Despite every single shooting game of the last 10 years seemingly having at least one type of sniper rifle, there's been a dearth of quality sniping games. The original Sniper: Ghost Warrior is a case in point. Featuring lousy physics, haphazard shooting and brain-dead enemies, it somehow made sniping boring. To its credit, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 improves the experience massively to create a well thought out and generally fun title, but with too many fairly major flaws to highly recommend it.
The sniper in question is Cole, who in a surprising turn of events is a special-ops agent, specialising in field support to assault teams. He is the centre-piece of a tale of deceit, betrayal and tragedy that stretches from the Philippines, through Sarajevo before climaxing in Nepal and India. Surprisingly, the narrative is well-designed and maintains its pace, with some decent voice-acting helping to set the scene and make you genuinely care for the people you assist. For the most part, it works. The story acts as a convincing foil, and justifies well both Cole's often reckless actions and the environmental changes.
This surprising personal touch to the story well represents the life of a sniper. Observing others from distance, with the fate of an oblivious foe at his finger-tips, they are intensely connected to their mark and the environment. It is these nuanced touches which absorb the player. Trees sway, the undergrowth shudders and soldiers banter in the distance. Although it cannot touch the living, breathing environments of Far Cry 3, Ghost Warrior 2 has consistently excellently designed levels, ducking and weaving through vastly different exteriors and scenarios. It looks good too, with some decent details and predictably (and necessarily) excellent draw-distances. The highlights are those with companions, such as a spotter, that are reminiscent of possibly this generation's finest level, Call of Duty 4's 'Ghillies in the Mist.' The indoor sections can become tedious, but they are saved by not being overly long.
Levels, as extensive but linear as they are, feature a great variety of battle types, from small confrontations to huge set-piece slogs. Although fun to play, they become infuriating when coupled with the game's nonsensical save system. Deeply flawed, there is no apparent logic or cohesion to where or when your progress is saved, and you can often go for up to half an hour before a save is activated. For a game that at points requires much trial and error, this is a horrendous error of judgement; one stray shot can put you back massively. For a game such as Ghost Warrior 2, that is unforgivable.
Despite the name, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 is not really a shooting game; stealth is far more important. Less a case of sticking to the shadows than staying in the distance, Ghost Warrior 2 is unforgiving to those with a reckless streak. Once spotted, the player is ripped apart almost immediately on any difficulty by the impressive enemies, who are no more likely to stick their head out than one would expect with a sniper in the vicinity. They patrol their borders and are acutely aware of any movement; they are, after all, trained soldiers. The result is that care and attention, plus a little bit of ingenuity is needed to overcome them. Unfortunately, the linear nature of the levels means that there are often insufficient areas to either hide or run, meaning that the player is hemmed in a way unnatural to the feel of the game.
Shooting mechanics, likewise, are relatively finely balanced. On the lowest two difficulties, a small marker within the scope helps to relate the wind-speed, posture of the sniper and his heart-rate to greatly aid the sniping. Purists on the higher difficulty level, minus this aid, will find their experience perceptive; quickly, shots can soon be judged relatively accurately, and feel a lot more precise than in most other games of this ilk. Although perhaps not as brutal as they could be, the deaths are thankfully neither as dramatic, gratuitous or downright pornographic as other sniper games (Sniper Elite V2, I'm looking at you), thus making every kill an off-handed experience. This could be construed as unsettling, but instead comes across as slightly lazy when the lack of real enemy variety is noted. It seems the balance has yet to be struck in this regard.
The multiplayer experience, at least in its current state, is an after-thought at best and a deceptive non-entity at worst. At the time of writing there are only two levels available to play and one mode (team deathmatch). For a full retail release, this is ridiculously poor value when tacked onto a single-player experience of approximately 8 hours. It's not even any fun. Enemies hide, and hide, and hide, and what could have been a tense, exhilarating experience is instead deeply boring. Nothing happens. There is no encouragement to move or thrust forward in teams, and you often just sit around waiting to be killed, or for someone else to become more bored than you and make a break. Although this could be construed as realistic, it is incompatible with time-based online gaming.
Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 is surprisingly decent, but this is as much to do with low expectations than any outstanding merit. The single player is absorbing and fun, featuring excellent levels and mechanics with a well-intentioned narrative. It is, however, lucky not to entirely ruined by a puzzling save system, and the multiplayer component is an insult to the name. Is it worth getting? For fans of the genre, probably; the higher difficulty levels offer a genuinely challenging sniping experience. For everyone else, there is fun to be had here, but little of it is particularly outstanding in any respect. It is decent and perfectly enjoyable. As sniping games go, this is a pretty big step forward.
This review is based on a retail copy of Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 for the Playstation 3.