There’s a bit of a drought in VR releases lately, especially on the higher end, so it wasn’t without great expectations that Sniper Elite: VR hit headsets last week. While some of the mechanics the franchise is known for translate well enough to the medium, the rest of the game has problems that make the experience a bit of a let-down overall, especially for a $30 price tag.
- X-ray kills are still satisfying,
- Lots of weapons,
- Neat core story device.
- Clunky weapon handling,
- Lazy story and design,
- So much missed potential.
Developed in partnership with Just Add Water (J.A.W.), Sniper Elite plays VR very safe. It feels almost as if this was the their first foray into the genre, given the game’s almost strange reluctance to take up some of the medium’s best features. You’ll never throw a punch, a knife, open a door, climb anything besides a ladder, or even pop a cork on a bottle of wine (something unthinkable anywhere in Europe – and certainly in Italy).
Furthermore, interactions are extremely straightforward. You’ll push buttons, throw a few switches, but really anything tactile has been replaced with simply hovering your hand over a satchel charge you want to place or a door you need to unlock. Grenades are launched automatically from your hand but most of the time you’ll forget they’re even attached to your belt.
You see, Sniper Elite, while mainly being a sniping game, tries being a VR shooter too. And the results aren’t exactly pretty. The enemy AI acts as if you’re sniping at them when you’re less than ten feet away taking pop shots with a pistol. They’ll scramble for cover and crouch-run when really what they should do is stand their ground and start shooting.
They’ll also never, ever try to approach your piece of cover since when the shooting starts, they immediately dig into their own bits of cover. When sniping this is to be expected; when up close and personal, it’s a bit awkward.
Speaking of awkward – there's reloading. The one thing you would expect them to nail would be the operation of your sniper rifle’s bolt. This, sadly, is something I struggled against so often I finished the game with a self-loading Gewehr-43. You’ll often miss the grab point of the bolt and just grab the handle instead. This resulted in some untimely (and undeserved) deaths.
Some rifles, like the Moisin Nagant and Delisle carbine, have a better bolt, but almost everything else is a struggle to use, not to mention squinting through the tiny rifle scopes, which will wear down your eyes like virtual sandpaper. Sniping is a notoriously difficult thing to do in VR and I was especially curious if a game about sniping could get it right. It sadly appears we’ll have to keep waiting.
Campaign and story
The seven-or-so-hour-long campaign has you in the boots of an Italian resistance fighting a guerilla war against the German occupation. It’s weird that you never fight any Italian fascists, but then again, it feels strange to nitpick about history in a series famous for shooting Hitler in his one remaining testicle. But I feel like it’s also worth pointing out that there’s no specific reason the game focuses on the Italian resistance, as it’s used only as a vehicle to shuttle you between massacres of German soldiers.
And this is kind of a shame because partisans never really get enough love in the World War II genre. There are some amazing people in history like the Bielski partisans that deserve more of the spotlight. The Bielski brothers, Four Jewish Poles, formed a resistance group to defy Nazi occupation in Poland and their story would be retold in the 2008 film “Defiance” (which is worth watching, by the way).
While there’s a nice device tying Sniper Elite all together, it feels like it doesn’t go far enough and leaves a lot of potential untapped story-wise. Between missions, it’s revealed you’re an old man remembering his days in the war. This is a poignant and touching message for the player as looking down at your wrinkled hands and then onto your grandchildren running around that yard reminds you exactly what you fought for: the peace and prosperity of future generations.
Unfortunately, nothing that touching happens in the campaign proper. You don’t fight alongside any great friends, meet any heroes of the resistance (although some, like your own father, are referenced), and none of your relatives even speak to you. This all feels like it was cut due to budget constraints which is really a shame. There’s a good story hiding inside Sniper Elite VR but it’s never realized.
Gameplay with issues
This extends to mission structure as well. Every level boils down to “kill all the bad guys." This game is also the embodiment of the “stealth is optional for this mission” meme as you can go guns blazing without much hassle. You can do stealth if you want, but it’s not really very satisfying or even necessary to move things along.
But even though things are kept simple, there’s a clunkiness throughout the game in that it’s rarely ever clear what approach you should take at any given moment: do you use the sniper rifle in every encounter? Or do you pull out an SMG and start blasting? The answer is only clear when you’re indoors and in close-quarters.
Even then, there are issues as weapon handling for pistols and SMGs isn’t super intuitive. You’ll go to grab the foregrip and wind up pulling out your magazine instead. You can’t even hold pistols with both hands as attempting this will likewise remove the clip from the weapon. I didn’t go into Sniper Elite with sky-high expectations, but frankly, there are indie games with better weapon handling. It’s a shame that a double-A game didn’t hold itself to a higher standard here because the lack of polish is noticeable and consistent.
Several of the gadgets from previous Sniper Elite games make a return, but you never use them. TNT boxes, trip mines, bouncing betties, they all end up going unused. There isn’t even a scenario where they’d be particularly useful, nor a tutorial to explain how they can be utilized best.
This lack of polish extends to the level design as well. I suspect that the developer prioritized the Quest version of the game and so there was no need to make Sniper Elite VR a visual tour-de-force on PC. To be blunt, this isn't a pretty game. On a high-end PC, there are moments when environments just look bad. Staring out at the Italian countryside from a sniper’s nest, it looks more like a child’s drawing than a postcard: all boxy, awkward buildings and conical trees.
It’s also noteworthy that they reuse several levels and only go to the trouble of changing the time of day in one of them. This just feels like we’re being sold short-shrift and I find it hard to believe a studio like Rebellion, with a crown jewel franchise like Sniper Elite would be so stingy with resources, but they definitely went there, much to the game’s detriment.
The one good thing is the X-ray kills, but it feels like this is the single thing they decided to nail 100%, and the devil may take the rest. It isn’t like they haven’t had time to work on the game. The first trailer debuted at E3 2019 so it’s really just a question of what priorities the dev team had and how much they figured they could get away with holding back on.
The answer is, sadly, too much. Sniper Elite delivers up some satisfying VR x-ray sniper kills, but once the novelty of that wears off, grinding through the rest of the campaign ends up being a bit of a chore. With no villains, real story, or any actual history to absorb, the game drifts through a seven-and-a-half-hour campaign of fight enemies, complete objective x, rinse, and repeat. This is such a shame when there was so much potential to really innovate in VR – but that seems to be the last thing Rebellion set their sights on.
Alexander Eriksen | Gamepressure.com