Wind speed easterly 3.8 m/s. Distance 225m. Slight enemy movement adjustment. Mark lined up. Breathe. Time slows to the crawl. Finger pulls back on the trigger. Watch the bullet fly through the air, slightly dropping in elevation and curving with the wind until it reaches the target. It hits him, his head violently arches backwards as the bullet slices through his skull. The lifeless body slumps backwards and topples off the cliff behind him, disappearing into the frothy wake below. No-one saw this coming. Such is the life of a sniper.
Sniping is an artform that many of us seem to have an affinity for deep down in our dark minds. At least in a pixelated non-confrontational gaming form. Perhaps it’s the awesome power wielded in our hands, the decision of life or death made with one single bullet. Perhaps it is the suspense and anticipation of waiting, planning and lining up the perfect kill. Perhaps it is the pure rush of adrenaline that flows through you as that moment comes and that kill is made. Perhaps it is simply the hilarity of a body exploding backwards with force. Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 understands these needs.
‘We do not want to talk about the original’ a chagrin rep from Namco Bandai points out before anyone even says a word. The Japanese powerhouse publishing company have taken on the distribution for this sequel as well as lending some of their talent to the cause. ‘Yes, it had no plot to speak of, the gameplay was pretty terrible and it scored only a lowly 55% on Metacritic. Yet it sold two million copies, so it must have done something right’. That something, it is fairly evident, is filling a void in the market and letting us scratch that sniping itch. That void is still fairly open in the gaming world, with only the World War II simulation Sniper V2 aiming for a chunk of the market since the original’s release. With that in mind, even considering the mediocre reception of the original, this sequel makes sense. With the release date of January 15 2013 on PC / Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, not too far in the distant future, The Digital Fix were lucky enough to get their hands on a couple of levels from the latest build at a hosted event in the Namco Bandai offices.
Using the powerful Crytek 3 engine it is immediately obvious that this game is not a throwaway release, despite being marketed as a budget title. The tropical island before us shimmers with beauty, palm trees sighing in the breeze, the hefty Remington MSR held in the hands realistically modelled. Climbing up to a perch on the edge of a cliff, hidden in the foliage, I stare down upon the small jetty below that I am supposed to clear of enemies. Four men patrol the area and I pull up the scope to follow their route, calculate the best moment to execute the order. One man strays dangerous close to the end of the pier, out of view of his compatriots. This is the moment. Using the aim adjustment (a small assisting circle that takes into account the various factors such as wind speed and elevation for you, that fortunately disappears on harder difficulty levels) I line up his head with the sights, take a deep breath which slows down time slightly, and fire. The camera swings into bullet view, following its progress in slow motion as it heads towards its target. Time accelerates as the bullet shatters his skull, sending the enemy cartwheeling backwards into the water. I realise something at this point, despite all the accurate simulation and the real weapons, Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 is almost a comedy.
Developers City Interactive have clearly realised by contrasting the cold and lonely life of a sniper with humorous elements they can create a far more entertaining experience than the gritty bravado of other war games such as Call of Duty. The ridiculously over enthusiastic bullet camera (which can be turned off) is one example of this, but also the overall atmosphere with conversations overheard between enemies wildly varying in ridiculous comments about the weather and smelly Americans. In another example of this semi-comedic approach, our hero Cole Anderson completely disobeys a direct order to stop a biochemical warhead being loaded onto a plane and instead opts to save the life of comrade in dire circumstances. Like a scene from an eighties Sylvester Stallone action movie, Cole guns down the enemies surrounding his friend and ensures he escapes. The biochemical weapon gets away, but that is fine because he saved the life of his fellow marine. It may sound a bit out of touch, but there is something refreshing about an army game that does not take itself too seriously.
A second level demonstrates another genre that Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 is attempting to breach: stealth. Obviously a sniper’s most valuable asset is his invisibility and here Cole must avoid detection from targets as he stalks around an enemy compound hidden, overhearing entertaining snippets of enemy conversation, in the depths of a dark cave system. Arguably here the game loses some of its charm and seems to be flirting rather close to dangerous imitation of the more popular military simulations on the market. When the stealth approach inevitably breaks down and action is necessary, the sniping element becomes rather secondary to the immediately threat of staying alive. While it is clear that Namco Bandai are keen to show the multi faceted array of their latest product, it is a worry that the game may stray too far from its sniping roots in some sections.
While this is obviously an early build there are some worrying elements to the game that stand out. The checkpointing system seems rather heartbreaking, seeing sections of over ten minutes having to be repeated because of an idiotic stray bullet. Arguably, it adds tension to each press of the trigger, knowing that failure could mean slumping back to a distant checkpoint. Perhaps more worrying is the erratic AI of the enemies, a crucial part of any sniping or stealth games. From this experience, some bullets would miss a foe’s ears by millimetres yet would cause no response even as the bullet ricocheted off a wall behind, while at other times men would use psychic abilities to spot our hero before a shot had been fired. This curious behavior is slightly alleviated by the attention meter, in the corner of the screen, which fills as an enemy becomes aware of your presence. While somewhat breaking the shackles of reality, it gives some clues as to whether your position is a viable sniping spot and when to dive back into deeper cover, before the meter is full and your position blown.
Other areas seem rather more fleshed out. The heart rate monitor, which rapidly increases while sprinting, must be kept at a low level to perform an accurate shot. This means that the player must wait in cover, calming themselves down, before pulling off the crucial hit. This is emphasised by the heavy breathing of our hero, which becomes almost deafening after a long sprint, adding to the overall atmosphere. The inclusion of statistics at the completion of each mission, informing the player of a huge range of scores from accuracy to head shots, is also very welcoming.
Considering the semi-comedic approach to military simulation that Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 is seemingly attempting, the backstory of our hero Cole Anderson is exceptionally dark and depressing. Obviously a fictional story but set in the (all too factual) horrific Sarajevo siege during the Bosnian war in 1993, Cole is tasked with investigating reports of a death-squad who are massacring civilians in the area. With his spotter Carl Maddox they are ordered not to engage as officially there are no NATO forces in the area. However, things take a turn for the worse and the pair must battle their way across the Bosnian capital, including the infamous ‘Sniper alley’, where Carl is captured and tortured. The devastating conclusion of this is that Cole must follow orders and execute Carl in order to keep secrets hidden. A decision which haunts him for the rest of his life, overshadowing the events to follow.
The rest of Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 takes place over the next decade in various locations across the globe including the tropical islands of the Philippines and the cold mountains of Tibet. As with the incident in Bosnia, all events are fiction based around factual accounts. For those with a fetish for military realism, all guns in the game are accurately modelled on their genuine counterparts, including, but not limited to, the MSR, Dragunov, XM500, M200 Intervention, and the M-24. Further DLC has already announced which will up the gun total to include: the M14, Vintorez, DSR and the AW50. If that list of letters and numbers means little to you, then just assume that they are all really powerful guns.
The success of Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 is far from assured. Even with the weight of Namco Bandai behind it, following on from a decidedly mediocre title is a rocky road filled with landmines. There is certainly a niche to fill, but Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 may be straddling dangerously close to the line between a genuine sniping game and the horrendously overbloated military action genre. If the rest of the game follows closer to the tropical island level then it may well be a title worth paying attention to. However it is certain that the unique feeling of lining up shots, judging the wind speed and elevation (particularly if all the aiming aides are turned off) and the resulting rush of adrenaline as the trigger is pulled and clearing entire camps without a soul realising they are under attack are both big draws. Multiplayer has been confirmed, with special modes that will take into account the specialist role of a sniper over a standard military simulation, but we will have to wait to see how that all works out. Only time will tell whether Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 hits the right mark...