My surprising love affair with sniping

I’m not generally a big fan of violent games. The most notable exception is the Wolfenstein series, and I’m mostly into that because I’m a sucker for alternative history and the ludicrous extremes that series goes to (Nazis on the Moon!).

Neither am I a big fan of stealth games. I bounced off the original Metal Gear Solid, and I find the sneaking around in the Deus Ex games tedious, to the point where I gave up on Mankind Divided only a couple of hours in. My heart sinks whenever an otherwise action-oriented game drops in a stealth section out of the blue – something even the normally excellent Zelda games have been known to do.

But earlier this year, and much to my surprise, I totally fell in love with Hitman when it was given away on PlayStation Plus back in February. I spent hours and hours happily sneaking through its levels again and again, and after I’d rinsed it for all it was worth, I went out and bought Hitman 2 straight away.

It helps that the Hitman games have a lot of black humour. One of the things that puts me off violent games like Call of Duty, for example, is their deathly seriousness, not to mention their quest for realism. The closer that gunning down other human beings gets to being realistic in games, the more uncomfortable and less enjoyable it is, as far as I’m concerned.

But Hitman, although very pretty to look at, is in no way realistic. Real assassins don’t dress up as clowns or have barcodes tattooed on the backs of their heads, at least as far as I know. And they certainly don’t use exploding golf balls as murder weapons.

Yet this month, I totally fell in love with another murder simulator, again given away on PS Plus – and this one has far less of Hitman‘s humour. Sniper Elite 4 is at first glance a totally straight-laced World War 2 game, featuring an elite commando sent behind enemy lines in Italy to basically be very violent. No clown costumes here.

So why am I so addicted to it if I’m generally so down on realistic depictions of war? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t try to hide its video gameyness. Enemies can be tagged through your binoculars to allow you to see their silhouettes through walls, trucks reliably explode with a single shot, and enemies who have seen their comrades gunned down out of nowhere quickly go back to their usual routines after a short while. If you think about any of it for even a second, it’s quite patently ludicrous.

Yet I’ll admit to taking an absurd amount of guilty pleasure from picking off hapless guards with my sniper rifle. The fact that you have to take things like wind and bullet drop into account makes it all the more satisfying when you nail an enemy from a couple of hundred metres away – and the gory ‘kill cam’ that ensues gives a little jolt of adrenaline. It’s macabre good fun.

And it’s the polar opposite of frantic shooters like Call of Duty – success in Sniper Elite 4 requires careful planning and patience. I enjoy the more sedate pace, along with the opportunity for creativity, like luring enemies under cargo boxes that are precariously dangling from cranes, then shooting the crane hook to trigger mayhem. And I also like the way that – unlike in the Deus Ex games – you generally have a fighting chance if you’re discovered while sneaking about, easily able to lose the bad guys in the enormous levels while trailing mines behind you to trip up any pursuers.

The Target Fuhrer DLC for Sniper Elite 4 is brilliant, by the way – and it introduces a bit of Hitman’s black humour, like the way you can drop an actual submarine on Hitler.

And yes, the sniping. Many games are power fantasies, and sniping from afar, like some angel of death on high, might be gaming’s ultimate power fantasy. Yet sometimes the terror you inflict gets reflected right back at you, when the glint of a high-powered scope in the distance warns you of an enemy sniper sweeping their gaze your way. Usually what follows is a mad spurt of looking around, frantically trying to see where the sniper is hiding, followed by a sudden rifle shot to the head and a checkpoint restart.

Based on this, I can’t even imagine how terrifying snipers are in real life. Which is all the more reason to keep video games as gamey as possible.