Sniping is an inherently defensive attack form. Low rounds per minute and a lack of mobility make the classification suited for cover/suppression fire, taking out rival snipers, reconnaissance, and of course, assassinations from long range. It is odd then that Sniper Elite V2 repeatedly deploys your character — the eponymous elite sniper — as a lone wolf attacker.
As the world nears the end of World War II, Nazi and Soviet scientists are in cahoots to develop a ballistic missile to inflict unspeakable damage to Nazi enemies. And because this is a video games and Nazis were assholes, you gleefully rummage through the bombed out remains of 1945 Berlin, blowing off the heads — and in some cases, the testicles of — random Nazi foot soldiers en route to defusing this global threat.
The primary gameplay conceit of Sniper Elite V2 is stealth, as you might imagine from the sniper designation. Unfortunately, your avatar has about as much creep to him as Duke Nukem. You’re generally equipped with a sniper rifle, sidearm, and some kind of automatic weapon in addition to a trail-mix of assorted gadgets. If you can take any lesson from Sniper Elite V2, understand that demolished cityscapes are not only easy to traverse, but they also afford countless serendipitous vantage points to snipe from and are only reachable by climbing through burned out buildings that often have just enough stairs or dressers intact to reach the complex’s apex.
At this point, however, stealth ceases to be an option. If a rival sniper doesn’t spot you first when you fire your first bullet (and they will spot you first — even if you’re careful — because they are perpetually on guard), hordes of Nazi henchmen will immediately begin firing on your exact location regardless of where that is or whether you choose to move to a safer spot. With foresight, you will set up a trip wire at the entrance to your particular hideout for this onslaught. However, whether or not you thought this far ahead, you are now in a firefight the likes of which would get a sniper killed.
You can continue to fire shots from a distance with your sniper rifle into the oncoming masses, but eventually, you will fall back on the sub-machine gun that you walked into battle with. Unfortunately, that sub-machine gun only comes with one clip (understandable) and everyone that you kill only carries ammo for the sniper rifle that you’re using rather than the assault rifles that they’ve been peppering you with.
In your bag of gadgets, you also carry rocks (yes, rocks) to throw and distract enemies with, but this tool’s usefulness begins and ends at the tutorial. It’s a shame that these and other stealth tactics don’t really hold up in Sniper Elite V2, and the game so quickly reverts to traditional third-person shooter tropes. The developers are stuck somewhere between Gears of War and Metal Gear Solid without much direction. Nazi henchmen seem just a little too aware of your whereabouts, even when you’re moving as covertly as possible, for this to be a true stealth experience. And once you’ve been spotted, the game devolves into Cover System 101: get behind that miraculously bullet-proof deteriorating wall and pop out to shoot oncoming baddies in the head.
Now, about testicles: Sniper Elite V2’s biggest draw is its glut of kill porn. The game features slow-motion, x-ray views of bullets entering and leaving your targets. You get intimate shots of Nazi brains being turned to soup, hearts being ripped open, femurs shattering in half, and, yes, bullet-squashed testicles, as has become the trend for YouTube uploaders. Though the slow-mo death cam is passé in 2012 and criticized in games journalism, its inclusion in Sniper Elite V2 is sublime. If you’re motivated to be a sniper (i.e., buying/playing the game) the kill cam remains the most satisfying way to confirm kills from hundreds of yards out. The added camp of watching bullets ricochet off abandoned cars and into some Nazi’s guts is gravy.
Sniper Elite V2 also disappoints in what should be its core gameplay: sniping. As in most video game sniping scenarios when you are looking down your scope, holding your breath steadies your aim, but in this particular game, it also gives you a red diamond that shows the trajectory of your bullet after accounting for bullet drop (aka gravity). This removes any of the poetry of sniping from a distance, instead making the mechanic a slightly less imbecilic auto-aim indicative of current first-person shooters.
Lacking in true stealth gameplay, Sniper Elite V2 experiences an identity crisis. How do you make a sniper game that doesn’t involve banally sitting in a tower and waiting for an unsuspecting bad guy to walk into your crosshairs? The developer’s answer was to create a generic third-person shooter and make sure that the player had a sniper rifle and some “intel” into optimal sniping locations. With largely linear level design, any sniping that you do accomplish is both unsatisfying — he was just standing there — and predetermined.
If anything, Sniper Elite V2 highlights just how defensive sniping truly is. Let’s posit for a moment, that the AI in this game responds authentically (i.e., even when sniping from cover, enemies will locate and assault your position almost immediately). If this were the case, your reliance on a low-ammunition assault rifle demonstrates just how inefficient engaging a group of enemies with a sniper rifle is at which point you begin to question your commanding officers. Why wasn’t a group of three or four adequately equipped infantry deployed to roam these totally vacant streets? And why are you sending me there without any backup and limited resources?
Sniper Elite V2 seems to completely misunderstand what it means to be a sniper, instead relishing in the slow-mo kill cam and effectively in the idea of “killing people with your mind.” The game’s greatest draw is a now antiquated kill cam, but though it’s late to the party, Sniper Elite V2 may be the perfection of this all-too-common device.