It’s a good year for snipers. Between Sniper Elite 4, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and now Sniper Ghost Warrior 3, fans of long-distance stealth killing have got their steady little hands full. The latest in the batch, CI Games’ first person shooter SGW3 is a fun game, dragged down by an unsatisfactory creative direction and a disappointing technical execution.
Following the story of siblings Jon and Rob North, Sniper Ghost Warrior 3’s tutorial takes place as both sniper brothers infiltrate a compound in Eastern Ukraine in order to destroy a Soviet-era cache of weapons. After the prologue is done with, Jon gets dropped down in Georgia (the country, not the state) to perform the now cliche plot of destabilising a government by causing chaos and sowing more panic than The Walking Dead did in Georgia (the state, not the country).
It was a novel concept back when Just Cause released back in 2006 and Just Cause 2 followed four years later, but nowadays, it has become somewhat banal. Even Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands used the exact same plot premise, albeit with the slight twist of fighting a narco state instead of an established legitimate government. Here, the premise of an American spreading democracy against evil Russian/former-Soviet Union soldiers is executed in an objectively boring fashion, a product of some uninspired writing that never veers off the expected path.
With such a dull plot fueling proceedings, all hope lies with gameplay. The best parts of Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 come from how clearly influenced by Far Cry it was. The outposts, the climbing, and free-roam -- all of that makes gunplay fun and exciting, and the freedom to tackle challenges however you like is a powerful attractive. The title relies on its open world shooting to keep the player entertained, but that’s the first thing that is slightly off.
Gunplay is the primary aspect of any first person shooter, but weapons here are a mixed bag. Some of them, like the assault rifle, possess great feedback and feel rightly heavy and powerful, the sound of gunfire echoing through your speakers every time you engage an enemy. However, the sniper rifles feel surprisingly meek and pathetic; their barely noticeable recoil coupled with a muted audio design makes the sniping experience more akin to firing a BB gun than pressing the trigger on a piece of gear capable of hitting targets a thousand metres away. It is unfulfilling and disappointing, to say the least.
It is all made worse by the obscure unlock process and limited selection of weapons available. The tutorial loadout includes a Remington M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle equipped with an adjustable x20 optical zoom scope, but once the game properly starts, you’re stripped of that and given a weak non-variable 8x scope for no discernible reason. While that follows standard game progression, SGW3 shouldn’t be this generic: it is a sniping game, and a good scope is an essential part of the sniping experience. Nevermind JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) managed to drop a single lone sniper in the middle of rural Ukraine with a fully equipped safehouse, complete with workbenches, laptops, and a top-of-the-line scouting drone unit -- an anti-material rifle with a standard marksman scope was too much to ask.
Once the game begins, literally every single piece of gear is unavailable. They are mostly unlocked as you complete missions or find them in the bodies of your fallen foes, except for a couple of weapons that are hidden in boxes somewhere on the map. The gun attachments are also unlocked randomly, but their limited number and usefulness makes the whole system even more disappointing: aside from scopes, every other aspect of a weapon can barely be customised. Some guns can take a flashlight, others can take a laser -- none can do both. Pistols often can’t be customised at all, while assault rifles’ grips or ironsights cannot be changed, leaving you with generic weapons that would feel at home in any Call of Duty ever released.
The gear selection is similarly barren, yet slightly more functional. Grenades, decoys, and explosives are available, yet the drone is the only reliable tool at your disposal. The little reconnaissance scout can be upgraded with a myriad of attachments such as diversion speakers, night vision mode, and hacking modules, and it is without a doubt the one piece of equipment players will use the most. I like how it has a shaky cam and handles slightly unpredictably, giving off the feel of a real flying lightweight remote controlled robot instead of a magical hovering videogame device. It is novel in execution, if not in concept, and comes off as an important element when scouting an area for enemies.
Said scouting is an essential part of gameplay, as the game’s minimap does not highlight the location of enemies before they are spotted. Weirdly, this sniper game lacks a binocular, so tagging enemies visually can only be done through a rifle’s scope. However, the drone auto-tags any hostiles in view instantly, while using a weapon requires you to hold your aim on an enemy for over three seconds before he gets marked on your map. This asinine design decision means it is often faster to consistently and boringly scout and area with the drone and shoot people afterwards than observe and adapt on the fly.
Unfortunately, the game does not reward adaptability at all. It has a binary state that goes from “undetected to detected”, with no awareness status in between. Enemies who are in eyesight of a sniper bullet impact immediately know where you are, even if you shoot an explosive barrel. There is no analysis, no shoutout of sniper danger, no triangulation -- shoot anyone in view of someone else, and they can pinpoint your exact position on a 3D place with unerring accuracy. I don’t know what is the worse outcome of this design decision: that stealth can be instantly broken by one unlucky shot, or that it completely removes the element of relocation and tactical engagement. The end result is the same: it is unfulfilling, immersion breaking, and honestly defeats the whole point of a sniping game. It’s ridiculous.
However, the sniping portion of this sniping game is mostly well sniping done. A wonderful "supported" stance allows you to prop your rifle on any waist-high surface, while the use of bipods lets you stabilise your aim while lying prone. All scopes have a rangefinder built in, so you always get a precise measurement of how far your targets are from you. You use that info to adjust the sight’s elevation and zero-in the scope, and then compensate for bullet drop and wind drift before taking your shot. It all makes up for an engrossing and involved process much more engaging than “aiming at a reticle”, and once you disable the aim assist that shows you where the bullet hits, the game becomes a really enjoyable experience.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the rather unfulfilling bullet cam. Triggering randomly -- because I sure as hell didn’t see any qualifying requirement such as a “long” or “difficult” shot being a factor in it -- the slo-mo sequence starts with the shot mid-flight and follows the projectile until it hits the target. The camera angles are uninspired, clearly cutting away once it gets close to the target; the bullet model disappears and the body simply drops to the floor with a thud. I do like how the shot impacts the surface behind the body, but the fact it is just a visual effect without a proper projectile is disappointing. Unlike Sniper Elite’s bullet cam, which follows the bullet non-stop from the moment it leaves the barrel to the moment it sears through an enemy’s body, SGW3’s camera angles and action are uninspired and boring.
Given the player’s low health and the title’s focus on sniping, proper sneaking and positioning is an important tactical element. This is made easier with your character’s ability to climb plenty of strategically placed edges, but it is made harder by the lack of proper engagement options. You can’t melee people -- even though you have an upgradeable knife in your loadout -- so you either shoot them for a distance with a silenced pistol or risk getting close enough to contextually murder/interrogate them. There is not a lot of compromise in this game.
And that is in a nutshell the reason why Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 is not a great game. It frequently walks the line between possessing an innovative concept but having an ordinary execution. The open world is geographically varied and full of navigation paths, but it’s locations and points of interest are meaningless. NPCs dot the game’s villages and go about their routines, but the roads, farms, and outskirts are eternally devoid of cars and people. Even mobility is weirldy segregated: you can drive an SUV or a DLC buggy through most of the game (along with trucks and other cars when a mission requires), but every single vehicle you encounter in free roam is locked and unusable.
That duality permeates every single aspect of gameplay. Missions are started from a laptop in one of North’s safehouses, and the interface gives you an overview of each past mission and separates the story by acts. Even though such an elaborate UI seems handmade for that purpose, complete with little buttons, you can’t replay missions. On a similar yet more mundane angle, most of the game design follows the Far Cry 2 tradition of presenting an animation for your actions, such as looting a body, grabbing a ledge, or entering a car. However, others don’t: picking up weapons and items, opening boxes, or interacting with world objects are done by a set of invisible hands, further indicating the disparity in execution of the title.
What really destroys any enjoyment which may be had with Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 are its technical flaws. The game is substantially unpolished, to the point of unprofessionalism. Bad performance is unfortunately nigh expected nowadays, but CI Games’ shooter goes one step further by stumbling through basic QA concepts such as terrible performance and incorrect user prompts, stretching as far as the main menu. Right as the game launches, the title screen greets you with: “Press Space to continue”. That often doesn't work -- and you must actually press Enter instead. In-game prompts while sprinting tells you to hold the left mouse button to melee and vault, yet neither works -- you vault by pressing Space, and melee is completely unresponsive 90% of the time. It is shameful.
Loading times often clocked around four and a half minutes, something virtually unheard of on PC except for GTA V’s notoriously long launches. Stuttering and freezes abound in every hour of gameplay: framerates drop regardless of location, be it inside bases or outside areas, with performance inexplicably tumbling when I was inside a 50 square-metres safehouse, yet running smoothly above a sprawling outdoors complex in the middle of the woods. Even the bullet-cam frequently played as a slideshow, freezing and skipping frames every few seconds, as did gameplay and cutscenes at random. It is not exactly the humiliating depths of Arkham Knight, but it is just as inconsistent.
Inexplicably, changing the graphical settings in-game would cause the game to hang, necessitating it to be closed via the task manager. I ended up lowering the graphics via the main menu and testing performance on all presets. While the freezes and slowdowns happened less often in lower quality settings, they happened nonetheless, and loading times never got below the four minutes mark. Frankly, playing the whole title like that made the experience extremely unenjoyable, and utterly ruined what could have been a perfectly enjoyable game.
Further ruining the experience were little technical tweaks that could have been avoided with a little bit of care. Whenever you die or fail an objective, the game loads your last checkpoint. Those reset the whole area around you and remove any changes you made to the world, meaning carefully prepared exfiltrations are rendered moot when the level respawns killed enemy patrols and throws your car a few miles away from its original position. It removes any immersion or investment you may have in proceedings, as one mistake simply wipes the board of your chosen approach and places you in the position the developer wants you to be in: it is not your world, your game, or your story anymore.
Loading into the game mid-mission is similarly badly executed. It has the asinine tendency to drop you midway into a conversation, rendering story and mission briefings futile as they lose a handful of preceding lines along with any and all context. I lost track of how many times I had to abort a mission and restart it just so I could hear a dialogue exchange in full and not miss any plot beats.
The game’s actual beats are largely inexistent, especially in regards to original score. The licensed soundtrack at first seemed well used, with a catchy song on the title screen that plays as the levels load. That track can often be heard in-game, too, in one of the many radios across the map or in vehicles. Werdly, turning them on and off skips a track entirely, and radios often fall silent after playing a single song. I soon realised there were only a couple of tunes in the game per se, which is drastically exacerbated by the fact I listened to the main menu track until completion every single time I started the game, thanks to the obnoxiously long loading screens.
That constant self-sabotage undermines nearly every aspect of gameplay, and what could be a serious approach to sniping and warfare ends up being cliche and hollow. While Sniper Elite goes the fun badass route, SGW3 doesn’t feel very coherent in what it wants to portray. It does have some fun features and overall enjoyable gameplay, but a myriad of misguided design decisions and its significant technical shortcomings prevent the creation of a meaningful sniper experience. I can’t help but feel the developers aimed much higher than they could deliver, and ultimately, Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 fails to be anything of value.
Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 (Reviewed on Windows)
Minor enjoyable interactions, but on the whole is underwhelming.
Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 is a serviceable open-world first person shooter with some great sniping mechanics, yet it's low production values and lack of polish completely ruin what could be a very enjoyable experience.