Sniper Elite 5 is living proof that the series’ iconic, visceral X-Ray kills – which trigger as you (literally) bust Nazi testicles and various other organs – are still in style even 17 years on. Holding your breath to line up a shot, only for the bullet to send tiny bits of bone flying before penetrating through your enemy’s flesh in slow motion remains as glorious a coup de grâce as ever. But although killing Nazis remains enjoyable overall, the fifth entry in the mainline series struggles to provide a compelling enough experience.
In it, expert marksman Karl Fairburne now roams the towns and countryside of France as D-Day looms ever closer. There are new sights to take in, however, his goal remains the same: thwarting Nazi plans through a mixture of blowing things up and shooting unlucky infantrymen. You can opt to stay silent, go loud, kill every Nazi you see, or incapacitate opponents thanks to multiple ammo types and tools like mines or grenades, which you can use to booby trap bodies and various objects.
The non-lethal path awards more experience, which you can use to level up a series of skills – like being able to carry multiple types of ammunition, or use focus mode to spot enemy silhouettes from further away. However, even if you opt for a more balanced or deadlier approach, you still get to unlock plenty of Karl’s abilities.
Getting from point A to B involves lots of walking while taking note of enemy placement and patrol routes. You can look for alternate paths, enter buildings by climbing up vines, or use ziplines to quickly leave an area when things get a little too hot, making traversal occasionally varied.
Calling down the thunder
However, way you approach each mission, scavenging for ammo and bandages plays a fairly big part if you plan on staying in the fight. The engines of a plane patrolling above a manor full of Nazis, or the loud boom of a massive gun firing periodically offer opportunities to mask your shots. You can also set these up yourself by creating loud noises by tinkering with generators or vehicles.
At the same time, the opportunities to do so can feel quite limited, to the point where stealth relies far too often on landing headshots with underwhelming suppressed sidearms or some of the special weapons you may find across the levels.
If you ever want to conserve ammo, you can also pick up guns dropped by fallen enemies, with the caveat that you can only use the one magazine they come with. In addition, you automatically drop them whenever you switch to a weapon in your actual loadout, which can get rather awkward in the heat of battle.
Sniper Elite 5’s open levels hit a sweet spot in terms of size, not feeling overwhelmingly large but also giving you multiple locations to explore. You sneak across open fields before dismantling defenses in a nearby town, explore lavish estates and bunkers in search of plans and Nazi officers, as well as experience the ravages of D-Day. A fair few are part of the main path while others house the game’s repetitive secondary objectives. These task you with blowing up anti-air guns, killing specific targets, disabling radar devices, or retrieving intel, growing stale early on.
The calm before the storm
They also grant additional experience and often get you close to collectible items that shed more light on what’s going on, as well as workbenches that unlock new attachments for your weapons. Sniper Elite 5’s weapon customization system does let you tweak your arsenal a fair bit, however, locking new upgrades behind finding workbenches feels a tad restrictive. On medium difficulty, I also never felt like I absolutely had to switch away from the initial loadout and its all-rounder rifle.
Although there’s quite a bit to do, none of these levels feel memorable. There are few opportunities to be cunning with your sniper shots – like shooting an armored car’s weak spot through a crack in a building’s exterior wall after sneaking around it –, but I found myself relying too much on my silenced sidearm for stealth and my submachine gun when things inevitably went south.
If you opt to go in loud, none of the automatic weapons feel as great as the sniper rifles do – although the X-Ray camera does now extend to them. It’s satisfying to see Nazi bodies piling up near an entrance as oblivious AI charges in, giving you a steady supply of bandages to heal yourself as you take out their pals; but these encounters rarely encourage any clever use of your surroundings.
Sniper Elite 5's X-Ray kills are rather detailed
Worse yet, Sniper Elite 5’s levels also have quite a few invisible walls and artificial barriers that funnel you down intended routes, that not only kill immersion but can see you circling around half the level to get to your target. Karl Fairburne can take down hundreds of Hitler’s best, but that hip-high shrubbery blocking his way to an objective seemingly wasn’t part of the sniper school curriculum.
When these invisible walls don’t annoy, they outright frustrate, as was the case when invading another player. They had tripped an alarm and were fighting the AI inside a base. I spawned far away from it only to realize – after committing to a path through what seemed to be an open field – that the game didn’t want me going through there. The AI eventually killed the player, I technically got my victory, yet couldn’t help but feel defeated by immovable shrubbery.
The Invasion mode added in Sniper Elite 5 spices up campaign missions by introducing a player-controlled sniper to aid the Germans in hunting down Karl. It can be toggled on and off before starting a mission or after the other player eliminates you. There’s also a handy rematch option.
It’s certainly been executed more stylishly before, in titles such as Deathloop, but this game of cat-and-mouse caters well to the fantasy of playing as a sniper behind enemy lines. As Karl, you use phones to obtain the enemy sniper’s last known location from their allies. Doing so also tags your last known spot for the invader.
Sometimes stealth just won't do
As the invader, you can tag AI-controlled soldiers to be informed when they spot Karl and use an ability to make them more perceptive. This strength in numbers can come into play if the player controlling Karl trips an alarm, but you can’t choose where and when you spawn. Sometimes you start in the middle of a town still controlled by the Axis.
You can also drop in surrounded by the bodies of dead Germans as you set out to find the whereabouts of your target. The stakes are low as far as the metagame goes – Karl cannot save during an invasion and is forced to reload if he gets killed – but the mode does spice up the moment-to-moment gameplay, turning on their heads situations where you feel like you have the upper hand.
Antiquated design drips into Sniper Elite 5’s core recipe beyond its invisible walls, with enemies who don’t react to you opening doors in front of them. Their vision cones can be quite narrow, but shooting someone in their vicinity alerts the whole base, which then beelines towards you, unless you’re using a silenced weapon and are quick on the trigger.
A rare machinegun duel
As much as you can reload your latest save, this just makes missions lack an organic feeling. On the other hand, it allows for a mixture of action, sneaking, and sniping, that’s not overly punishing if you do trip up. Sadly, only the latter feels great and I often found myself wishing that a bigger focus was placed on pulling off awesome distant shots.
Where the game does triumph is in how it brings lots of flexibility to choosing difficulty. Aside from five preset levels, you get multiple individual options to tweak to your liking. These let you select the amount of friendly fire or allowed revives when playing in co-op, the AI’s skill, aggression, and resistance to damage, whether or not you want bullet drop and wind to play into landing shots with your sniper rifle, and several others. They not only help you set up games to be as easy or as challenging as you want them but, coupled with alternative starting positions you can unlock during levels, also add replayability.
Sniper Elite 5 won’t win any awards for its barebones story that just strings together a set of events that see Karl dismantling a nefarious Nazi plan. A bunch of characters appear in cutscenes but they’re wholly forgettable, down to the game’s cartoonish, predictable villain. It’s also not a pretty game per se with some especially stiff character models and animations on show. That being said, some of the lighting is quite moody, establishing a handful of awesome night scenes whose quality I wished was reflected throughout the rest of the game.
A well-placed bullet gets rid of both the spotlight and its operator
Beyond the campaign and its attached Invasion mode, you’ll also find a serving of multiplayer modes that could further prolong the game’s lifespan. Survival tasks you with defending objectives against waves of enemies, while the PvP portion includes free-for-all, traditional team deathmatch, as well as the No Cross mode.
The latter forces teams to stay behind a line on the map and snipe each other from within their territory. Fights have a different dynamic in multiplayer, as you scramble to find cover and look for any trace of movement, but matches can devolve into sessions of hunting for massive scope glints and radar marks to figure out where enemies might be shooting from.
On an i7-8700K, 16 GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 3080@1440p, the game ran excellently with every setting maxed out even when bumping up the resolution scale to 125%. Only a few small chunks of a handful of levels saw frame rates dropping to the 40s, but this occurred so rarely that it was easy to overlook.
Sniper Elite 5 has a fair few accessibility options to choose from, including rebindable keys, the traditional subtitle text, size, and opacity options, three colorblind modes – Deuteranopia, Protanopia, and Tritanopia – as well as several aim assist-related options that make targeting enemies easier.
SNIPER ELITE 5 VERDICT
There’s not much about Sniper Elite 5 that’s particularly remarkable. That, however, didn’t stop the visceral X-Ray kills and the simple act of mowing down Nazis to see me through to the end of its campaign. There are plenty of other games out there that do stealth, action, or World War II better, yet the series’ formula is very much its own and does manage to carry a game that otherwise struggles to do anything interesting.
Its flexible difficulty, the tension of invasions, and gruesome long-range executions keep things fun if the very premise appeals to you. But certain antiquated design choices and guns that don’t feel all that great keep Sniper Elite 5 from being memorable.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Taking down two Nazis with a single sniper rifle bullet without anyone spotting me.
Gruesome X-Ray kills are great rewards for accurate shots
Invasion mode caters well to the game's fantasy of playing a sniper behind enemy lines
Flexible difficulty settings let you pick how difficult you want missions to be
Invisible walls restrict movement
Not enough emphasis placed on actual sniping
Barebones story, forgettable characters