Shortly after Rebellion Entertainment completed Sniper Elite 3, Jason Kingsley, the studio’s CEO and creative director, brought the game home to let his partner have a look at it. They have both visited firing ranges, and she’s a good shot in real life, he says, so he figured she might enjoy it.
One evening, as she began a new mission, Kingsley got up, went to the kitchen, made a pot of tea, poured himself a cup and returned to the living room.
She hadn't shot anyone. She hadn't even moved.
"I said, ‘What are you doing?'; she said, ‘I'm listening and watching,'" Kingsley recalled. "I said, ‘It's been 12 minutes! You've actually — I've made a cup of tea — I've come back in and you're still in the same place!
"And she said, ‘Well, yes, I'm just being very careful,'" Kingsley said.
The experience highlights the dividing line between the two camps who play Sniper Elite and have widely polarized experiences. It's at once the best and worst shooter, breathtakingly suspenseful or crushingly boring, depending on who you read or talk to. Last year's game was considered a breakout cult hit despite review scores down in the 60s. This year's game likewise drew nonplussed appraisals, but its diehard core, particularly in the U.K. — along with a release date in gaming's slow season — helped push Sniper Elite 3 to the top of sales charts for two weeks after its launch.
"People are saying, ‘Oh God, this game is too short, there are only eight levels, and I've finished it in eight hours,' or something," Kingsley says. "And other people are going, ‘Really? I'm on nine hours, I'm on the beginning of level three. What are you actually doing?"
The value proposition of rewarded patience that resonates with the game's biggest fans frustrates and even angers others, especially as they are given the tools of a standard first- or third-person shooter, like submachine guns and hand grenades, and discover the enormous consequences for their indiscriminate use.
The value proposition that resonates with Sniper Elite's biggest fans frustrates and even angers others.
That's what makes Sniper Elite 3 — by no means a perfect game — nonetheless so critically intriguing. Instead of coaching people step-by-step through the way to "play the game right," it refuses to hold anyone's hand, even if that means some may have a completely alienating experience with it. Rebellion's calculus seems to be that the reactions of those who do get it are well worth the complaints of those who don't.
Tim Jones, the game's head of creative, said it's fascinating to watch the contrasting behavior of those with experience in standard military shooters — Call of Duty, in particular — and those who don't come to a game with such expectations.
"I've watched a number of inexperienced people play this, like girlfriends and wives, and friends of friends, people who aren't gamers," Jones said. "Perhaps more than an experienced Call of Duty player, they have a very healthy fear of being shot at. Naturally, they will drop into a crouch, get down behind cover, and they do want to take things slowly, and observe the scene before they start popping shots into it.
"That's not a learned game thing, that's just a natural human instinct," Jones said. "And I think probably what we're up against some times, with some players, is that experienced game players have sort of re-trained themselves through the experience of being bullet-sponges."
But even those willing to deploy sniper tactics find the game's demands off-putting. The enemy AI goes from passively idiotic to relentless and deadly as soon as you're spotted. Some dislike the long stretches within levels where there is no sound to mask their shot, feeling forced to use the silenced Welrod pistol, or to laboriously distract, stalk down and melee enemy soldiers from behind, one-by-one.
An alternative is to know your escape route before you take a loud shot and be hotfooting it as soon as your target goes down. The game gives players a wide range of tools to know where enemies are and to know even when and where they're searching. Successfully relocating and making another kill confers an XP bonus, making it rather clear what the game expects players to do.
It just doesn't say so. So why even include options like the submachine gun, or hand grenades, if using them conventionally is so likely to fail the mission?
"We're not hand-holding to the extent that we slap you around the face and say, ‘No, don't do that, Game Over,' if you choose to go a little more gung-ho at times." Jones said. "We wanted to let people attempt stealth but also sort of blunder their way through it, and if it goes wrong, still be able to pull the situation back and recover the scenario.
"I do enjoy stealth but quickly lose patience if it's just, "Oh, you got this part wrong, it's over, restart,'" Jones said. "I can respect that scenario, but it's not for Sniper Elite 3."
"running and gunning will get you killed, pretty quickly"
The submachine gun is not entirely purposeless. In an enclosed space, fired in bursts, it's good option and preferable to anything else in the loadout. Again, Sniper Elite 3 is giving no help to the SMG. "We don't suck [the crosshairs] to the target as they do in other games where they want to have more of a war-movie, shooting-from-the-hip kind of basis," Kingsley said. "The submachine guns are not as fireable as a sniper rifle, but they are usable."
The other reason it exists is that anything an enemy drops should be usable by the player. "If you were up against enemies, and you kill them, and they drop their submachine gun," Jones says, "then it would be, within the bounds of game design and the world we're creating, suspension-of-disbelief breaking if you weren't able to pick up that submachine gun and use it."
"While we don't explicitly prevent people from playing the game any particular way, we have tuned it so that running and gunning will get you killed pretty quickly," Jones said. "That turns off some players. We are more niche in that respect. But it's been proven there's a huge slate of gamers out there who want to play a game with a little more respect rather than bullets flying through the air."
That's a funny thing to hear from the maker of a game about bullets flying through the air, particularly with an infamous X-ray camera that shows the .30 caliber round in slow-motion, smashing through bone and teeth and tearing through organs — some of them reproductive.
The kill cam exists as a kind of payoff for all the things the player had to do to be in a position to take that shot. "A lot of the components of real-life sniping are leading up to taking that shot," Kingsley said, "and video games tend to be about taking the shot. The fast shot. We wanted to try to make sure there was value to the player taking their time as well."
Count me among those who are drawn to Sniper Elite 3's gameplay, even acknowledging it can be the slowest of burns, occasionally interrupted by glitches. Stupid Nazis become a lot more observant on elite difficulty, too, and the adjustable difficulty of gameplay components (ballistics, enemy AI and tactical assistance) lets more patient players create higher stakes for taking a shot.
As a risk-averse perfectionist in my games, given the chance to actually observe a battlefield and plot my way through it, rather than be instantly beset by gunfire I can stand up and shrug off, is a welcome change. The game teaches me to own my mistakes and learn from them, rather than others where the choices don't spiderweb through the rest of a mission.
"We're not believers in punishing people for playing the game 'the wrong way.' We just want to make sure we reward them for playing the game the right way, or the way a game called Sniper Elite," Kingsley said, "it's pretty clear on the face of it you've got to do a lot of sniping."