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Sniper Elite 5 is still the slowest and most sensual burn among shooters

Cult hit requires closer, quicker stealth — or a fast escape route

Karl Fairburne guns down enemies from higher ground in Sniper Elite 5, a cathedral is in the distance Image: Rebellion
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Sniper Elite first visited me in a dream. Seriously. In the summer of 2014, my subconscious was rinsing out whatever I’d read on the internet that day, and I woke up with a compulsion I have never felt before. Where Richard Dreyfuss sculpted a mountain out of mashed potatoes, I would buy Sniper Elite 3.

I think about that premonition every time I have played the game, from 2014 to 2017’s Sniper Elite 4, and in a two-and-a-half-hour preview of Sniper Elite 5 that Rebellion organized two weeks ago. Such gut feeling, that You-will-go-to-the-Dagobah-system imperative, is absolutely necessary to enjoy a game that demands the player meet it on its terms, and play at its pace. It took all 150 minutes I had with Sniper Elite 5 to blunder through the second chapter mission and complete only its core objectives — not even the optional kill that usually represents a level’s greatest tension and action. But I loved every second.

In Sniper Elite 5, the one-man surgical strike known as Karl Fairburne is inside France in 1944, pressing the Allied liberation onward from Italy (Sniper Elite 4) and North Africa (Sniper Elite 3). The Allies have broken the Nazis’ Atlantikwall at Normandy and elsewhere, with Karl among the invasion force. But he’s trapped behind enemy lines and regrouping with French resistance fighters. Naturally, the Nazis have some spectacular doomsday idea cooking, and it’s called Operation Kraken. Fairburne, grimacing manfully, is here to shut it down.

Sniper Elite 5, launching at the end of May, follows its predecessor by almost five years, and the gameplay systems I saw spoke of an effort to refine visual information to its most necessary components. Details like Fairburne’s heart rate (critical for scope-shot sniping) and the noise he creates (running versus sneaking) are now centralized and consistently located in the UI, giving the player a more immediate and natural understanding of how their movement might draw attention. Bigger picture, I felt more aware of where Karl Fairburne was in his world.

This is important, because the level I played in Sniper Elite 5 gave practically no assistance in the form of sound-masked shots. Previous games littered the playing space with generous sound cover, in the form of malfunctioning gasoline-powered generators, or aircraft passing overhead. With sound cover, you can remain where you are and fire without the enemy AI triangulating your position and flushing you out, with gunfire or, worse, grenades.

Sniper Elite 5, it seems, puts the focus back on shooting and relocating. In other words, observing, actually planning, and knowing your escape route ahead of time, and using it whenever you take a big shot, no matter how far away. It’s returning to the slow-burn gameplay that has made the series such a cult hit going back a decade. There are, of course, options to stealth-melee a troublesome sentry, or use the primitive Welrod silenced pistol or other subsonic ammunition to quietly remove an enemy. But this isn’t Far Cry stealth. If you’re going to use silent takedown tactics, Sniper Elite 5 expects you to be closer and faster than its predecessors did.

There are menu options to dumb down the enemy AI’s awareness and aggression, or make Karl a straight-up bullet sponge. But played at any respectable level, the order of business is clear: Sneak, shoot, and leave. Sniper Elite 5 is also a very iterative game, as indicated by the generous autosaves and checkpoints throughout the level. If the checkpoints aren’t generous enough, there’s always the means of saving right before you take a big, risky shot. The level I played, which took me into the vineyards of France’s Loire Valley, had three paths to the objective, a chateau now serving as a senior Nazi officer’s command post.

It felt as though — true to the older Sniper Elite games — multiple playthroughs of a level were expected, so that the player could determine the best way to the objective. After tangling with an unexpectedly tenacious patrol hanging out at a countryside church along the westernmost path, I restarted and opted for the eastern approach to the castle, even though resistance intel told me it was more heavily guarded. That way still offered more cover, and thus, a better opportunity to improve my position step to step.

It also unlocked a new infiltration point, the stables by the eastern gate, for future replays if I wanted to go back and clean up any missed objectives or unclaimed unlockables. Sniper Elite 5 will lean further into weapon customization than previous entries, too, with workbenches placed in appropriate locations to allow players to tune weapons to their playing style.

I didn’t see much of this in my playthrough, focused as I was on reaching the main objective without drawing a hornet’s nest of Nazis down on me. But a preview briefing from Rebellion assured us that players can tune their loadouts to support their play style, from pure stealth, to speed, to “control” (meaning using long-range shots to move the enemy AI), and then just straight-up power: getting inside an enemy position and using the full magazine of a submachine gun to take everyone out.

Throughout this, players will be exploring a richly illustrated world that keeps pace with 60-frames-per-second animation, even if the dialogue cutscenes look robotic and last-gen. Sniper Elite 5 is not a purely open-world game (ask Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 how well that idea went for a military sniper game), and invisible boundaries exist, even within the playable space, in the form of walls you can’t mantle or rows of crops you can’t disappear into.

But a multipronged solution to the level, a hallmark of Sniper Elite’s design, is still evident. At its heart, the Sniper Elite series is more of a puzzle game than a shooter, whose pieces are manipulated in a third-person perspective at gunpoint. Like chess, it requires planning and patience, both of which seem inimical to the modern shooter genre. If you are willing to make that investment, the game will open up into a beautiful, tense narrative, where you own the decisions and mistakes of Karl Fairburne in a way you just don’t with any other hero in video game shooters.

Sniper Elite 5 launches May 26 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.