thanks to the new bolt cutters.
However, the new pathways and glimpses of a better game are tainted by its overwhelmingly strict design. Every stage has an abundance of invisible walls, impenetrable bushes, unclimbable barricades, or otherwise closed paths that limit where players can go. Getting funneled into specific routes that can be crawling with Nazis is frustrating when a clearer path is just over some insurmountable shrubbery. Maps are more like an annoying maze of linear paths and dead ends than a truly liberating world where the player can decide how to proceed.
Sniper Elite 5’s limited arsenal that has barely expanded since the last game also doesn’t help since the handful of different explosives don’t allow for much creativity or variation. The more customizable guns just don’t cut it. Its new nonlethal options that are meant to provide more options are puzzling because they offer players the undesirable chance to spare fascist scum for not much else outside of a cheap experience boost and quieter incapacitations. It entirely skips over the morality of nonlethal play that other smarter franchises like Metal Gear Solid, Dishonored, and Deus Ex have, which is a key component.
Mission objectives are similarly unexciting, static, and don’t take advantage of the mechanics in clever ways, usually also requiring predetermined, straightforward solutions. Sniper Elite 5 promises a sandbox, but can’t realize that promise with its unimaginative and restrictive tools, levels, and quest design that constantly tell the player “no.” It all becomes more untenable as the levels drone on, making the final few maps exponentially more repetitive and tiresome than the first handful.
Sniping, while not the sole focus of the series anymore, is still where Sniper Elite’s best qualities come out. Picking off these Hitler-loving idiots through a scope is a more rewarding way to engage with the combat since the empty lung mechanic makes players feel overpowered and more like its deadeye protagonist. The stunning number of difficulty options also means it’s possible to turn the game into a hardcore sniping sim with no assists and ruthlessly accurate enemies or more arcadey shooter. Aiming is more intuitive on the PlayStation 5’s DualSense, too, as pulling the trigger halfway yields a third-person view and clicking it all the way opens up the scope or iron sights, making for one of the most practical uses of its adaptive triggers to date.
The signature X-ray cam adds even more impact to these bone-crunching hits, which is essential since long-range kills can feel a little distant and detached without these dramatic short snuff films. But since the game drags, the X-ray kill cam gets tiresome and easy to skip, especially since Rebellion has leaned on it too hard in both the Sniper Elite series and Zombie Army 4. Rebellion claims it has new features here, like bullets ricocheting off bones, and it’s now possible to adjust the speed of the slow motion, but that doesn’t make it any more fresh.
Invasion Mode is not as familiar since it is one of the only big new features in Sniper Elite 5. Like Deathloop, human players can jump into someone else’s campaign as an opposing force. It’s meant to add tension and it is undeniably stressful to walk around when being stalked by a real person that’s undoubtedly smarter than the game’s dumb enemies. Although it is theoretically possible to have a satisfying cat-and-mouse sniper duel, it doesn’t seem to play out that way. Invaders can run around freely with no other goal and use the A.I. to their advantage, while hosts have to contend with said A.I. troops and complete the mission, all while being limited by the game’s aforementioned weak tools. It’s usually either just a boring campfest in maps not made for this kind of multiplayer or an unbalanced deathmatch.
Sniper Elite 5 falls well short of the high standard set by its biggest inspiration, but it also fails on its own merits regardless of how it stacks up to Kojima Productions’ classic. Its limited level design, shallow systems, and puzzling A.I. make it a poor stealth game that can only be temporarily boosted — but not entirely salvaged — by its sniping mechanics that also grow monotonous as the game limps along. Sniper Elite 5 already aims low by being only a small improvement upon its underwhelming predecessor, but it still manages to fall short of its target.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 5 equates to “Mediocre.” The positives and negatives wind up negating each other, making it a wash.