I think it’s fair to say that the Sniper Ghost Warrior series has always played second fiddle to that of Sniper Elite, having a reputation that sees it consistently fail to set the world on fire. Well, a few weeks after Sniper Elite 4 shot out of the gate (see what I did there?), Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 is here and ready to rumble. The question is, have CI Games brought their A-game this time, or will it be another runner-up?
First impressions are good, with a nice introduction sequence introducing us to Jon North and his brother, set in their childhood home of “some woods” and showcasing the skills that they’ll later use in combat. The prologue is essentially a good length tutorial, giving us a breakdown of how and where to shoot, the different weapons available, the use of modern tech like drones to help reconnoiter the way ahead and provide advance notice of where enemies are, and how to sneak about like a pro.
This is one area where arguably Ghost Warrior could open up some distance between itself and the Sniper Elite series. This is a game set in the modern time, with the perks and gadgets that this time setting brings. If nothing else, buzzing about the place as a drone, tagging enemies hither and yon is great fun, and the flying controls are very precise, letting you jink in and out of buildings and ruins to get an idea of what’s ahead. Once an enemy is tagged, using the “sense” mode, it allows you to track wherever they go. The Sense skill, or whatever it is that allows snipers to know exactly where enemies are has other uses too; highlighting collectibles in the landscape, showing you areas where you can climb, and even allowing you to track animals and people to new rewards. An early example of this in the first post prologue mission enables you to find drag marks on the ground, and then follow them back to the brutalised body of a young woman, lying in the bushes. Little touches like this bring home to you, as the player, the kind of world the game is trying to create. It is in these little ways, that the game speaks to you.
At the end of the tutorial, Jon’s brother is gone, and the story opens as you arrive in Georgia to try and quell a Separatist uprising. There is another thread to the narrative too; the story of the lost brother and where he may be. It seems unfair to say that the storytelling is clumsy, but there is a certain naivety about the way that Jon interacts with other people, particularly the character of Lidia, with whom you had a previous relationship. At least she dresses sensibly, complete with body armour, unlike Raquel, a Mossad agent you’ll meet later on!
The great storytellers of the world can probably rest easy, secure in the knowledge that they aren’t about to be usurped by the writers of this title. However, that being said, the voice acting and delivery of the lines is top notch, if a little heavy on the “gung ho” spectrum. But there’s no sense that any of the cast phoned in their performances, the way that certain people have been guilty of… *cough* Peter Dinklage *cough*.
Graphically, the world is very pretty to look at, with different and distinct landscapes and wildlife across the zones that you get to visit. Driving through the zones is good fun, with winding mountain roads to explore and wildlife to run over (it’s much safer to kill a wolf with a car than it is to try and shoot them). The open world layout is another distinction between this game and the Elite series, as it leaves it up to you to choose the mission you want to undertake. Maybe you’d rather go and explore, finding points of interest that exist in the world? How do you want to get to the areas? You can drive, and there is usually a car at your disposal, you can fast travel to various places around the zones, which also drops your car at the fast travel point, or you can obviously jog. Running through the forests and mountains, coming across a checkpoint you’d need to clear, or some civilians you need to rescue, even animal tracks you can follow, all help with the impression that you are a part of a bigger world.
The only thing that spoils this immersion is the way that the Georgian Separatists seem to have perfected cloning, with many of the enemy character models being the same. Looking through the sights of your rifle and seeing three bald headed, bearded enemies who look like brothers milling about the place is a bit jarring, but again, with a little bit of suspension of disbelief, it’s possible to ignore this and concentrate on the headshots.
While we are discussing the graphics, the obligatory slow-mo camera for sniper headshots is present and correct, and provides some amazing effects. Strangely, the design of the bullet is the star here, as the camera zooms right in on the spinning projectile, tracking it closely before it impacts the cranium of the bad guy that you are aiming at. With good planning and a bit of stealth and luck, the chance is there to be super efficient and take out multiple enemies with a single bullet. It is a strangely satisfying experience to drop two or even three enemies with a single shot. The only thing that’s missing is the Sniper Elite X-ray camera, but I am assuming that is a trademark of that series, and honestly, after a while, it doesn’t really matter. Seeing bullets hitting your target while they’re going about their business 500 yards away, and watching them drop like a sack of spuds into undergrowth with no alarm being raised, never gets old.
The design of the maps leaves you with plenty of options when it comes to approaching the missions too, whether that be an all guns blazing approach, or a sneaky approach where you can slink from shadow to shadow, taking out only the enemies you need in order to perform a surgical strike. Sneaking up behind enemies allows you to interrogate them, or perform a stealth kill. Interrogations gain you valuable intel; from where the enemies are, which tags them automatically for you, to where the resources are that you can collect for crafting, and right down to useful information about underground passageways and so on.
The mission objectives can be varied as well, but largely they involve finding stuff and shooting baddies, and it isn’t unusual for the mission to change halfway through. As an example, one of the early missions requires you to infiltrate a comms facility and reposition three aerials. As you sneak about and get two of them completed, the radio crackles into life with the voice of your controller, Frank, who tells you that the bad guys are trying to lock down the mainframe to deny access. So I had to abandon stealth, get across the facility and fight my way to the mainframe room and remove the threat, all in under 90 seconds. That certainly got the heart rate going!
Different optional objectives are also present, ranging from no alarms to not killing certain groups of NPCs, for instance. As a pro tip, it seems impossible to neutralise NPCs such as scientists without killing them, so if the mission involves not killing scientists, for instance, then it is best to leave them alone.
As you play, there is a sort of “RPG-lite” character improvement mechanic that comes into play. Depending on the way that you play, you can earn skill points to rank one of the three skill trees – Sniper, Ghost and Warrior. Nailing headshots will gain XP in the Sniper tree, stealth kills in the Ghost tree, and secondary weapon kills in the Warrior tree, for example. Exploration will net XP in all the trees, so it is worthwhile wandering about, unlocking Fast Travel Points and finding resources. It reminds me a lot of the skill tree screen in Borderlands 2, where you have to unlock a certain amount of Tier 1 skills to unlock Tier 2, and so on. As the skills can be ever useful, giving greater breath control and capacity, or reduced crafting costs, or even increased health, it’s certainly worthwhile keeping an eye on your available skill points and spending them wisely.
In the safe house, there are other things that you can do apart from choose the next mission or have a little kip. There’s a workbench, where the crafting materials that you collect can be made into bullets, healing items, grenades etc. There are different classes of bullets that you can craft as well – special bullets that will tag nearby enemies and not alarm them, luring bullets that emit a high pitched whine which can be used to attract enemies to a certain area, and also armour piercing ones, that are effective against enemy vehicles. Each of these bullet types can also be used to kill, so there is a certain amount of amusement to be had from shooting an enemy with a luring bullet, and watching his buddies come running, then taking them out. Luring enemies next to a fuel container and then detonating it with a well aimed second shot is another highlight.
In addition to making these supplies, you can also buy them, and extra weapons, from the weapon cache. As you progress through the game, there are extra rifles, secondary weapons and sidearms unlocked, which can be purchased using the trade goods that you loot from the corpses of your foes. Each weapon has a unique set of stats, so finding the right weapon for you adds another layer of complexity to the game. Once selected, you can then outfit it in a manner that suits you, with choices in optics of different strengths, silencers, extended magazines, bipods, camouflage and more that can be applied.
So far, so good then – the game has a lot of good points and is really fun to play. However, not everything in the garden is rosy, and there are a lot of glitches that nearly ruin the experience. Oh, and the loading times are ridiculous.
Without a word of a lie, as an experiment, I set the game to continue the story mode, then put the controller down, went into the kitchen, washed the pots, made a coffee and got back to my console before the map had loaded. Add to this a good 30 seconds to restart a checkpoint and quite often the game feels like a case of hurry up and wait.
There are also gameplay glitches that seem to happen with almost depressing regularity. In the first mission alone, and bear in mind this is within 20 minutes of starting the game, I had two glitches that forced me to restart as I couldn’t get out of them. In one, I approached a bad guy and hit the button to interrogate him. The screen seemed to jerk, and I appeared to be holding an invisible enemy, while I was halfway through a wooden fence. Nothing I did would persuade my guy to drop the enemy, so I had to restart. The second, about 50 yards further on from this point, involved trying to jump over a gap in a raised rock promontory, from where I’d be able to get a good view of the target area. For some reason, despite running and jumping, and having cleared longer distances in the prologue, my character slid down the rock face and managed to jam himself between a tree and the rock. And he couldn’t extricate himself. I couldn’t jump, duck or go prone – none of my movement options worked, and again I had to restart.
Another favourite of mine and something that happens a lot, is the time of day changes if you have to restart a checkpoint. As you can imagine, sniping in the dark is quite hard, at least until you unlock the night vision goggles. So I got into the habit of sleeping in the safe house when I accepted a mission, so it was 8am before I started a mission and the place was bathed in gorgeous sunlight. However, if I failed in my mission or was shot and had to reload a checkpoint, quite often the time would be reset to midnight and the mission area would be dark, which bumped up the difficulty a lot. To die in bright sunshine and wake up, at the start of the mission again, in the darkness is very jarring and immersion killing if I’m honest.
The last of the major glitches that I encountered was the the first mission of Act 2, where the sound effects just disappeared altogether. The sound in the cutscenes was fine, and the quiet, ethereal background music was audible, but firing, reloading and driving all happened in complete silence. It made it an interesting challenge, as the only way that I would know someone had seen me was when bullets started to hit home, giving vibrations on the pad but no noise.
In conclusion then, Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 is a game of two halves. If you can look past the glitches, there’s a good game fighting to get out, and one with a lot to offer. This is a big game, and with the free roam map and variety of approaches that can be taken, one that offers a lot to the player. However, glitches that require a mission to be restarted, or for you to fast travel out of the area to get out of them, are not really on in this day and age. It is due to these that I have had to really think about my final score – do I score on potential or actual experience? In the end – as usual – I’ve had to put my actual experiences ahead. If CI Games manage to patch out the glitches, this game will easily get a half or full point more.
But without it, it can be classed as nothing but average.