It’s easy to write off the Sniper Elite series. It’s replete with slow-motion x-ray kill cams of testicles rupturing and eyeballs leaping out of shattered Nazi skulls. At a glance, it’s a relic of the early aughts video game obsession with gore, excess, and self-serious protagonists. Until recently, I never touched the series. But Sniper Elite 5 launched on Xbox Game Pass a few weeks ago. Now? I’m enthralled.
Sniper Elite 5 is indeed gory and excessive, and its protagonist would be right at home at a poker table with Master Chief, Leon S. Kennedy, and Cliff Bleszinski. But it’s also home to exquisite acts of level design. Its sandbox missions are so good, in fact, that I already count them among the best of Arkane Studios, IO Interactive, and Eidos-Montréal. They’re nothing short of mesmerizing, and I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks scouring their every nook and cranny, continually marveling at the craft, cleverness, and audacity on display.
There’s the first mission, “The Atlantic Wall,” which sprawls across Normandy’s bucolic coastline, now made treacherous by the defenses of the Nazi war machine. There’s “Occupied Residence,” a series of dirt paths snaking through farmland on their way to a hulking chateau. There’s “War Factory,” a tangle of pipes and vents and furnaces. And then there’s “Spy Academy.”
Sniper Elite 5’s third mission opens in a quiet forest clearing, but the vista soon widens to a panoramic look at Beaumont-Saint-Denis. It’s a massive tidal island, with medieval walls rising out of the surrounding bay, their ramparts obscuring the lower reaches of a town, which slopes up to the spires of a gargantuan abbey. It’s all covered in algae and shrouded in fog. The view alone is staggering.
It’s based on Mont-Saint-Michel, the tidal island that also, incidentally, inspired The Lord of the Rings’ Minas Tirith and Dark Souls’ New Londo Ruins. Neither of those works featured sniper rifles or Nazis, though, and in this regard, Sniper Elite maker Rebellion Developments understood the assignment.
At the outset, “Spy Academy” is a shooting gallery. It’s low tide, and the soldiers patrolling the sandbanks have little to no cover once I let the first bullet fly. The same rings true on the long, narrow causeway leading from the island to the spot where I lie prone on an inauspicious outcropping of rock. Once I’ve thinned the enemy ranks, I continue using the causeway to my advantage: There’s a series of arches at its base, allowing me to leapfrog from north to south and back again as the Nazis investigate my every last known position. It’s a veritable coastline stroll as I make my way up into the foreboding town.
And then, Rebellion pulls the proverbial rug out from under me.
What began a sniper’s dream has become a sniper’s nightmare. Like a reverse Divine Comedy, I’ve left paradise for the fiery confines of hell. The streets of Beaumont-Saint-Denis are narrow, its sightlines are short, and it’s patrolled by what I can only describe as a fuckload of Nazis. My general objective is to climb the island and infiltrate a top-secret meeting between enemy officials. But no matter where I place myself — no matter where I “set up shop” — I am always exposed on at least one side. As I climb, rifle slung across my back and silenced handgun raised to cover the next corner, I am always worried about a suspicious window above me, always concerned about an abandoned bakery in my peripheral vision that may not, actually, be abandoned. I enter the abbey and its pews are the only cover I can find.
I won’t spoil the rest of the mission — I don’t think I could, honestly. The odds of you taking the same stilted, terrifying, detour-ridden path as I did are next to none. But I will say that helicopters weren’t really a thing in 1944. You won’t have the luxury of an airlift from the roof of the church. In Nazi-killing land, every climb is followed by a descent. And the Nazis are usually more alert during the latter part.
“Spy Academy” is one of those rare sandbox missions that recontextualizes what has come before it and forces you to reconsider what kind of game you’re actually playing. What began as a series of shooting galleries set in varied locations across France becomes a tactical stealth game with seemingly infinite ways to get shit done. “Spy Academy” rests comfortably in the sandbox-stealth pantheon of Dishonored 2’s “Clockwork Mansion,” Hitman’s “World of Tomorrow,” and Metro Exodus’ “Volga.” It’s that good.
Part of me wishes Rebellion didn’t reveal its masterstroke so early in Sniper Elite 5. But most of me recognizes how crafty its placement is. As the third mission, it’s late enough to have some tantalizing preamble, but early enough to stop you from forming bad habits. The remainder of the game is a delicate interplay between scenic shootouts and close-quarters brawls. In this way, “Spy Academy” is both an invitation and a warning — a tutorial and a shock to the nerves.
So many sandbox missions feel as if they were built from the ground up. Technically speaking, they probably were. But “Spy Academy” feels as if it was sculpted — as if it was hewn from something too big to imagine. It’s as if Rebellion Developments came across a colossal mountain of digital limestone, chiseled away at its edges, and found this wonderful mission nestled beneath the surface. Its grand scope is equaled only by the attention to detail in its brine-soaked stone.