Sunday, December 3, 2017

Take Note: Terrain Elevation in Sniper Elite 4

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea or mechanic for designers to consider.

The Sniper Elite series by Rebellion is one of those titles that always seems to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough into the mainstream, but is never quite able to get there. I've been playing the series and its Nazi zombie flavored spin offs since Sniper Elite V2. The series falls into the stealth action mold alongside titles like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. The games follow the exploits of Karl Fairburne, a ken doll looking sniper working for OSS during World War II. With each release of the game, the developers over at Rebellion have improved their design, refining a fairly basic sniper title into an excellent third person stealth action game.  If the name of the series doesn't ring a bell, you've probably seen their best known mechanic, the bullet cam.

I recently picked up the latest in the series, Sniper Elite 4, and was blown away by the level design of the game's first mission. In Sniper Elite 4, each mission takes place on its own open map, where the player can freely explore around the area, complete objectives and find collectables in the form of letters and reports. The maps give the player the freedom to tackle the objectives in which ever order they like, and explore the map's nook and crannies at their own pace.

What at first appears to be a standard open world map slowly reveals itself to be a great example of level design. Each objective takes place in a desecrate combat zone that seamlessly blend together across the map. Each of these areas has multiple approaches from different directions. This allows the player to tackle them from what ever direction they choose and offer approaches for different play styles. A typical choice in the game may be to try and find a tower to snipe from, a hidden path to sneak around the encounter, or heading up the main road guns blazing. While stealth is a big component of the game, its forgiving enough to let players disengage from a fire fight, regroup and try again.

The thing that impressed me most with the game, from the very first mission, is the change in elevation across the map. The game goes beyond adding simple towers to snipe from, to having massive changes in elevation across the same level. In the map above, the beach at the bottom of the map is down a steep cliff face, as is a pocket of beach further up the map. In most games that would be an inaccessible area. In Sniper Elite 4, it's not only accessible, one of the objects are located there. More subtle changes in elevation litter the map. Creaks and gullies below the main road that allow you to sneak past enemies, or hills cresting above that you can snipe from. While we've seen this type of difference in elevation in games before, Sniper Elite 4 manages to make it feel natural. Each path, each approach, is tied together in a way that makes it feel organic that other games struggle to pull off.

In something like Far Cry, you may have a observation tower to snipe from, or a hill that crests over an encampment. Even in Metal Gear Solid 5, one of my favorite stealth action titles from recent years, the changes in elevation are often anemic. A building may have multiple stories, and the surrounding country side may have a hill or two, but they aren't enough to affect gameplay.  There's really only one combat area in Metal Gear Solid 5 with a drastic change in elevation, that being the terrace area in the Afghanistan map, but even that is a linear progression from low to high. The rest of the game features the box stand cliff to observe from, but few actual changes in elevation.

Sniper Elite 4 manages to tie its high, low and medium areas together in a way that gives the player options, allows for a variety of play styles and look natural in way most games do not.

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