Nazis. History frowns upon them, as well it might – what with the evil, and everything. Nazis were bad, and we all know it. Even if on some logical level we understand that there must have been at least a considerable number of non-Nazis in the German army in WWII, history is written by the winners, stories need villains, and by now we gamers as a collective have surely mown down a thousand times more generic digital Nazis than the Third Reich ever produced, and all without so much as a second thought between us. So while there are a lot of adjectives frequently pulled out to describe the Nazis, “sympathetic” is rarely among them.
Credit then must go to Sniper Elite V2 for almost provoking that second thought. The game's much-publicised selling point is lovingly detailing the grisly fates of those hapless members of the Wehrmacht that stray into our rifle sights. In this aspect at least, it succeeds so well that what happens to these bog-standard faceless, generic Nazi gaming enemies while playing can provoke the same sympathetic wince that one finds oneself deploying when watching particularly horrendous skateboard mishaps on YouTube. Indeed, far from being faceless, it's perfectly clear that these poor blokes are also in full possession of skulls, jawbones, eyeballs, hearts, lungs, kidneys, and testicles, at least until a high-velocity slugs smashes, bursts, perforates, liquifies or disintegrates one or more of them in the game's eye-watering slow-motion bullet cam. And he was just a week from retirement.
It's 1945, Berlin is under siege, and even the Third Reich knows it's defeated. With the end of the war in Europe mere days away, America is thinking about post-war matters, and the Russians make them mighty nervous. Therefore when the OSS learns that several of the scientific minds behind Germany's advanced V2 rocket weapon are making arrangements to defect to the Soviets, they send the game's gravel-voiced protagonist Karl Fairburne to the ruined German capital to put a stop to it and ensure that the “Reds” won't get a head start in the inevitable post-war arms race.
Throughout the campaign, Karl must thus do whatever it takes to prevent the scientists from falling into the hands of the Russians - including often facing off against, and gunning down, his on-paper allies in the Russian army. Later developments in the bare-bones 10-hour campaign storyline confirm that – for the purposes of the game at least – the Nazis and the Communists are essentially interchangeable henchmen of the same nasty stripe.
Karl seems to be a pretty a simple guy, and as far as he's concerned, this whole mess is best cleared up by shooting people from a long way away. Thus missions in the campaign largely consist of guiding Karl from a standard third-person perspective to a point where he can make the shot that will take out his key target.
Between our sniper and his mission-critical killshot though, there's typically the rubble-strewn streets and ruined buildings of a graphically serviceable if unspectacular Berlin – strewn with the odd secret Nazi facility or flak tower for variety – to negotiate, and it's in these sections where the game falls down somewhat. Sniper Elite V2 gives the impression that it desperately wants to be played as a stealth game between its big sniping set pieces, but threading through streets clogged with Nazis or Russians rarely produces the satisfying feeling of precision that's found in better-executed stealth gameplay elsewhere.
Karl always carries a pistol, machine gun, and his trusty rifle, each of which can be upgraded as the game progresses. The silenced pistol he starts the game with, as well as a practiced neck-snapping technique, allow for some sneaky kills from close range, but the enemy awareness indicator is rudimentary and kicks in late. As a result, there's often only a metre and a second between lying prone and unseen by distant enemies to suddenly having the whole neighbourhood down on Karl’s head.
Our sniper can use binoculars to spot and tag enemies from a safe distance, but the resulting HUD markers give no indication of how far away enemies are, or in which direction they are facing. A number of levels include the rather neat conceit of regular loud noises such as artillery, church bells, or PA systems that cover the sound of rifle shots, but in effect this only seems to provide the chance for a few headstart stealth kills before the inevitable alarm, as it normally isn't long before someone spots a body. Frustratingly, when the alarm is raised, extra troops sometimes show up from buildings that were totally empty when Karl painstakingly crawled through them only moments before. Curious.
Particularly in early levels there's additional frustration in finding that what appears to be a cunning side route around clustered enemies ahead ends abruptly in an unopenable door, a strangely impassable window frame, or even the odd invisible wall. To be fair, the later levels of the campaign open up in scope considerably, but there are still frequent times where the game forces the player straight through enemy choke points, inevitably ending in another Karl vs. An Entire German Division free-for-all.
Fortunately, there are few such unpromising tactical situations that can't be resolved by that old gamer's technique of ducking round a corner or through a door, whipping out a machine gun and waiting for the Nazis to run forward and eagerly hurl themselves onto the ever-growing but apparently unsuspicious corpse pile. Advances in enemy AI seem to have largely passed Sniper Elite V2 by, unless this is a historically accurate simulation and WWII soldiers really were so brave that they would (as just one example) risk running into the open to carry the virtually headless corpse of a comrade to, ah, safety.
As with some other stealth action games, Sniper Elite V2 also uses a “ghost” system to show where enemies think Karl’s last known position is, but this ghost seems to sometimes keep enemies fooled for long time. It’s not uncommon to observe these poor confused Nazis from a great distance still riddling a long-vacated position with bullets.
Opposing snipers perched high on roofs and in ruined second- and third stories seem to have a little more nous than their street-level comrades, and there can be satisfaction in finally nailing one of these pests with one of the game's signature long-range bullet cam efforts after a duel. On normal difficulty at least though, the easiest way for Karl to locate enemy snipers is to shuffle into the open and take a bullet, which does detract from the realism somewhat.
The game is at its best when Karl makes it to the appointed target overlook area for each level. There's often been a chance to prepare for this moment along the way – as well as grenades, Karl can bring landmines, tripwire mines, and shootable dynamite along on missions to booby trap target areas and fortify his sniping position.
Waiting for the arrival of the target or that perfect shot can be tense, and choosing just the right moment to use Karl's limited aim-steadying ability – which also slows time slightly – is important. When used to its fullest effect though, the precision of shots is deadly. In addition to doing all the grevious bodily harm previously described, Karl can blow up grenades on enemy bandoliers, set off distant satchel charges, and even destroy an enemy tank with one careful shot – although suspension of belief is again heavily tested by this last one. Picking off the scurrying enemies from Karl’s lofty height can feel rather God-like, and the bullet-cam killshots never seem to get old.
A co-op campaign is on offer, and three other multiplayer modes feel like they had at least a little bit of thought put into them. Kill Tally is a standard wave mode, and Bombing Run – a mode again hampered by the clumsy stealth play – sends players on joint fetch-and-return missions. The most fun is Overwatch, which puts one player in the role of the on-ground grunt, tasked with missions such as planting explosives, while a second player covers him or her with a rifle from the rooftops. It's enjoyable as the grunt to watch your sniper partner carefully take out targets you've marked for them, and immensely satisfying when playing as the sniper to bring down the enemy soldier who's a second away from mowing your partner down.
Sniper Elite V2 has includes many enjoyable and memorable sequences. It's just a shame that it these moments are so padded out. When Karl is at the top of a ruined church shattering skulls from 200 metres, the game soars, but sadly transitioning to these instances is too often a chore. Let's hope any third game in the series adds better stealth gameplay to complement the sniping mechanics and presentation that Sniper Elite V2 does so well.