Open-world is no longer a novelty, and lately it is largely expected. With Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 taking first steps into this kind of territory, it's a sure sign that the studio behind it is ready to take on the big league. After two earlier outings of a more linear nature, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 sets the scene, but allows players to cautiously approach missions as they see fit. Armed with authentic weaponry, handling, and tactics informed by real-life servicemen, a new emphasis on planning ahead in SGW3 certainly alters levels of both tone and tension.
Having played two missions from SGW3, sampling the "sandbox sniper experience" as promised, we certainly felt immersed in this dangerous world. To acclimatise to the experience, and run through typical objectives, we decided first to engage in a scripted hostage mission. Our target lay secure somewhere within a heavily fortified mountainside facility, with watchtowers, patrolling guards, security cameras, and alarm systems. The first order of business here, starting out from an unseen position further up the mountain, was to deploy a Recon Drone - quite easily the star of the show where SGW3 is concerned.
The Recon Drone is primarily used for scouting, equipped with special optics to detect heat signatures, not to mention night-vision. It also provides your HUD with details such as fuse box locations and structural weaknesses, while providing updated GPS positioning of enemy targets after they've been spotted. The enemy isn't stupid, and will become alerted to your presence if the drone is seen or heard whirring too close. There's a sense of nervousness even while flying this thing around, in case the alarm is raised and guards come looking.
Lead Narrative Designer with CI Games, Tomasz Pruski, had made progress look easy in an earlier demonstration, carefully though assuredly using the drone to hack keypads and disable security cams. Solitary guards were efficiently dropped with a single bullet, ensuring that no through-and-through could ricochet off a hard surface to cause a stir. After creating his own safe path to the hostage's location, surgically erasing targets with a sniper rifle, Pruski armed himself with an auto rifle to deal with any attention in a skirmish while extracting.
In practice, we made a struggle of obeying the three elegant play-styles that the game encourages us to explore: Sniper, Ghost, and Warrior. Our sniped shots were not silenced and therefore duly pinpointed. Our efforts to ghost between outpost buildings were soon thwarted after poking too far out of grassy cover. Having not considered our exit route, direct confrontation during a warrior style shootout didn't end too well either. But with each reset, the pleasure of learning increased, and we grew closer to achieving our goal.
Being faced with so many choices during a shooter mission is unusual, especially comparing the experience to something like Call of Duty. There's no convenient cutscene to guide you past the point of entry, and only a so-called scout vision HUD effect suggests plausible routes. You can, and often will, stumble down a near vertical hillside, after which you survive with little health. This prompts you to consider how many healing items are carried, and so on. Refreshingly, the game doesn't immediately throw you back to a recent checkpoint if poor choices are made, as the mission will continue pretty much until you die or the objective is broken beyond repair, unlike previous instalments that punished you for missing one shot.
It's the decision-making aspect of Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 that defines its approach to an open-world play-style. Left to our own devices amid the Caucasus Mountains, with basic comms relaying local intel through the earpiece, there was a sense of work to be done, though in no specific order. Provided with only a sturdy road vehicle and map to begin with, the first task is to locate your 'safe house', basically a small cave in the middle of nowhere. Here is where to craft explosives and ballistics, tailor load-outs, and catch up on some sleep - which also allows you to awake at a time best suited to heading out for your next mission.
Despite the in-ear comms, the sense of loneliness is palpable, especially when operating in low light conditions. It's possible to clamber quite skilfully up small rock faces to reach higher points, maintaining a low profile in the approach to an enemy outpost. Alternatively, the truck is quicker but you risk drawing attention to yourself, since you're obviously not a pizza delivery guy. There are similarities to be drawn, coincidentally to be fair, with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in terms of not wanting to awaken a wasp's nest through a clumsy approach. Playing in first-person is more gratifying though, raising adrenaline levels so that every little detail rendered in the impressive CryEngine is noted and remembered, if only because your life may depend on it.
Mission goals are unravelled layer by layer upon successfully infiltrating a new stronghold. Unarmed NPCs such as scientists can be interrogated for more information, security systems hacked manually, and with better visibility your handler can then pinpoint main targets such as satellite dishes (which of course are heavily guarded). Far Cry levels of craziness are not appropriate in SGW3, but the influence of that series is felt by creating explosive distractions to avoid run-and-gun activity against impossible odds. While we're looking for comparisons, there's Hitman-style elements of cause and effect in play too.
With its first-person perspective, SGW3 is going up against Call of Duty, Battlefield 1, and to some extent Titanfall 2 when it launches next April. On top of that, the other high profile snipe 'em up, Sniper Elite 4, is taking aim at a February release. The competition is, therefore, fierce. However, we've seen enough to convince us that it offers its own compelling reasons to jump into the world of lead protagonist Jon North, a retired American Marine with a history you'll want to explore. Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 feels assured, like the kind of person you'd need to be, carrying out such tasks for real.