Sniper Elite III: Ultimate Edition (Switch) Review
Night has fallen over a secluded African desert oasis and my target, another cog in the Nazi war machine, was pouring over documents in a lamp-lit tent. From my sniper’s nest, I had been watching him for a while now, keenly aware of a number of factors that could foil my whole plan. A nearby generator was malfunctioning, intermittently firing off loud pops. Loud enough to cover my sniper, but only if I timed it exactly right.
Then, movement, the target was leaving the tent. Decision made, I lined up my scope, took a deep breath in, hesitated a second too long and pulled the trigger. Everyone heard me, my plan was shot and as a storm of bullets tore through my nest I laughed and reloaded a save, ready to do it all again.
This is how it feels to play Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition. A game that, despite puffing out its chest with action bravado like so many military shooters before it, is actually a surprisingly methodical assassin simulator. This split personality confused players back when it first released in 2014 and now it arrives on the Nintendo Switch, complete with all the DLC packs and the chance to perplex and delight a whole new audience.
Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition puts you in the shoes of, fittingly, the elite sniper Karl Fairburne. Fairburne is the exemplary stoic masculine archetype but thanks to the game’s quasi-realistic sheen he winds up feeling like Wolfenstein’s BJ Blazkowicz as seen through a Ken Burn’s filter. Fairburne’s cliche romp doesn’t detract from the experience as the game’s best elements are largely divorced from the narrative. I wasn’t especially looking to Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition to tackle the grisly nature of war but something more than your standard-issue buff guy with a gun might have elevated affairs to the kind of experience developer Rebellion talk about crafting.
The story picks up in the early 1940s during the events of the Second World War. Fairburne is sent to North Africa to help turn the tides against the brutally efficient German Africa Corps. Rebellion has stated that its intention with Sniper Elite III was to gamify history, essentially turning the Nazi plight into a dramatisation with realistic bullet physics. The historical realism aspect is neither here nor there in terms of your experience with the game; the plot is largely told through bare-bones cutscenes between missions and is about as dry as you’d expect.
Fortunately, you’re not left to dwell on the narrative for long as the story beats are short and serve only to drop you into the next sandbox. After choosing your personalised loadout, Fairburne will be set loose in one of eight campaign missions (twelve if you include the four additional DLC outings). These missions will take you across North Africa on a spree of assassinations, sabotage and even some lite-espionage. Later stages include some more off the wall concepts, culminating in DLC missions that are, well, historically creative lets say.
If you’ve played any mainstream game from the past decade you’ll seldom be surprised by Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition’s systems. There’s a small but open map littered with enemies, collectibles and objectives. A radial menu mapped to the bumper buttons gives access to weapons, health kits and tools. A stealth meter tracks your visibility and over enemy alertness. The list goes on and on and although many of these mechanics operate as slightly janky facsimiles of gaming conventions, there is a wonderful harmony buried just under the surface when they interlock.
Getting them to interlock in the right way, however, requires you to play the game the right way. It’s always a tough call to make when throwing around terms like right and wrong way to play in regards to open sandbox titles; so much of the freedom I love about this game is just that, freedom. So when I tell you, point-blank, to leave the heroics behind and play this game as stealthy as possible I don’t blame you for balking.
There are elements of Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition’s makeup that hint at a more action-driven experience. At a glance, the third-person perspective, cover system and submachine gun on your hip might make you think you could play this in a more aggressive way. And you could, but you’d be denying yourself the truest pleasures, and potential, of the game.
Getting the most out of the experience is not as simple as having the bad guy in your sights and pulling the trigger. Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition is a game that wants to be much more than that and given half the chance it truly can be. At its best, I was fondly reminded of the incredible Hitman reboot or the finer moments of the Splinter Cell series. With this style of gameplay in mind I fell into a satisfying pattern with each new location I visited; scout, assess, wait and execute.
The sandboxes aren’t huge but they are densely populated with enemy combatants and full of buildings, rock formations and hidden passages to sneak through. Fairburne’s small arsenal of weapons and tools means how you approach your objectives within a map is entirely up to you. A trusty pair of binoculars can be used for scouting and marking enemy locations, landmines and dynamite can be laid out as traps or diversions, or if all else fails you can toss a rock and hope that guard looks the other way.
Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition’s stealth is surprisingly deep, allowing players to make use of shadows, sounds and AI behaviours to move around undetected. A small eye icon in the bottom corner indicates how visible Fairburne is based on how well lit an area is, making the shadows or tall grass the safest places to be. Paired with a generous two-map system that displays a wealth of information, skulking around looking for the perfect place to shoot from was always a blast.
Which brings us to the money shot and the namesake of the series itself – sniping. Depending on your choice of difficulty there is a lot that can go into landing the perfect shot in Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition. The higher the difficulty the more realistic the bullet ballistics, meaning you’re going to need to account for much more than just what’s in your cross-hair. No matter how you approach it, the moment when you pull that trigger is gratifying in a way that made me feel all at once thrilled and mildly revolted.
Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition boasts an absurdly graphic kill-cam which tracks your fired bullet in slow motion as it rips through your target. You’ll know exactly how you’ve killed your foe thanks to an X-Ray style filter which shows detailed human anatomy with a skeleton, muscle mass and organs included. It’s as wild as it sounds and isn’t without its charms but the schlocky violence of it all feels slightly at odds with the grimly serious tone of the narrative.
There are some stumbles along the path to that perfect shot though. Enemy AI swings wildly between mindless drone patrol and Terminator-style efficiency based on their alert status. This can be mitigated somewhat by difficulty tier choice but they never felt quite as organic as I would have liked. You’ll be seeing them a lot too as levels often feature evolving objectives that require backtracking across the map.
This constant zig-zagging through previously explored locations can wear a little thin, threatening to topple the experience into tedium once or twice but is something of a necessary evil given the game’s small scope. Based on your style of play Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition will run the average player somewhere between 15-25 hours. With only eight missions in the base campaign that alone can be quite a brief experience if you launch in gun’s blazing.
Fortunately, this port comes complete with DLC packs, bolstering on four extra missions which see you more directly dealing with WW2 figures such as Winston Churchill and even the Führer himself. A reach of historical levels not seen since the pope’s cameo in Assassin’s Creed II. There is also a small but decent collection of multiplayer modes included but the game’s strongest elements aren’t quite in harmony with any of them. The best option is a local co-op mode for the campaign while the other options cater more toward action style play in wave-based and competitive modes.
The port itself is one of the best I’ve ever seen on the Switch. Given that the initial release of the game straddled the hardware generation line, Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition isn’t a particularly intensive title visually speaking but this allows the Switch to run it perfectly. Stiff facial animations and some flat textures aside, the game generally looks beautiful when docked or on the go. A solid lighting engine and immersive sound design sync up to imbue North Africa with an often tranquil beauty that’s begging to be disrupted by the explosive shot of your sniper.
Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition is a satisfying stealth sandbox but only if you engage with it on its terms. This means being patient, learning to sit still among the trappings of war and only take your shot when you’re absolutely ready. That patience is rewarded at every turn with a meaty campaign, gutturally enjoyable carnage and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. It’s not for everyone but for those looking for a unique shooter experience, Sniper Elite III Ultimate Edition on Switch is a damn good deal.
+ Satisfying stealth shooter
+ Dense sandbox levels
+ Runs smoothly on Switch
- Dated animations and textures
- Janky AI behaviour
- Backtracking through levels