The sniper level in Call of Duty Modern Warfare was considered one of the game’s highest points; its combination of stealth with setpieces – despite being a highly curated experience – was a tense kind of mission in a game that was rapidly redefining what a cinematic FPS could do in its use of curated setpieces. Sniper 2 is a game formed entirely of these moments – mixtures of tense marksmanship and frantic action in the aftermath. It is a game which, rather than offering vast selections of experiences in a kind of action buffet, focuses on making one single one – sniping – as seemingly realistic and simulationary as possible. Finding the midpoint between simulation and accessibility in a game like this is crucial, and Sniper 2 succeeds only in part.
There are three difficulty settings in the game; the lower two have a bullet lead indicator that shows the player where they need to aim to compensate for the wind and range, the highest does not. As someone with some experience of air rifle-shooting, playing on the hardest setting is an accurate – as accurate as a game can be, anyway – simulacrum of a kind of marksmanship. The player must count mil-dots on a scope, use a range-finder and read windspeed. Other FPS games have attempted to be so comprehensive yet Sniper 2 is the first where I have felt my knowledge of handling a weapon in the real world (albeit an air-rifle, rather than the high-powered firearms simulated in-game) could be at all translated into skill at the game. Indeed, offering the game to relatives who also enjoy target-shooting received similar responses; skill at target-shooting could be applied as skill at a simulation of it. However, realism and simulationism are not inherently fun; the work required to play Sniper 2 on its hardest setting and the trial-and-error needed to take successful shots – combined with the often punishing time-constraints in missions – make the game a frustrating experience. As a result, switching to the lower settings is generally preferable for gamers not well-versed in actual sniping.
This is both a good thing and a bad one. Sniper 2‘s lower difficulties do not simply deploy a lead indicator at all times; it appears after a period of aiming at a target, and does not work so well for moving targets. I have found, therefore, that the middle setting provides probably the best compromise between frustrating simulation and accessible shooting game fun – there is assistance for the more difficult sections but it only appears when the player needs it. After a few hours’ play, the need for the indicator becomes less for the player – they will most likely begin to understand how the game works and feel ready to progress to harder modes.
What is more, the game is not as gratituous as its stablemate in the marksmanship simulation genre Sniper Elite V2; this is not a game of exploding Nazi innards and action replays. Every so often the player is “rewarded” for completing a section with a slow-motion video of their shot’s path, but there is not the glamourisation of the wounds themselves; the enemies are shot, and die. Tonally this keeps the game very consistent; it is not trying to tell a serious war story disingenuously punctuated with extreme fetishised violence. Indeed the game is very much a glamourisation of the professional soldier; not taking pleasure in killing so much as following orders and fighting. In some ways this is more unsettling than the patriotic insane heroism of Call of Duty or any of the games which reward your success with explosions of flesh – this is not a FPS of singlehandedly winning wars but of fighting in them. It is, much as the levels it evokes from Modern Warfare were, a series of shooting galleries – but those shooting galleries are how war is claimed to be to a marksman distant on high ground. The opening chapter of the game has your character supporting special forces units storming buildings – the sort of action that a Call of Duty game would have the player in the thick of, placing charges and clearing rooms. That Sniper 2 has you instead making this possible from a kilometre away is a refreshing change of pace in a genre increasingly defined by absurd bombast. It is even possible to argue that it is extending its grim simulationism into the story itself; while your character is central to the plot, they are still a fallible soldier preoccupied with their duty as such, not an action-hero standing for a nation’s ideals. The fact that the second mission of the game moves away from the stock globetrotting modern-war plot of stolen weapons of mass destruction to take a detour to war-torn Sarajevo, if anything, confirms this.
Thus at its core, Sniper 2 is a stealth game disguised as a military FPS; the sections where you are not sniping from great distance have you vulnerable to only seconds of enemy fire, armed with an unwieldy rifle and a sidearm, hiding from groups of more than two enemies. These are at times curated, when you have a spotter present; he tells you where to go and when. While this is arguably removing the challenge, failure is an omnipresent threat and soon the game has you graduate to completing harder stealth sequences without the reassuring guidance of your comrade. Here the player has surprising freedom thanks to the efficiency of the stealth mechanics – often there will be recommendations of what to do, but they can be ignored for better or for worse. Sometimes doing this proves to make it easier; the game’s strong draw distance (facilitated by its use of the CryEngine 3) and compromise between a curated corridor and an open-world design that evokes Crysis 2 allows players to approach situations from a wider-than-expected range of angles. Indeed, the fact the mission briefings adjust to account for this – and that being spotted is not an automatic mission failure – makes Sniper 2 one of the more satisfying stealth shooters. While some sections become functionally impossible if the enemy are alerted, the player is free to try until they die rather than be faced with a Game Over screen.
Despite doing so much right on a conceptual level, Sniper 2 is not a perfect game. Its use of difficulty settings is the best compromise between simulationism and action that a FPS could manage, but is still a slightly awkward compromise. The target lead indicator makes the game too easy at times even with the caveats to its use, but removing it entirely passes beyond rewarding skill into an exercise in frustration for players not well-versed in handling a rifle and telescopic sight. Similarly, for all it touches on rejecting the action-hero archetype, its plot is very much still a stock-in-trade action-film one of stolen weapons and military jargon – much as with the difficulty settings, the games’ entire themes feel an awkward compromise between military simulation, unglamorous and low-key as that would be, and all-action FPS, as perhaps the developers felt players would expect. Furthermore, the implementation of the potential of CryEngine 3 is not as good as that of CryTek themselves and frequently the stealth mechanics fail not through the player’s fault but because of glitches in pathing or moving over objects. The game feels graphically underwhelming for a title released in 2013, especially in its pre-rendered cutscenes – although crucially the graphics never impede the gameplay and the lack of detail allows it to perform consistently flawlessly. Furthermore, the inclusion of multiplayer seems something of an afterthought; little about the game’s mechanics supports traditional deathmatch multiplayer, and the single game-type and two maps make it seem even more like an unnecessary part of the package included only as a bullet-point on the box.
To conclude, although a flawed game, Sniper 2 is far from the generic ripoff or uninspired copycat it might seem to be. It is a game that has good ideas hidden behind compromises to accessibility and genre tradition that, with refinement, could produce a game which both challenges the idea that a FPS player-character needs to be in the midst of the explosions and firefights all the time lest they get bored and which provides a simulationary change of pace on a mechanical level. Approach Sniper 2 in this mindset – expecting a game which rewards slow-paced consideration and stealth and ideally with a little knowledge of how guns work outside of the movies – and there is enjoyment to be found.