Sniper Elite 5 is a no-brainer. Our hero, Karl Fairburne, sporting a knitted-wool jumper, heads into France with his rifle. His mission (and possibly his pleasure) is to weaken the Germans’ Atlantic Wall fortifications, along the coast of Brittany, the better to prepare for the allied landings of D-Day. Once there, he makes contact with the local French Resistance and discovers a Nazi plot, called Operation Kraken, masterminded by one Abelard Möller. Like a long-range dentist, Karl must plug the rotten Möller and save the day. Simple.
All of which means that we get yet another helping of sturdy third-person espionage and rococo violence. You would be well within your rights to gaze at the “5” in the name and wonder, Aren’t we bored of this by now? You ungrateful swine. But it is a question worth asking. How does the studio behind the series, Rebellion Developments, keep getting away with it? And why do we keep going back for more? The changeless charm of these games is not in their rigorous adherence to the technicalities of marksmanship, rather in the theatre with which their savagery is staged. As you take aim at a far-off target and pull the trigger, the camera courts the passage of your bullet, slipping head over heels into slow motion; when it meets its target, we get an X-ray view of our enemies as their innards—lungs, ribs, and craniums—crack and fly apart.
It’s hardly mind-blowing stuff. Mortal Kombat gave us cross-sectioned brutality way back in 2011, with fights that seemed to unfold in the pages of a medical encyclopaedia. But that series, made by NetherRealm Studios, revelled in its trademark depravity for the sick sake of it; as its graphics grew in power, it only grew more graphic. Sniper Elite, on the other hand, wields its perverse nastiness as a way of deepening our interaction with its world. There are few games that work so hard to convince us of our awful power, fewer still that put us in the Second World War and mock our mild indifference in exercising it. Note the snippets of information that we get when we train our crosshairs on an enemy soldier: “Hans Begmann: Wife is 7 months pregnant, he’s done the math, suspects the child isn’t his,” “Till Schulz: A very kind man, known for his charity work. Everyone likes him.”
These are intended solely for our smirking benefit, and there is no possible way for Karl to know such things, but I can’t shake the feeling that he somehow does. He’s like a roving reaper, dipping into other lives just as he scythes them short. Over five games, and four zombified spin-offs, we have conducted a long-distance relationship with Karl; we like him, even as we are nagged by the suspicion that we don’t know him, and that there may be nothing to know. He belongs to that grim rank of heroes that say little and do it all. Like the Gabe Logan of Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror and its sequel, Logan’s Shadow, Karl isn’t one for reflection, or for looking back. Nor is he one for speeches, but his deeds carry a Shakespearean shock. His adversaries refer to him as “the Shadow,” and there is something of the fated about him, as he heralds the destruction of others. In short, he gives us little to tire of, and thus, feeding round after round into his Enfield, he leaves us gunning for action. Once more unto the breech!
Sniper Elite 5 marks the first journey that our man has made into France. His first two entries honed in on Berlin; the third ventured into Africa; and the fourth hung around the cloudless coasts of Italy. It’s little wonder why. When it comes to World War II games, France was last considered cool somewhere in the early two thousands, with titles like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and, best of all, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30—clever shooters, spiked with Spielberg, that hung on the fates of beached young men. But there are only so many times one can heave through cold waves into the clamour of machine guns, only so many barns and ploughed fields past which one can trudge. Aside from Call of Duty: WWII, in 2017, which collected these scenes as though it were a compilation—Now That’s What I Call Normandy!—most games these days just don’t have the Gaul.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Karl takes to the place rather well. This is helped by some of his newfound traversal skills. No sooner are we charged with the task of blowing up a communications antenna, for example, than Karl is given the opportunity to escape the conflagration via zip line. From there, we are whisked to the Chateau de Berengar, where he is able to scale the creepers to a high window, like a lovesick Romeo. Once inside, he broaches a secret office and learns of Operation Kraken—whose official seal depicts a swastika girdled by tentacles. How typical of Rebellion to release such silliness into the plot and still sucker us completely.
I half expected the real deal, summoned from the pages of Lovecraft to assist the Kriegsmarine. I shan’t give away its real nature; suffice it to say that the supernatural is still consigned to the Zombie Army games. Unless, of course, you count Karl’s ability to see his foes through walls, glimmering like ghosts-in-waiting, but this is chalked up, apparently, to the high calibre of his hearing. The levels—eight in total, ranging from hilltop towns to rural redoubts—offer us not just the chance to pick off opponents from miles away but to get up close. The environments rival those of Agent 47’s recent adventures, for sheer scope; so, too, do they allow for a measure of class. Karl may lack 47’s winning wardrobe, but I was touched to see him sidling along a neatly trimmed hedgerow, in the grounds of a Gothic pile, like Sean Connery in the opening minutes of From Russia with Love.
If Sniper Elite 5 is the best one yet, it isn’t because of any great strides. It’s down to Rebellion’s knack for taking after its star—never faltering in its aim, keeping its mechanics polished and oiled. No wonder that, when we first see Karl here, he is sat quietly aboard a submarine, burnishing the barrel of his gun with a soft cloth. It’s like watching a monk. As with the modern Hitman games, you get the sense that each release bleeds into one big package—another helping of familiar action, another clutch of maps. Wherever he ends up next, I can’t wait. It’s like looking forward to a dispatch from a travel writer, who has an eye for the sweetest of spots. Maybe it will be somewhere snowy, maybe somewhere hot. My money is on the South Pacific. Regardless, if you have never played Sniper Elite, and you wish to familiarise yourself with its pleasures; or if you are already a loyal fan of Mr Fairburne’s work, his latest trip is his most romantic—From France with Love.