Sniper Elite VR Drops You Straight Into the Bloody Mayhem of World War 2
If any game series was made for virtual reality, it was Sniper Elite. Whereas some designs translate poorly to the medium, the visceral nature of the franchise is a logical fit for the sensory heightening essence of VR. It helps, then, that the sniper rifle is one of the most up close and personal weapons on the battlefield.
Just as VR was built for the bow and arrow, so was it built for the heft and power of the sniper rifle. No more was this evident than during my demo with Sniper Elite VR at PAX East in Boston, where I played through one of the game's levels set in a besieged village.
Sniper Elite VR plays as close to a mainline Sniper game as you'd probably expect. There's stealth. There's action. And there's plenty of Nazi scum to shoot. The biggest difference here is that everything happens from the first-person perspective.
Movement happens in two ways: either through teleportation or free-movement. Teleportation plays out as it does in other virtual reality games: point to a location, click a button, and move. Free-movement works as you'd expect, but unlike other experiences I've had with the mechanic, it's silky smooth here.
While it might be a tad slower than some might like, Sniper VR's free-movement fits with the world of a methodical sniper. Though I kept trying to run by pressing down on the control stick — a habit carried over from the mainline games — the game's design doesn't allow for it.
"This is quite a slow-paced game relative to other titles. So it's not like being on a rollercoaster and getting shot through a level." That's Rebellion Assistant Producer Thomas Waterhouse-Biggins, who spoke with me after I'd played through the demo.
He said that not only would running make players sick, but it would also mean your sniper would give up their cover and quickly get killed by a dozen lurking Nazis.
"You're walking through [levels]. You're observing your surroundings. You stop, look down the scope. You're focusing on a specific point... which only moves when you move your hands. You have all of that freedom, but what you're actually doing doesn't cause motion sickness because it's very methodical."
The main draw here, however, is actually peering down the scope of a sniper rifle. While I hesitate to fetishize guns, there is a potency to the new first-person perspective, especially in the encompassing nature of virtual reality.
Instead of a singular and detached button-press, actually pulling up the rifle engages all of your senses and motor functions. You raise your controller(s) to eye level as if you're holding a rifle, aim, and fire. It's a set of actions especially immersive using the PSVR Aim controller. In fact, I saw a few players actually rocking back as they fired at digital Nazis, as if they were replicating the kick-back of a real-life gun.
Though I wasn't able to test Sniper VR using other inputs, such as Oculus Touch Controls or a DualShock 4 controller, Waterhouse-Biggins said the team worked hard to make the experience as ubiquitous as possible across all devices.
"One thing that really helped us is that we're using Unity [for Sniper Elite VR], which is a really versatile engine. You can just set up the game across all of these different platforms. It's definitely a challenge, though there are a lot of similarities between these control schemes.
And while there is a seated mode, Waterhouse-Biggins said that the game won't work with mouse and keyboard because of how aiming works.
"With two PlayStation motion controllers, you use two hands, and on the Rift and Vive you're using two hands. So a lot of those systems work across the board, although if you tweak one control scheme, you have to think, 'How are we going to tweak it again to make sure there's balance across the board?'
You're physically moving a controller to tell the game where your gun is, then you look down that to aim. If you had a mouse and keyboard, there would be no way to physically do that."
The level I played was fairly straightforward and mostly took place from the rooftops of a small neighborhood at the edge of a village. Looking down on the street below, I sniped Nazis huddled behind crates, and ducked behind sandbags and walls to dodge incoming fire. Holding my breath to steady my shot was a simple button press.
Though Waterhouse-Biggins later told me there were throwables such as grenades in the demo, I didn't see them in all the chaos. However, I was told they also work in a more immersive fashion, depending on which VR platform you're playing the game. For example, throwables are assigned a specific button on the PSVR Aim controller, but using the Move controllers in each hand allows for a more realistic throwing motion.
And though they weren't in the level I played, Waterhouse-Biggins did confirm that other signature weapons from the Sniper series would make an appearance in VR.
"I can't confirm an exact list, but a lot of the guns you've seen in the other Sniper Elite titles... are going to make it here because it's going to be an authentic World War 2 shooter. So we need to have those authentic weapons."
Of course, a Sniper game wouldn't be a Sniper game without the series' signature X-ray bullet cam. But where the mainline titles feature a bullet cam that zips across the map and might bolt through kill-shot animations, this one is slowed down.
Getting a few precise shots during my time with the game, I found the speed to be mostly right for virtual reality, though I think it could be a tad too slow. However, like many of the game's other mechanics, the priority here was to not oversaturate the player with too much stimulus. Waterhouse-Biggins said it was challenging to get the bullet cam right.
"We want to maintain what we did in Sniper 4 but we have to make changes. There's a balance there [between VR and the mainline games], but we still got the full impact. When you're watching the bullet go into the person, you can actually turn your head and it turns the camera," letting you see the bullet penetration from unique perspectives.
Asked what kind of bullet cam shots fans might expect to see in the final product, Waterhouse-Biggins said many of the ones they've come to love will be included.
"Testicle shots, we got em'."
Sniper Elite VR is set to release sometime later in 2020 for PC and PS4.