This is The Gunsmiths, a PCGamesN series about videogames’ favourite interaction: shooting people directly in the face. There is no shortage of great games where gunplay is the main draw, so we wanted to dig down into these games’ inner workings, breaking them apart at a tool bench and seeing the components spread out across its surface. For our second feature in the series, it’s the slow-mo satisfaction of Sniper Elite 4.
Many shooters are concerned with immediacy - instant gratification from a speeding bullet, the sudden violence, the impact, and the bang as you click your mouse or squeeze your controller’s trigger. Sniper Elite 4 instead lingers on the spectacle of well-placed shots. The camera follows the bullet in slow-motion as it leaves the barrel, building anticipation on the way to the target before it shatters bones, ruptures organs, and pops testes with a gory, zoomed-in x-ray of the damage.
Sniper Elite 4’s voyeuristic killcam is what sets it apart from other shooters, but it is more than a gimmick in a game about carefully lining up the perfect shot.
“One of the key considerations with our x-ray kill camera is to keep it exciting even after hours of play,” game designer Ryan Baker tells me. “We came up with a system where every element of a shot had a score. If the total score beat a threshold we would attempt to show a killcam. Whenever a shot was made, every element that made it up would have its score reduced for a short time afterwards. This meant a killcam would be less likely with each similar shot.”
To avoid repetition, each killcam is governed by hidden stats. There are varying factors taken into account for the game to trigger one, depending on length, shot location, and enemy movement, to name a few. The camera then also runs at various speeds and with different filters applied, to keep things exciting.
Of course, there is an art and a thrill to simply lining these shots up. For Sniper Elite 4, much of the game exists in the preparation stage: rigging traps to cover your retreat, breaking generators so their loud bangs mask your shots, or waiting for the perfect moment to take down two Nazis with a single shot. There is a layer of marksman simulation to it as well, with wind speed and gravity affecting your bullet’s trajectory.
To avoid more casual players becoming frustrated as they try to wrap their brains around these calculations, developers Rebellion added a series of assists, including a small UI diamond that marks precisely where a shot will land. This compromise means that anyone can live out their Enemy at the Gates-esque fantasies, regardless of ability.
There is, however, also a layer of unpredictability to Sniper Elite 4’s slow-motion shots. This is because Rebellion see the value in environmental interaction, making sure there are places where your bullets can strike to cause an unexpected explosion or, even better, a surprise ricochet that finds its mark.
“Showing that weapons impact and react to the environment really helps make them feel part of the world,” Baker explains. “We do this by showing bullet holes, particle FX, and applying audio to each surface when hit. This not only looks and sounds great, but also informs the player where their shot landed - something that is vital when playing as a sniper.”
All of Sniper Elite 4’s surfaces have ricochet and penetration values, allowing the experience sniper to gauge exactly what their bullet will do when it hits a certain wall, fence, or metal sheet. “Is your rifle powerful enough to shoot through the wooden box the enemy is hiding behind, or could you attempt to ricochet a bullet off the nearby metal wall?” Baker asks. “Pulling off one of these shots is always satisfying, even if it wasn't planned.”
Sound design also plays an important role in making that perfect Sniper Elite 4 shot. Not only to give you feedback on the type of surface your bullet just landed on or passed through, but also to help you figure out enemy positioning. The loud crack of gunfire overhead will give you an idea of where the soldier is who spotted you, allowing you to pop up and shatter their eye socket with a soaring hunk of metal. You can also use the impact noise to gauge whether or not the cover you are pressed against will withstand the incoming fire. This attention to detail also went into the weapons themselves.
“All the main weapons used in Sniper Elite 4 are real weapons that were available in 1943, when the game is set,” Baker says. “This means we’re able to use real-world values for some attributes, such as rate of fire, muzzle velocity, etc. Straight away, this helps us achieve a realistic and satisfying feeling to our gunplay. However, on its own this isn't quite enough. Going all-in on real-world values tends to not be very fun for a lot of players, so we have to adjust some aspects of the weapons to make the gameplay more enjoyable. Throughout development, getting this balance right takes repeated tweaking along with feedback from everybody in the team.”
These values are bolstered by the audio and visual design of each weapon: the bang when you pull the trigger, the muzzle flash, the crack, the kick back of the rifle, the moving parts sliding and twisting as the casing is ejected. “Some of these elements are as realistic as possible, whereas others are exaggerated,” Baker explains. “For example, the kickback animation of a revolver is often increased to help emphasise its increased power over other pistols. Likewise, the gunshot sounds feature a lot of additional layers to make them sound more hefty and satisfying.”
The final piece of the puzzle is in enemy reactions to your fire. Even outside of the grim satisfaction of the x-ray kill cam, enemies need to react to what you are doing. “Early in development for Sniper Elite 4 there was no real force behind the bullets, which meant when an enemy was killed they just crumpled to the ground like a sack of spuds,” Baker recalls. “Not only did this look odd it also felt very disappointing. Once this was fixed it was so gratifying to see enemies fly backwards when taken out by a powerful rifle.”
It is just as important for enemies to react and flinch when shots whiz by their heads, making them feel like human combatants rather than AI drones. Watching an enemy panic as you lead them with the scope is another thrill. “This looked great, but in the heat of battle could sometimes cause confusion as to whether the reaction was from being hit or not, so it’s something we sought to make distinct and distinguishable,” Baker tells me.
So, the next time you are lining up a shot on a Nazi testicle, watching gleefully as the bullet leaves your rifle and slowly glides towards its mark before landing in a bloody, ball-bursting display, spare a thought for all the components that fit together to make it work. Show some appreciation for the gunsmiths at Rebellion.