I must admit that when the review copy of Sniper Ghost Warrior dropped through my letterbox the other morning, I was slightly disappointed. One glance at the front of the box revealed that this wasn’t going to be the happy union of long-range rifle specialists and poltergeists that I had been secretly hoping for. Nevertheless, not wanting to shirk my critical responsibilities, I booted up my PS3 and readied myself for some stealth-orientated military combat.
In actual fact, SGW was originally released last year on the Xbox 360 and PC. Quite why PS3 owners have been made to wait the best part of a year before being allowed to get a piece of the action is anybody’s guess. Perhaps developer City Interactive’s logic was that, because sniper games are primarily aimed at those blessed with a great deal of patience, their potential PlayStation customers wouldn’t object to honing that particular character trait while the team tried to tidy things up slightly. Whatever the reason, although some additional content has been included, overall you can’t help but feeling that the intervening time hasn’t been well spent.
The first thing to say about Ghost Warrior is that it proves, once and for all, that being a full-time sniper is not nearly as fun as you would imagine. Don’t get me wrong, picking an oblivious sentry off from half a mile away has its moments, but it isn’t a coincidence that the truly great FPS games opt for a balanced mix of long-distance combat and ducking and diving with pistols/automatics. In one sense you do have to admire City Interactive for wanting to target a very specific niche and they have taken steps to ensure the missions have some variety (at times you‘re on the ground being guided by others, while elsewhere you‘re doing the guiding) but there was only ever going to be so much diversity in this kind of title and, because of that, only the most obsessive of sniping devotees will be truly satisfied.
The Latin American setting is reminiscent of Far Cry and offers a nice range of scenery including mountainous paths, rooftops of buildings and meandering highways. It would have been nice to have some sections based in a bustling city, where picking out enemies from crowds of civilians would add a bit of spice to proceedings, but I’m pretty sure the graphics engine couldn’t have coped with that kind of ambition. I’m reliably informed that the visuals are improved from the 360 version, but some of the hideously angular shadows and terrible juddering animation are enough to make you sick in one of the scruffily-textured bushes. I’d hate to think what the aesthetics were like previously.
In terms of plot and character, SGW hasn’t got a lot to offer. There’s a reason why there aren’t many movies with snipers in the leading role. They might look cool, but essentially, they’re just silent, robotic killers, devoid of emotion. Imagine Clear and Present Danger without Harrison Ford’s character and with a plot focused purely on that random sniper guy (the one who ends up losing his team in Colombia) and you‘ll have a fair idea of how engaging Sniper Ghost Warrior‘s story is. The dialogue is designed to be ultra realistic; full of profanity and modern military terms and, for the most part, it stands up relatively well. There is one hilarious moment though (in one of the extra missions) where you and a fellow squad member wander into a hut, dressed in full camouflage, to meet an American agent and there follows an absurd/hackneyed/knowing exchange about the weather; presumably a clumsy attempt by both parties to ascertain whether the other is an ally or not. The developers go to all that trouble to capture the essence of contemporary army banter and include all those realistic weapons and then they decide to throw it away with a scene that would have made more sense on a park bench during the Cold War.
Of course, all these things (visuals, story etc.) could have been overlooked if underneath them was a quality gaming experience based on a slick user interface, sharp enemy AI and well-designed stages. Sadly though, as we’re about to see, none of these things are quite up to scratch.
With regards to interface, the layout of the HUD is deeply flawed. Positioning the tiny radar in the top left corner, while putting the player-visibility-meter at the bottom of the screen was a ludicrous decision. In the heat of the action it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of all the information necessary to remain undetected and you end up spending less and less time looking at the actual onscreen action. The net result is that the level of player immersion in the game’s world is diminished.
Then there’s the terribly inconsistent artificial intelligence. Sometimes, it’s as if the natives have telescopic vision and a steadier pair of hands than your average Neurosurgeon (when they mysteriously manage to put a semi-automatic bullet in your torso from four miles away) while on other occasions, they’re so inept it’s bordering on racism. Admittedly I’ve not engaged our South American cousins in armed combat recently, but I’m pretty certain they don’t react to seeing a fallen comrade by crouching as if they’ve got stomach cramps while walking round in circles. There was one dreadful moment where I watched on from the top of a mountain while my partner and an enemy trooper ran straight past each other on an open road, in broad daylight. I was half expecting them to give each other the obligatory jogger’s nod or break off to do some stretches together. The thing is, logical AI is so imperative for this kind of game. If you’re on your knees in the undergrowth, edging forwards to get the perfect view for that vital shot, you want to believe that your opponents will only see you if you happen to make a genuine mistake. In SGW you never quite know how capable your foes will turn out to be and, because of this, going to the trouble of sneaking about properly often doesn’t seem worth it.
Finally there’s the level design. In fairness to City Interactive, they have done a reasonable job in this aspect. The environments are a good size and are packed full of useful hiding places, along with a multitude of lofty vantage points for scanning the unsuspecting targets strolling about the ground below. There are, however, two infuriating problems which repeatedly rear their ugly heads throughout proceedings. Firstly, for someone with such extensive military training, your character seems to have a real struggle negotiating the most minor of obstacles. It is quite laughable that a soldier who’s mastered the art of whizzing down zip lines and rappelling down cliff faces has such difficulty shimmying over a knee high fence or squeezing though a foot-wide gap between two buildings, but perhaps those things weren’t part of the induction programme.
The second problem comes when you try to stray too far from the route the game wants you to take. If the developers could have devised a more effective way for shattering the illusion of being free to explore the South American jungle than having somebody screaming, “Get back in your area!” and a big countdown timer appearing on the screen (which affords you 5 seconds to comply, before unceremoniously killing those who don’t) then I’d love to see it. It’s almost a bit reminiscent of The Truman Show, where the beret-wearing Christof tried to prevent Jim Carey’s attempt to escape his miniature world by throwing a manufactured storm at his boat and then desperately pleading with him as a voice from the skies. Clearly City Interactive felt that that kind of subtlety wouldn’t be necessary and opted instead for a ‘creatorial overlord’ who yells at the player to make him change his mind/activates and an inbuilt kill-switch if he persists with his exit plan. To be honest, it would have been better if the levels were encircled by invisible walls.
In conclusion, it’s not that Sniper Ghost Warrior is entirely devoid of merit. There is something intensely satisfying about preying on bad guys while you’re standing in a completely different post code to them, and the online multiplayer is entertaining (provided you’ve got sufficient patience to cope with the odd round that ends up playing like an animated version of Where‘s Wally). In such a crowded market though, it really is asking a lot to expect us to forgive such an extensive catalogue of flaws. Maybe that long-range poltergeist simulator wasn’t such a terrible idea after all…
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