Amidst all the action-trailer posturing and concern that Agent 47 is about to pull a Sam Fisher, trading in stealth and stoicism for Bourne-like bluster, it’s equal parts amusing and reassuring that, for the first hour at least, Sniper Challenge plays out like an elaborate game of Where’s Wally. Except, of course, that rather than circling Wally or the dog with a felt tip pen, you’re giving them the .45 caliber kiss of death. And Wally’s a garden gnome.
On the surface, Sniper Challenge is a game/demo about shooting 15 men in the face in the right order and at the right time. You’re given a sniper rifle and a 15-minute window to eliminate Richard Strong Jr – the hit – and as many of his bodyguards as you can manage. Agent 47 is slumped in the corner of a skyscraper rooftop overlooking a lavish rooftop party with Strong in attendance. Curled up with a silenced sniper rifle, it’s almost as if he hasn’t spent the last six years hunched over a bar wondering where all the good times went.
As ever, you’re graded based on how efficient a murderer you are with points doled out for things like concealing bodies (usually by blasting them off rooftops or into handily placed swimming pools), how quickly you finish murdering and dropping kegs of beer onto unsuspecting goons. At the end of each round points are tallied and multiplied based on how many of the easter eggs and trinkets dotted about the scene you’ve previously uncovered. That’s the Where’s Wally part. Without these permanent multipliers your score is curbed so before you can mount a decent assault on the leaderboards you need to have found and shot 5 benign pigeons, maimed some niftily hidden garden gnomes and nudged a ninja off a diving board some thousand feet in the distance, among a raft of other things.
Finding these novelties is as much an enjoyable mini-game as it is a training exercise because by the time you’ve notched all the hidden curios you’ll have a pretty good handling of 47′s thumping-great sniper rifle and its nuances; chiefly the light squeeze/full squeeze mechanic that sees time slow briefly as you gradually pull the trigger. It takes a bit of getting used too, particularly if you’re accustomed to using the left thumbstick to hold your breath as per the Call of Duty template, but it mimics well the high pressure scenario and aggrandises the sense that every shot counts.
It’s reassuringly slow-paced then, demanding calculated thought and pinpoint precision if you’re playing for the coveted silent assassin rank (and why wouldn’t you be?) Despite a generous 15-minute window, versed in the subtleties of the rifle and the guard’s meandering-patterns you can easily tidy up in a few minutes. It helps enormously that the guards are all high-achievers fresh out of the videogame school of goonery. So to say, they don’t exactly make it difficult for you to pick them off one by one; ambling down lonely avenues, peaking out over the edge of a helicopter pad jutting out of the bottomless void or standing squarely in front of an open elevator shaft, as if anything good could possibly come of that. The opportunity to dispatch them without alerting their comrades is narrow, but you quickly learn their patterns.
AI isn’t brilliant in the conventional sense, in fact it’s pretty abysmal, but it’s brilliant in exactly the way you want it to be. Guards cotton on if they discover a corpse, taking potshots at you from afar or darting to the nearest exit when they get bored of watching each other die, but they won’t pull a Skyrim guardsman and hone in to your precise location the moment you consider taking a deep breath. There’s plenty of room for the ad hoc and their behaviour helps Sniper Challenge tick; if they were any smarter you’d be snuffed out in seconds and it’d be no fun.
As well as the first opportunity to test run Absolution, this is the first time we’ve seen IO’s Glacier 2 engine in action and it’s rather fetching, to say the least. 47′s rooftop comeback is swathed in sunset hues with natty lighting effects and impressive draw distances coupled with short loading sequences and pitch perfect controls marking this inaugural outing as a golden one. Physics are par for the course with bodies cartwheeling down into the murky urban void, limbs flailing like they’re made from spaghetti and bullets causing those with the smarts to not stand idly by a ledge to rocket a few yards backwards (at which point you can continue shooting them until they do teeter off a ledge, +5000 points). There’s an impressive number of NPCs on screen too, suggesting the engine is capable of putting 47 in scenarios with 50+ NPCs to sequester with.
About the only thing that feels out of place is 47′s newfangled sixth sense that gifts him carte blanche to peek through objects with James Bond x-ray vision. It’s tastefully incorporated at least, painting the screen a light shade of grey and highlighting persons of interest without plastering the screen with worthless particulars, but it feels like a concession that didn’t need to be made. On the flip side, it’s an entirely optional feature.