The Sniper Ghost Warrior series has always played second fiddle to Rebellion's Sniper Elite series, but developer and publisher CI Games is keen on making each entry better than the last. After Ghost Warrior 3 stumbled with a large open world devoid of content, the latest sequel aims to go in a different direction. Contracts has the ambition to be the best title in the series, but is that enough to stand alongside the best in the genre?
In a behind-closed-doors preview at E3 2019, I witnessed a developer demo before getting the chance to go hands-on with the title myself. From the outset, it's clear Contracts is taking to heart the lessons learned from Sniper Ghost Warrior 3. That game featured a single expansive setting, but didn't benefit from its square mileage the way a game like Far Cry 5 does, and players generally spent way too much time driving to and from objectives rather than actually sniping targets. For Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts, the open world setting has been jettisoned in favor of dense, linear levels with sandbox elements. In the level we witnessed, the developer had to go from the starting point to the base, and there were a number of options for infiltration, from sniping guards along the road to platforming across treacherous gaps. The level, set in a Siberian research base, had strong Cold War vibes, with a windy blizzard limiting visibility and camouflaged guards patrolling while bickering with one another.
After using a debug menu to warp to the main objective (no time for dilly-dallying at E3!), the main hook of Sniper emerged. Pulling out binoculars to mark targets works much the same as any number of stealth games from this decade, but Contracts has a few tricks up its sleeve to mix things up, in the form of different bullet types. In addition to standard sniping ammo and armor piercing bullets which can take down multiple targets with a single shot, Contracts also features "tagging" bullets, which can find enemies outside of line-of-sight and mark them for the player. Meanwhile, surveillance cameras can be taken out one by one, or the linked electrical box can be taken out with an EMP bullet, shutting down a whole network with a single pull of the trigger. Based on the presentation and our hands-on time with the game, the main theme of Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts hinges on the difference a single bullet can make.
As the developer demo neared its apex, a large majority of guards had been marked, the cameras had been disabled, and the main target had been spotted. The developer lined up his shot and pushed a button to hold his breath. In this focused mode, a red dot appears onscreen, indicating where the bullet will actually land when taking into account wind and distance (though it is possible for hardcore players to disable this helping hand). The developer fires his shot at the precise moment the target leans to go through an idle animation, and the bullet misses its target by mere inches – an unforeseen circumstance. Rather than reloading the checkpoint, however, the developer attempts to hold off the nearby guards alerted to his presence. One, he takes down with barrage of silenced pistol fire, while the other is dispatched with a slow-motion melee takedown. Unfortunately, another guard sees him and mows him down with several bursts from his assault rifle, an unceremonious, but still exhilarating, end to the demo.
Upon finally going hands-on with Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts, we were impressed and perturbed by the game's unforgiving difficulty curve. For better or for worse, Contracts remains equally challenging and rewarding, and a single misstep can swiftly lead a Game Over screen. First, we attempted to platform across the outer perimeter of the base, entirely bypassing enemy patrols. We were almost successful, but misjudged one of the leaps and promptly fell to our doom. Our second attempt involved sneaking behind enemy lines, stealthily taking down stray guards. We found a small encampment on the outskirts of the base, some type of vehicle fueling station loaded with guards. A single shot to a fuel container caused the whole area to go up in flames, killing most of the guards in the area, at the expense of putting the main base on alert, though our position remained hidden... Until we came across a patrol who gunned us down while we fumbled for our throwing knives.
Based on this early look at the game, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts looks like a sizeable improvement over its predecessors, though it doesn't seem particularly interested in bringing new players into the fold. CI Games knows its audience, and they are more interested in satisfying their cravings than making Sniper Ghost Warrior a series that anyone can just pick up and play. At the very least, one has no choice but to admire this approach.
Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts does not currently have a release window, but is scheduled to come out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
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