I’ve been a fan of sniping as a gameplay element at least since 2005 when I played the original Sniper Elite on PlayStation 2 (still my favorite sniping game). The franchise has made a considerable niche for itself in the FPS genre, and various other series have long incorporated the mechanic into their titles with mixed results. With Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts, CI Games has crafted a solid, entertaining game and its Sniper: Ghost Warrior franchise has emerged as a serious competitor.
For the record, this is my first experience with the series, and I’ve played through the first four areas (including training) of the game’s six, including starting the fifth. But I’ve put in many hours pursuing the multiple objectives and contracts on the sprawling maps. The impression I come away with so far is of a game that is eminently playable, benefits from good map design and production values, and impresses on occasion, though at the same time it can fall prey to some typical game design missteps.
To begin with, the game introduces a scenario of rebellion in Siberia, with breakaway forces declaring independence from Russia. Its leaders are a typical rogue’s gallery of self-serving brutes. The setup is nicely done but unnecessary as your role – at least in the first three-fifths of the game – doesn’t rise above mercenary taking down rebels. Up to that point, there’s no character development or emotional investment, just superficial context. Though a doubt raised by your character might presage something more.
Gratefully, the gameplay is strong enough to sustain the player’s interest and involvement. The training grounds provide a good introduction to weapons, ammunition and tools, and allows for as much hands-on practice as desired. But, of course, the real fun begins when players start their contracts. There are five expansive areas that unlock in sequence, though players don’t have to have 100% completion in each area to proceed (I think I have around 40% each), though I think all contracts have to be resolved.
Reportedly, CI Games chose to limit the scale due to the reception of the prior game’s open world. As is, each area in this game is plenty large, with multiple facilities that each contain one or more contracts and several side objectives in the form of challenges, bounties or collectibles. And in between are wilderness or roads that are dotted with patrols, checkpoints, encampments and minefields. Players are deployed in the wilderness, and can pursue each contract or objective in any order.
A HUD mini map displays tagged enemy location and movement. A larger map shows the general location of targets – when it works. Select any contract and the map will show you the area it can be found in. This is helpful to plan which facility to tackle at any given time, though in my experience it only seems to work on your first foray – such indicators disappear when reloading a mission, and can lead to backtracking. Also helpful are general locations of bounties, collectibles and exfiltration points.
Navigating each area is a fairly standard exercise. There are some situations that require the character to crouch, crawl or jump, and others marked by rope where characters can climb. Characters can kneel (crouch) or lay down when lining up a shot, which generally works fine and can help provide cover. Sometimes, however, my character will stand instead of moving while crouched. Also, windows tend to require precise positioning to pass through. Both situations can be frustrating in a firefight and near fatal.
Once players are ready to engage the enemy, binoculars can be used to tag targets. The drone also can be used for this purpose. The benefit is that tagging not only displays enemy movement but distance to target, too. The one exception is when a jamming device disables electronic surveillance, though binoculars can still note distance when in use. Players can then factor in distance, as well as wind direction and speed, to gauge each shot. Rifle scopes are helpful in this regard.
If the distance is revealed, players can calibrate the scope accordingly, usually in increments of 100 (25 on lower settings). When enemy distance falls in between settings, players need to guess how high to aim to score a hit. Another factor is wind speed and direction, which appear as an intermittent line that drops down – often in a curve – from the baseline. Targeting becomes a process of calibrating distance, adjusting vertically, aligning horizontally to account for wind, and holding one’s breath for a steady aim.
An alternative to tagging that I still can’t get to work is literally sizing up one’s adversary with in-scope measurements. Thankfully, tagging is reliable and jamming devices can be disabled with sniper rifle or drone. But players will have to avoid being tagged themselves, either by camera, spotters, drones, turrets or regular foes. Enemies will be quick to target you with rifle fire, grenades or mortar shells, and will converge on your position. That said, there are usually convenient hiding locations including foliage.
Enemy AI in general is very good. Take out enemies in eyesight of others and all are alerted, unless you quickly dispatch those who saw, too. If patrols find a body, they’ll stoop and check then alert others. They also find cover quickly, though sometimes might be partially exposed. They might peek from behind cover and can spot you with binoculars. Take a few shots from the same spot and they might zero in. Plus they tend to stay on alert for a while. And they’re good shots, whether up close or at a distance.
Occasionally the AI can fall prey to typical shortcomings or glitches. Depending on the map, enemies might seek the same cover, even if their comrades are piled up (see photo). Similarly, they might not always react to a felled comrade beside them. And sometimes you can get off two shots before they flee. For some reason, there always seems to be one enemy that ends up under the water. And there was even one who I’m pretty sure blew himself up with his own mortar (see video). But these are exceptions.
The enemies in general put up a good fight in the game, and come in varieties that include a standard foe, a heavy submachine gun enemy and rival snipers. Thankfully the game provides you with different weapons, weapons upgrades, mask and suit upgrades, tools and gadgets for overcoming each challenge. These include different sniper and assault rifles, pistols, frag or smoke grenades, tank mines, detection devices, drones and turrets, along with various barrels, scopes, magazines and mask/suit or drone/turret modifications.
A key element is the special mask your character wears, which enables increased awareness, utility and scouting. Mask mode detects nearby items of interest/interaction and is especially helpful when identifying beneficial objects or attempting to avoid hazardous ones like mines. It can also help identify bodies to loot, especially in tall grass, though I’ve found infrared works better for live or dead bodies. Upgrades can improve its range or capabilities in the same way that the suit has health or armor mods.
New weapons or upgrades can be purchased with cash and tokens. Cash is rewarded for completing contracts or challenges and finding collectibles. Bonus money can be earned by one’s performance or collected as loot. Tokens are received for finishing contract missions or challenges and collecting items or bounties. Although I’ve purchased good rifles and upgrades, some mask/suit modifications, and a drone, I don’t pursue challenges so can’t unlock higher tier items or the turret with related tokens.
All these elements demonstrate solid game design, which likewise extends to the maps of each large area, which feature multiple paths between and within each facility or location. Variations in terrain and facility layouts allow for plenty of cover and opportunities for sniping, avoiding or otherwise taking down enemies. Verticality is built in, whether different elevations or stories, including subterranean. Platforming works fine, as does stealth, though sneaking up on an enemy doesn’t always go as planned.
Speaking of, stealth is a solid option despite issues alluded to before, as well as the problem of not triggering actions on occasion when sneaking up on an enemy. But when they work, which is most of the time, stealth kills and interrogations are helpful actions, the latter yielding the locations of nearby foes. Besides foliage, there are containers and lockers to hide in, and crouching in general is a quiet means of getting around undetected while you snipe cameras, drones and spotters or distract with rocks or fuse boxes.
Side objectives like bounties and collectibles can be entertaining diversions, but the core gameplay offers a fun experience with intuitive controls. I played on the default Sniper difficulty (there’s an easier Marksman and harder Deadeye) and the sniping mechanic works well once you get the hang of it. Targeting feels spot on, hit detection is sound, and enemy AI represents a good challenge that reacts well in general without being clueless nor freakishly perfect. Item interaction, gadget use and navigation all are good.
Bottom line, I never felt cheated. My character did die repeatedly (I’m pretty bad at stealth) but the frequent hard save checkpoints kept me from backtracking too far, though on occasion I was forced to replay sections where I carefully sniped a couple dozen foes. The closest I came to frustration is one impenetrable facility where killing practically anyone raised the alarm and countdown on a contract until I avoided detection and a minefield to find the one advantage I needed.
Still I knew I had to keep poking at the defenses until I found it, though it did verge on trial and error gameplay. But this proved a good example of how the game forces players to think carefully and plan accordingly for success. Despite occasional missteps, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is a solid, entertaining game that rewards patient strategy and tactics with steady progress toward one’s goals. It immerses gamers in its world with compelling gameplay and an impressive presentation.
CI Games has not only crafted good shooter mechanics, but a Siberia that is at once beautiful and foreboding. Snow-blanketed, frozen landscapes have patches of hardy foliage or concrete structures, while forested areas are lush and feature wooden buildings. Textures are detailed, lighting is dynamic, and animations of foliage and people are smooth (including ragdoll physics). Ambient and weapons sounds are good, the music is taut when necessary, and the bullet cam is well done (if gruesome).
Taken together I enjoy my time with the game and look forward to completing it. Some gameplay can feel familiar, objectives can be similar (i.e. find, steal, destroy, eliminate), and a few issues can annoy, but this is a well-crafted game in general that offers some of the best sniping in the genre and related gameplay and setting that provides an all-around enjoyable journey so far. It facilitates player choice while requiring a disciplined approach, and ultimately rewards with its satisfying execution overall.
(This post was based on a review code of Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts for PlayStation 4. The game released November 22, 2019, on that platform as well as Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.)
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