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How Sniper Elite 3 is fixing its aim on improvement

By Chris Scullion on Thursday 6th Feb 2014 at 3:00 PM UTC

"Observe. Plan. Execute." This was the mantra of Sniper Elite V2, the third-person WWII shooter released by Oxford-based studio Rebellion in 2012.

For its sequel, Rebellion is adding a fourth step: 'Adapt'. While at face value this refers to the new strategies required while playing, it's also an appropriate description of the game's development process.

Rebellion is well aware of what was wrong with its last game. While giving us our first look at Sniper Elite 3, senior producer Andrew Shenton was keen to stress his team had taken on board all the negative feedback from V2 and was building the third game with these in mind.

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During a 90-minute hands-off presentation, variations of the phrase "Sniper Elite V2 did this, but Sniper Elite 3 does that" were scattered liberally throughout.

Rebellion is making clear its goals for the project: Bigger levels. More weapons. Better multiplayer. More detailed graphics. A wider range of vehicles. And, crucially, greatly improved AI.

It's the latter aspect that was the main sticking point for V2 players. Enemy intelligence was widely panned for being dumber than a spoon until you got caught, at which point every foe in the entire map suddenly became omnipotent and knew exactly where you were.

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CVG's Sniper Elite V2 review put it best: "Once you're caught, enemies can spot you behind cover and give no opportunity to reverse your misstep. Magically every enemy in the area knows your exact location. Stay hidden and your foes will keep shooting at your previous hiding spot - indicated by a wispy white ghost of your form - but the levels are too straightforward to allow serious flanking manoeuvres."

This appears to be less of a problem in early version of Sniper Elite 3, at least from what was shown on screen at Rebellion's HQ.

But the AI wasn't the first major change we noticed. Our initial surprise wasn't how the game played but where it was set. Whereas most WWII themed games tend to take place in the usual locations - Russia, France, the Pacific - Sniper Elite 3 instead focuses on North Africa, a region that doesn't often get as much attention in games based on the Second World War despite its significance in the conflict.

The level demonstrated, which was the game's third, took place at the Halfaya Pass, which is at the border between Egypt and Libya. Playing once again as the series protagonist Karl Fairburne, in this stage players have to get a supply route through the pass without it being detected and attacked by Nazi forces.

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What's immediately clear is that the corridor-like stages of V2 have been ditched in favour of more open environments. Enemy camps and forest sections sprawl out in numerous directions, offering plenty of potential routes through a level instead of the limited options made available in previous games.

Not only are they wider and more complex, they're larger too. Rebellion switched to a debug fly cam and brought it high up to show us the entire map. Stages in Sniper Elite 3 are roughly three times the size of those in its predecessor, and it shows.

We were shown how these larger, more open areas make for an increased need for strategy when planning how to engage with the enemy. Players can now use their binoculars to find enemies and, once they're spotted, 'tag' them so their silhouette remains on-screen at all times.

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By taking the time to carefully survey every possible route, as well as identify and tag patrolling enemies, players can get a much better idea of what's in front of them and how to proceed as a result.

It feels a little too much like cheating - if you tag someone then move away, their location is still visible. But it's a useful tool nevertheless, and perhaps one that is weakened when playing on higher difficulty levels.

There's also no cap on how many enemies can fill a map (though usually this is just over 30 per stage), rather than the maximum of eight in Sniper Elite V2.

Spotting enemies is one thing, but outwitting them is another, and that's where the improved AI comes into play. Sporting a fancy new name, the AXON AI system (named after the nerve fibers in a human body) promises to make enemies behave far more realistically than the predecessor's NPCs who carried exploitable levels of stupidity.

As well as generally more realistic patterns, enemies now have advances awareness cycles, with a new icon appearing underneath them to show how suspicious they are of your presence.

There's also a hierarchy system in place, with each enemy having their own rank and role. In other stealth games, if a group is patrolling an area and a noise is heard, either the nearest enemy or all of them will decide to investigate. Here, the lowest ranked enemy will be ordered to go and check it out, while the bigwigs stay put.

Snipe that smile off your face Sniper Elite V2 was criticised for a lack of head-to-head multiplayer and a proper co-op campaign, instead only intially offering a series of co-op multiplayer modes. Snpier Elite 3 aims to corret this, offering both 'adversarial multiplayer' and a full co-op campaign from day one.

This naturally throws up more decisions, something V2 was decidedly skimpy with. Do you deliberately make a noise then pick off the low-ranked grunt when he comes over to see what's going on? Do you make the noise then take out the higher-ranked enemy who's now without protection? Or do you not make any noise and look for an alternative path around them?

When you finally do decide to take someone out, you'll notice a few changes in the sniping process too. Whereas having to take breathing and bullet drop into account is nothing new, heartbeat is now a factor too. The more your character's heart rate increases, the more their heart will beat against the gun butt pressed against their chest and the more it will put you off your aim.

This may sound a little far-fetched, but Rebellion claims that - having brought in a real ex-army sniper - the heart-beat effect is a genuine issue for long-shot assassins. (The sniper, who we're not allowed to name, also told us the last game he'd played was Pac-Man, but since he'd killed people we decided not to joke about him.)

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Once you've taken your shot, the game's X-ray kill-cam system comes into play.

V2 featured over-the-top sequences in which headshots led to slow-motion views of the bullet entering your enemy's head and shattering their skull. This time, as well as the skeleton layer (which in itself has an improved bone fracture system), there's also a muscle layer and a full circulatory system to make each headshot far more realistic. It may seem like overkill (so to speak), but these are the game's money shots, after all.

Killcams are no longer solely for human victims either. Vehicles feature them too, along with multi-stage takedown routines which enable you to destroy them with well-aimed shots. To take out a truck for example, you have to shoot out the grate at the front, then shoot through the gap you've created and hit the engine.

An hour of gameplay was only enough to show us the completion of one main objective and one secondary objective in a single stage, with plenty more still to do. This bodes well for the game's length, which we were informed would be roughly 12 hours long compared to V2's eight hours.

So far so good, then, but naturally the real proof will be in the playing. At this early stage we could already see improvements in the AI and level design, but whether the former holds up over numerous hours and the latter remains interesting and varied remains to be seen.

At the very least, it appears that Sniper Elite 3 is a response to criticism and is likely to offer a better experience than its flawed predecessor.

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