I'm In A Field near Ipswich surrounded by cold-blooded killers. It's just over an hour out of London, but it might as well be another century. As the identikit short angry man announces at the briefing: "We don't do political correctness." They certainly don't, and over the course of the day we're subjected to concepts and language rarely heard outside the confines of a 70s sitcom.
It's the usual scenario: a bunch of ex-army sorts running corporate days for people who like to fire guns but aren't keen on the whole blood and death aspect. As the man says: "Don't ask us how many people we've killed and don't ask us what it's like to take a human life.
It's advice that we strictly adhere to, but it's clear that pretty much everyone involved has seen action. Even the old duffer at the gun club tells a story of shooting an Egyptian policeman in the head. Probably the only one without (human) blood on their hands is the farmer's wife who knocks up a beef stew while we await our turn at the firing range.
Ostensibly, we're here to recreate the action of Sniper Elite, the Rebellion-developed title recently snapped up by Ubisoft. The game is set during the final Soviet advance of Berlin during World War II, but we're going to have to settle for Suffolk.
Shot By Both Sides
The rifles are at least authentic, and first up is a Russian affair, which despite being around 100-years-old, apparently may have been used in World War II. We're shooting at a regulation target, informally known as the Hun's Head, with the prime area marked by a circle in the middle of his face. As the instructor casually announces: "Any lower and you'll probably just take his jaw off."
The rifle is an impressive piece of kit and one that requires you to lay flat on your stomach to operate it The bullets are vicious-looking projectiles and six of them are loaded into the chamber. The sights provide a crisp view of the Hun's Head, albeit one that's swaying gently in time with my breathing. As in Sniper Elite, this is prevented by using the empty lung technique whereby you breathe out (or in) and hold it for no more than about six seconds, after which time you may start shaking through lack of oxygen. It seems effective enough, so I squeeze the trigger, unleashing a suitably loud crack - even with earplugs - as the kickback thuds against my shoulder (already shattered by a previous Reality Check, as you'll know if you're a regular reader...)
Once the first shot is out of the way, it's pretty straightforward, the biggest difficulty being cocking the gun, with my chocolate-wristed efforts looked on with barely concealed contempt by the accompanying action-man. My eye would appear to be in though, and five out of the six shots rip through the Hun's Head. Only one is in the sweet spot but with hits to the cheek, mouth, chin and neck, suffice to say he won't be getting up.
Moving on to the German rifle, it's a similar set-up, if with slightly bigger sights, something I discover when the kickback causes the mounting to crack me above the eye for the latest in a long-running series of Reality Check-related injuries. It doesn't deter me from the job in hand though, and with four of the six shots within the target area, I'm confident in awarding myself a set of sniping wings to add to the collection.
Aimed At Your Temples
All well and good (not for the Hun), but the art of sniping involves much more than aiming and pulling the trigger. Present on the day is Sniper Elite advisor Martin Pegler, author of Out Of Nowhere: A History Of The Military Sniper have to confess to not reading the whole book, but among the key skills identified are good concealment and I observation. After wolfing down the beef stew (and forgoing the apple pie), we're bundled into a bus to embark on an exercise that will demonstrate these factors.
Concealment first which involves smearing viscous make-up on my face, the fearsome look completed by a glorified hairnet For observation, I'm flanked by a pair of binocular-wielding wingmen. Meanwhile, I have the task of hauling the sniper rifle through the undergrowth, loaded with a couple of blanks.
For the purpose of the exercise, a 'German' is situated atop a nearby tower, and our task is to take him out without being spotted. If he sees us, he radios a nearby helper who signals our demise with a tap of the shoulder. Setting off with minor enthusiasm, crawling through nettles on your belly is about as much fun as it sounds. Avoiding pools of light and sudden movement is key, and we crawl from tree to tree until we finally have him within range. Raising the increasingly heavy gun to my eye, I have the Hun's Head in my view, give or take a bit of shrubbery. Breathing in to steady myself, I'm about to squeeze the trigger when I feel a heartless hand on my shoulder. For me, the war is over...
Download Sniper Elite
Right, What We have here is a sort of historical Splinter Cell, minus the handstands and night vision goggles. Lots of sneaking from one bit of handily-placed rubble cover to the next. Lots of seeing the enemy before they see you, then poking their eyeballs out with high velocity bullets fired from 15 miles away. Lots of tightly controlled action across a series of 20 or so tightly contained levels.
Background: it's the sequel to WWI, coming up on the final stretch of the action. The Third Reich has fallen at the final hurdle and Russian and Allied troops are advancing all over the shop. It'll all be over by Christmas, give or take a few months, but the danger hasn't quite passed.
You're about to fire the first shots in the all-new Cold War, even before the current one has finished. Talk about impatient. Reason seems to be that those pesky Soviets-to-be are intent on nicking the German's atom bomb secrets and it's your job, as part of the American's highly elite sniper division, to pop along and stop them by shooting people in the neck from long distances.
Which means a set of objective-based, pre-planned maps to negotiate, mostly rubble-strewn cities and towns, with the usual goals being to sneak in, contact an agent, identify a target and find a good bit of cover until the chance for a shot turns up.
There is slightly more creativity at work though. Killing Martin Bormann (Waylan Smithers to Hitler's Montgomery Burns, if you will) by sneaking up to his staff car, planting some TNT and then blowing it up with a well-placed shot is one example.
Being as how the word 'sniper' is in the title of the game, you'd expect there to be quite a large Sk amount of emphasis on this side of the shooting match. I'm not certain we're talking the most accurate longdistance murder simulation ever committed to C++, but there's enough elements to play here to keep you amused for a fair bit. Hold your breath for ten seconds or so to steady your aim. Go prone for greater accuracy. Aim for different parts of the body and factor wind and gravity in too.
On the higher realism settings it all adds up to some pretty satisfying shots when you pull them off. Especially as the viewpoint switches to 'bullet-cam' and zooms in on the action, complete with JFK-style head giblets flying off should your aim be as true as Lee Harvey's.
What doesn't really work is the part where you're called upon to wield conventional bullet-lobbers and mow down soldiers that get too close. The third-person engine just doesn't really hold up to that kind of action with any degree of satisfaction of believability. Nor do the actual maps convey any sense of being more than limited-scope playgrounds designed for a specific purpose. No real sense of realism is on show (the old invisible barrier trick rears it's very ugly head once more). In a sense, they're just giant 3D puzzles, waiting for you to work out the single correct route through to the end.
Sniper Elite could well have been a terrifically good simulation of being a wartime sneaky fella had there been a greater sense of ambition displayed in the design process. As it is, you're left with a game that doesn't really offer a great deal more in terms of ammo delivery that we haven't seen done equally well in more popular, less subject-specific shooters.