Sniper Elite V2 shows the slow-motion path of destruction a bullet takes through a human body.
The bullet spins, delicate tufts of air billowing off the projectile like tiny angel's wings. Its path shifts almost imperceptibly, gently pulled by gravity and pushed by wind as it flies to its target standing hundreds of meters away.
The bullet pushes in through a soldier's steel helmet with a loud ping. Frozen in a macabre tableau, the German soldier's face, eyes wide, mouth agape, disappears. In its place an anatomical image of his skull appears, the vertebrae of his neck colored rose with muscle and tendon. The bullet continues on its path: an eye gives way to the projectile which vanishes momentarily in the blackness of the skull's interior and then bursts free from the back of the skull, fractures lancing up bone to the crown of the head. A splatter of red so dark it is nearly black, splashes from white skull. The soldier falls, the bullet continues its path no longer spinning, now tumbling until it drifts from the scene.
Sniper Elite V2 is an exercise in ending life, a game about taking a bullet, a single bullet and killing a human being, or perhaps, if the angle is right, two. Its over-the-top X-Ray kill cam is unapologetically graphic. It is meant to show what really happens when a person fires a bullet into another human being. Over the course of several hours with the game, and the people who make it, I saw bullets puncture kidneys, break arms, shatter pelvic bone, and extinguish the lives of enemy soldiers. The authenticity of what a bullet does to a human body during the act of killing it matches the level of authenticity that the team strives for in how that weapon is fired. But is it too much?
"My personal view is that the game is about ultimately shooting Nazis, shooting people," Tim Jones, head of creative at developer Rebellion. "Going into the detail of what a bullet does when it hits the body—it will shatter jaws and pop out eyes—in some sense feels more authentic; to actually display what is happening there rather than a nice clean sanitized kill."
That doesn't mean it was an easy decision to come to, Jones said the team debated just how far to take the destructive, slow-motion journey of a bullet through a human body.
"Ultimately, it feels authentic and that's the watchword of the game," he said. "This is a game with a serious tone. It is an adult-style game for adults."
More subtle, but perhaps more important than the authenticity of death is how the game tracks and treats a fired bullet in flight. At its core, Sniper Elite V2 is meant to be a sniping game, something that delivers the experience of hunting and killing soldiers against a backdrop of World War II's Germany.
"This is a game focused on the act of sniping and everything that involves," Jones said.
Played from a third-person perspective, Sniper Elite isn't the sort of game you can muscle your way through with an automatic weapon. While the game's sniper has a submachine gun, pistol and grenades, using them only draws attention and ultimately brings about your character's death. Instead, players need to slip their way through hostile territory, silently picking off enemies up-close with bare hands, or from a distance with a very precise weapon.
While the some of the mechanics of a typical shooter are present (like cover), the ones that players will need to pay closest attention to may be new to those unfamiliar with authentic sniping. Lining up a shot in Sniper Elite V2 means taking into account gravity, wind, the velocity of the particular weapon and bullet, your character's heart rate, bullet penetration and whether there are nearby sounds that can be used to mask the snap of a shot.
If your character's heart rate is slow and steady, if they haven't been running or aren't under fire, the sniper can use "focus time." In this mode a reticle appears on the screen, slowly narrowing in until it forms a tight diamond showing where a bullet will hit after factoring in wind, gravity and the rifle. This isn't a mode that can be used with every shot, it needs time to be activated. That means players will have to come to grips with estimating a bullet's path, relying on the notches of a scope and a bit of guess work to hit a target. The increased difficulty means that those shots, when they land, are that much more satisfying.
The game's reliance on steady hands, precise aim, and adhoc trajectory calculation makes kills a much more delicate operation.
That was evident when Jones dropped us into one of the game's cooperative modes to try out some sniper play. In Kill Tally, players team up to survive escalating waves of enemy soldiers. While the mode is playable alone, cooperative play makes surviving to the mode's final tenth wave, while still incredibly difficult, a bit more survivable.
The furthest I made it in my two attempts was wave five. The game play is surprisingly satisfying and more authentic than its Battlefield and Call of Duty counterparts. Taking out a running Nazi from the skeletal remains of a distant rooftop perch without the help of aim assist — a feature not present in Sniper Elite V2 — can't help but illicit a bit of in-the-moment bragging. When the shot is particularly hard, particularly far away, the pay-off is that gory kill cam shot: a guilty pleasure, for some.
The game's reliance on steady hands, precise aim, and adhoc trajectory calculation makes kills a much more delicate operation and the game a much more tactical experience. Running out of ammo, I discovered, meant having to clamber back down five sets of stairs and across a enemy-packed courtyard to retrieve more bullets while one sniper tried to clear the way.
The shift in objective from killing to protecting, helped to make the game feel much more like a game of tactics than one of reflex.
The game will include two other cooperative modes as well. One has players trying to retrieve the parts of a getaway vehicle to escape a scheduled bombing run. The other has one player taking on the role of an on-the-ground spotter or a hidden away sniper.
Jones said Sniper Elite V2, due out May 1 for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, also allows gamers to play through the entire campaign with an online friend.
That single player campaign has players taking on the role of U.S. sniper Karl Fairburne who is tasked with eliminating a team of scientists working on HItler's V2 rocket program before they defect to Russia.
The team considered creating a sniper game with a modern setting, but decided that World War II sets the game apart from the current stable of shooters. The era is also, Jones said, the sweet spot for sniper warfare.
"We debated a lot about where we should go with it, go modern or something else," Jones said. "We all felt like there was a certain atmosphere to Sniper Elite: the weapons of the time, the local, the ruins of the time."
A modern Sniper Elite is still possible, but the advances in technology may mean that such a game wouldn't be as fun to play. Consider, for instance, that just this month a UK sniper killed two Taliban from a world-record distance of more than one and a half miles. Modern sniping, Jones thinks, may not be as interesting to recreate.
"That's still possible," Jones said, "but I think that's sort of the fun of it. The way the sniping feels. It's not just about having a massive zoom on your rifle. The attention to detail, the ballistics, the effect of gravity, effect of wind on a shot, the impact of breath control, the nature of the weapons you are using.
"Some of those things become less relevant if you go modern."