In news that will make any Nazi with a nutsack feel nervous, the serial scrotum-sniping soldier, Karl Fairburne, is back on the hunt. Sniper Elite 5 shifts the series’ established blend of espionage and X-rayed executions to 1944 France, taking Fairburne deep behind enemy lines into another collection of surprisingly large-scale stealth sandboxes. Yet while welcome enhancements to controls, weapon customisation, and multiplayer features make Sniper Elite 5 by far and away the most flexible entry in the series to date, another forgettable story and some heavily recycled mission objectives made it seem more like sniper repeat than sniper elite by the time I reached the end of its 12-hour campaign.
The Sniper Elite series has always been more concerned with tracing the trajectory of its bullets than creating complex story arcs for its characters, and indeed this fifth mainline instalment is no different. This time around Fairburne is on a quest to uncover and thwart the Nazis’ top-secret Operation Kraken, assisted by yet another ragtag group of resistance fighters who exist simply to act woodenly and populate your list of objectives at the start of each mission. Drop in a cartoonish high-ranking Nazi antagonist and a series of predictable late-game dramatic turns, and you have a WWII story more straightforward than the scope on Fairburne's carbine.
Thankfully, while Sniper Elite 5's storyline might be staid, Fairburne himself has never been more nimble or as adventurous, making him more fun to control. While each stalk through a heavily guarded area inevitably starts out as a silent crouch-walk, the moment things go loud you are now capable of quickly mantling over low walls and through windows, gaining some distance with a zipline, clambering up vines and rope netting, or sliding down inclines to break the line of sight and regroup for a counterattack. While occasionally I found myself with my back to the wall and no other option than to shoot my way out, for the most part the open level design allowed me to be less of a sitting duck and something more closely resembling a sniping Spider-Man.
Sniper Elite 5’s eight different environments take good advantage of Fairburne’s expanded movement set, offering multiple entry points to each facility be they through the front door, around the side, or through some hard-to-reach open window on an upper floor, and I enjoyed the added freedom to execute each infiltration from almost any angle of my choosing. You also have a new focus ability that allows you to spot enemies through walls in order to avoid a potential ambush, and tools like bolt cutters can cut through weakened sections of fences to create even more optional paths to an objective.
Another Round of Shots
While you are now able to shimmy up to sniping spots that would have previously been unreachable, the actual experience of sniping remains largely unchanged from Sniper Elite 4. You can still tag your targets with binoculars, tamper with generators to mask the sounds of your shots, and take advantage of environmental hazards like explosive barrels in order to force these fascists into a fiery finish. Plus, the X-ray killcam is more disturbingly detailed than ever, filling Sniper Elite 5 with more ugly headshots than a struggling actor’s glovebox. It’s certainly still a formula that regularly provides some grisly good fun, but it also feels fairly familiar to my experience with Sniper Elite 4 — right down to the occasionally wonky AI which at times seemed about as crudely realised as a toilet stall swastika no matter how much I increased the combat difficulty setting.
I like the fact that enemy soldiers will often sprint desperately for the nearest alarm tower to radio for help once you’ve engaged them in combat, resulting in a gripping burst of tension as you scramble to take them out before they can call in reinforcements. It’s also a neat touch that if you wing them they’ll sometimes run away clutching at their wound. But while they can certainly be deadly in numbers, they will also often march mindlessly into your crosshairs, struggle with basic pathfinding, or veer unpredictably between different states of alertness. In one late-game mission set in an expanse of French countryside, I was spotted killing a couple of German soldiers and an alarm was raised forcing me to flee. Yet when I returned to the area some 20 minutes later, the enemy patrol remained locked in a cycle in which they’d be in a heightened investigative state, then the investigation would end, then the same dead body would be noticed and the investigation would begin again as though they were a group of goose-stepping goldfish.
On the plus side, while the AI may presently have quirks in need of some post-release patching, I did at least find the auto-save system to be far more intelligent than that of Sniper Elite 4, and anytime I died I was grateful that it always returned me to a checkpoint that didn’t place me directly back in mortal danger, as was regularly the case with the previous game.
Another welcome change is the return of weapon customisation, which was noticeably absent from Sniper Elite 4. All of your firearms can be tweaked either prior to a mission’s start or at workbenches hidden in each map, and although I didn’t agonise too much over the builds of my pistol and SMG, I certainly enjoyed the challenge of experimenting with the anatomy of my rifle in order to get the balance right between maintaining its power while minimising its audible range. Meanwhile, Sniper Elite 5’s skill upgrades are doled out in a far less stingy manner than the previous game, and I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to grind in order to unlock perks like the ability to use a medkit in a last-ditch effort to revive myself, which became invaluable in the campaign’s tougher final hours.
While Sniper Elite 5’s weapon and skill upgrades allowed me to tailor Fairburne to my specific style of play (including the option to carry multiple ammunition types like subsonic, armour piercing and even non-lethal rounds) the one thing that surprised me about its weapon system was its approach to found weapons. Weapons dropped by enemies or found in hidden caches can be picked up and used, but they’re dropped again the minute you switch to another firearm in your loadout. On the one hand it meant I never accidentally discarded a valued tool in my arsenal, but it also meant that occasionally I’d grab a panzerfaust in order to go and murder an armoured car, only to have to keep dropping it and picking it up again each time I switched to my pistol to deal with any ground troops along the way. It seemed like a needlessly fiddly way to transport a weapon that could have just been slung around Fairburne’s shoulders.
Sniper Elite 5 plays host to some truly sprawling sandboxes that are each intriguing to explore, from the manicured surroundings and opulent insides of the Chateau de Berengar mansion, to the towering cathedral atop a heavily fortified spy academy, down to the bowels of the menacingly molten production areas of a Nazi war factory. Despite the non-stop murdering and inherently heavy WWII themes, there are certainly some entertainingly lighthearted surprises to stumble across along the way, and I particularly enjoyed pausing to observe a group of Nazi spies struggling to learn how to speak like Americans — before I crept up to assassinate their instructor.
That said, I was disappointed to find how many of the espionage-based objectives tended to be recycled from one mission to the next. I lost count of how many times I had to plant satchel charges on AA guns, or snap tethered cables in order to topple a radio tower, or turn the exact same set of pressure valves in order to shut down a variety of different production centres. It became increasingly underwhelming when each impressively rendered Nazi facility I carefully snuck my way through ultimately culminated in a similar style of humdrum handiwork, and it diminished my desire to complete all of Sniper Elite 5’s side missions once I learned how samey they all seemed.
The Hitman-like unique assassinations that can be found in each stage prove to be far more memorable, albeit occasionally for accidental reasons. Dropping a heavy chandelier on top of a high-profile Nazi target provided the nice bit of Looney Tunes-style fun the developers intended, but I was somewhat taken aback when I planted some poison in another target’s drink, and after he took a sip he glitched out and seemed to melt into the floor like he was the Wicked Witch of the West. Still, I enjoyed the opportunity to take out targets with my rifle holstered, and I wish there was more than one of these unique targets per map.
While I wasn’t able to try the majority of Sniper Elite 5’s multiplayer modes as part of the pre-release review process, I did manage to test out both the campaign co-op and the new counter-op Axis Invasion mode. Pulling off synchronised kills in co-op is every bit as fun as it was in Sniper Elite 4, only this time you and your partner are able to operate with a bit more coordination since you can share ammo and medkits, as well as other mission-specific items like unique room keys. There’s certainly a strong argument to be made that two-player co-op is the optimal way to experience Sniper Elite 5’s campaign.
I was less enthused by the prospect of trying Axis Invasion. I’ve previously disabled the similar modes in the likes of Deathloop and Elden Ring since I fundamentally object to the idea of being griefed by a stranger while I’m trying to make the most of my limited evening game time, and thus I toggled the feature off while I was completing Sniper Elite 5’s campaign. However, upon rolling credits I returned to the opening mission to try it out, both as the invader and the invaded, and I was pleasantly surprised — particularly at the novelty of playing on the Nazi’s side and being able to move freely among the other SS troops as I hunted down the other player’s Fairburne.
The invading sniper doesn’t have binoculars like the other player, but can instead tell other AI enemies to ‘look sharp’ in order to momentarily heighten their awareness. The sheer scale of Sniper Elite 5’s maps can make it tricky at times to track down your target, and it would be handy if you were able to grab a lift in one of the transport trucks that constantly roam around many of the maps rather than go everywhere on foot, but based on the small taste I’ve had so far I’m certainly keen to experiment further with the mode after launch.