Ever since the series debuted in 2005, Sniper Elite has long been a testament to the fact that shooting Nazis in the head and watching their brains explode is, and will always be, fun. After four mainline entries and a handful of zombie–related spin-offs, Sniper Elite 5 is finally pushing that principle to its limits, adding just enough new features to make up for a story that once more does the bare minimum and a gameplay loop that hasn’t changed in a decade.
Sniper Elite 5 yet again finds OSS operative Karl Fairburne behind enemy lines during World War II, this time in France as the Normandy invasion kicks off. As usual, Fairburne has to single-handedly derail an entire Nazi secret weapons operation and assassinate its director, sneaking through an occupied village, a bombed out city, and an exquisitely detailed chateau, along with five other intricate levels and one throwaway finale.
When it comes to Fairburne, not much has changed. He’s still the paragon of stereotypical masculinity, ever unshaken by the horrors of war and obsessed with finishing the mission at any cost. Of course, there is never a cost because Fairburne never has to make any sacrifices. The only thing different about Fairburne this time is his haircut, the sort of side-swept undercut that’s equally popular with hipsters and, ironically, fascists these days. But other than that, he’s the same stoical, steely voiced, cold-blooded Nazi killer that he was in previous Sniper Elites, for better and for worse.
In some ways, Fairburne feels nostalgic, a throwback to the days when developers didn’t have to even pretend to care about things like character development. It’s boring, but it’s comfortable. But when other famous Nazi killers have managed to evolve into something other than just a white man’s face on the screen, Fairburne has resolutely stayed his own course to the series’ detriment. B.J. Blazkowicz he ain’t.
Really, the same can be said about Rebellion’s attitude towards the story in Sniper Elite games as a whole. No matter how many voice overs and cutscenes the game’s writers throw at the game, they still refuse to tell an actual story with ups, downs, and everything in between. Sure, the stakes are huge—literally as big as they can get—but it never feels that way for Fairburne himself. There’s never any moment where you feel like he has to overcome some personal failing or right a wrong that he committed. Weaving a compelling narrative seems low on Rebellion’s list of priorities, and it makes every mission sort of blend together without any big story beats to punctuate key moments.
But I will say that, for most people who pick up a game titled Sniper Elite 5, the story is probably the furthest thing from their minds. What they will care about is how does it feel to headshot a bunch of Nazis, and to them I say, “It feels pretty damn good.”
Sniper Elite 5 makes a bunch of small but significant changes to the series’ well-trodden gameplay that go a long way. You’ll still be sneaking around large, intricately designed sandboxes, completing objectives and assassinating high-ranking Nazi officials. But this time you will have a lot more options for how you go about doing so.
One of the biggest changes is the game’s new gun customization system. Moving well beyond the very simplistic and straightforward upgrade system from the last game, Sniper Elite 5 lets you unlock and equip all kinds of attachments for your rifles, SMGs, and pistols that drastically affect the way each gun performs. You can change scopes, grips, stocks, barrels, and every other part of a gun that you might want to customize, including adding a suppressor to your rifle’s muzzle.
In fact, suppressors might be the most interesting attachments in the game, as—unlike most video games that include suppressors—they don’t magically mute the sound of your gun firing, but rather limit the range at which enemies will hear your gunshots. This adds an interesting level of strategy to when and where you should try to snipe someone, and makes masking your sound with environmental noise something that you still should consider doing. Of course, you can also use subsonic rounds as your secondary ammo choice to further reduce your audio output, but then you have to consider things like damage over distance and bullet drop, too.
Figuring out your ideal setup, even with your pistols, can be really rewarding, especially since both pistols and SMGs can now trigger the series’ infamous and gratuitous kill cam, so you will probably be using those weapons more than usual. While this focus on weapons other than your rifle does sort of water down the “elite sniper” fantasy, it’s all personal preference. You can still never fire any weapon other than your rifle, or you can sneak up behind enemies and stab them all in the throat. If you want, you can even use non-lethal tactics to get through a level to earn extra XP, but I do question the ethics of rewarding people for not killing Nazis.
Gun customization hinges on discovering the gun benches hidden throughout each level, as that’s how you unlock different gun parts. Some of them are fairly well hidden—I didn’t find all of them throughout my initial play through. Sniper Elite 5 is full of hidden items to discover and side objectives to complete, as well as new starting points that you can unlock for subsequent playthroughs. Even without completing everything, each level took me a couple of hours to beat, and I could have spent more time discovering their secrets or taking alternate routes, not to mention playing on higher difficulty levels.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend as much time with the multiplayer portion of Sniper Elite 5, but most of what’s on offer remains unchanged from previous titles. There’s still Survival mode, co-op, and a handful of PvP modes, but the biggest addition is probably Invasion mode. In theory, invading someone else’s game as an enemy sniper should be incredibly fun, and it was pretty cool for the one match I could find during the review period—until the host ended the session and I was kicked out without any rewards. Still, if it works for Dark Souls, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in Sniper Elite 5, especially since you can opt out if you don’t want to worry about another player ruining your plans.
Sniper Elite 5 is easily the best game in the series so far, with more intricate and detailed maps, deep weapon customization, and a ton of objectives and modes to complete. But it’s also not that hard to be the best game in the series when you never try to fix the main issue with the game, which is its story and its characters. Most players probably won’t care that the story in Sniper Elite 5 and Karl Fairburne are about as shallow as narratives and protagonists can get and will simply enjoy its violent, gun-fetishizing thrills. For the most part, they would be right, because Sniper Elite 5 is fun. But, by the time I got to the end of the game, I felt… bored. Satisfied, yes, but glad to be done. It’s the first time that a video game has made killing Nazis feel even a little obligatory and dull, but I guess that’s a sort of accomplishment on its own.
Sniper Elite 5 is the best game in the series so far. Its intricately designed levels, deep weapon customization system, and satisfying gameplay offer hours upon hours of entertaining ways to kill Nazis. After five games, the game’s story and character development still feel too underdeveloped, making every mission blend together in an unending series of contextless kill cams and gravelly voiced one-liners, but if you don’t care about any of that then you will still find a lot to enjoy.
M - Mature
|Sniper Elite 5 is available on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Primary version played was for PC. Product was provided by Rebellion for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|