Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3 /PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360

The twin obstacles of lukewarm critical reception and derivative nature are not always a barrier to a game’s commercial success, as the original Sniper: Ghost Warrior proved. Despite essentially being a Call of Duty sniper mission spun out into a stand-alone title - well, no essentially about it; that’s exactly what it was - it shifted 3.5 million copies, snapped up by insatiable FPS lovers worldwide. It was a lesson for the relatively small Polish studio City Interactive: playing safe pays.

Such sales guaranteed a sequel. Ghost Warrior 2 duly arrives after a few delays with a press release trumpeting an “authentic sniper experience”. Presumably this means a gaming one; the player is not actually forced to camp out in the rain on a jungle hilltop peering down a rifle scope, breath held, waiting for a mustachioed drug lord to step out of a jeep. Glibness aside, the franchise’s problem does remain one of interpretation and overreaching its inspiration in its second outing. Initial success hasn’t encouraged its developers to do anything beyond stretching a basic, second hand idea out again rather than finding new angles of approach.

 photo sniper-03_zpsdd49c9ff.jpgIts predecessor’s success does allow higher production values, and that’s the first noticeable thing about the sequel. There are swish pre-level intelligence briefings designed for those with limited attention spans, dramatic set pieces, sweeping in game vistas courtesy of CryEngine 3 and a tweak to in-game AI, and the emphasis on stealth. In fact, they’re the sort of bells and whistles associated with a CoD release, just lower rent ones, and as such are mostly superficial. Unlike Activision, City Interactive is some way from being able to write a blank cheque out in blithe fashion to mask deeper issues. Instead they have to invent to keep pace, yet there’s a paucity of ideas, any decent game’s most valuable commodity.

As such, the campaign experience is too often a shallow one. When it works, it’s perfectly enjoyable. Lying prone in an overwatch silently picking off guards, directed by your spotter as allies on the ground converge on a target is where Ghost Warrior 2 is most fun, albeit the fish in a barrel kind. Aim assist in all but the hardest difficulty setting makes skill secondary to the delicious experience of squeezing the (right) trigger. Important kills are satisfyingly emphasised by a bullet cam tracking the projectile from gun barrel to target, panning around it in flight. Overall, it’s fine. If you spent ages trying for the “Ghillies in the Mist” achievement you’re on solid enough ground. If it were a biscuit it’d be a Rich Tea. Hardly flashy, but decent enough. A necessary idea, just a touch bland. And given a few dunkings it falls apart.

This starts with just getting to the overwatch sections. This almost always involves making your way stealthily, yet totally unimaginatively, through a linear corridor of a level. Only infrequently are there different routes to take, even then it might be via a walkway instead of moving at ground level, and the type of resistance met is usually a guard conveniently facing the wrong way. A quick prod of the right stick sees them meleed into oblivion, and you’re off again. Sometimes the focus on stealth goes out the window as it’s nigh on impossible to not be spotted when taking a shot, despite slavishly hiding in undergrowth and watching the visibility indicator.

 photo sniper-02_zpsfbb11b73.jpgAlso, the frequent set pieces rely heavily on scripting using NPCs and these occasionally stick, leaving you to work out how to get things moving again in, say, the middle of a street when you’re being fired on from god knows where. When it does work, it’s often used to introduce trickier moments which are repeated if you die, meaning you have to sit through automated sections again and again and again and again and again. And if you think that sentence was boring, try playing the game when it happens. The NPCs can block your path and can be a bit irritating - your spotter in the prologue seems very chatty considering the need to maintain a low profile behind enemy lines with troops around.

The targeting system is also occasionally dodgy. If there’s one thing guaranteed to annoy in a sniping game, it’s a certain hit being lined up only for it to inexplicably miss. You don’t last long in the ensuing firefight with your cover blown. You can also maddeningly stick to invisible scenery in the wider, semi-explorable areas; a jungle vine on the floor is enough to block your progress. There’s also too much hand-holding, the game undermining itself in not offering a real challenge. One mission opens with you having just 15 rounds of handgun ammo available (the inevitable “lose main weapon mission”) but you merely walk to a nearby hut - not even deviating from level’s corridor - and are presented with double that. It’s just left lying around. This all mitigates the payoff of the overwatch sections, making the campaign just a serviceable enough experience over its 7 or so hours of playing time. Yet problems run even deeper.

As we know, it’s all well and good unceremoniously shooting someone in the head; such an invigorating pursuit certainly has its place in modern entertainment and is to be encouraged. Yet it’s more important to impart the gravity of doing so, and the potential repercussions for not, to make the player think twice. Any moral issues that could give gravitas to the story are skirted around. Without giving too much away, at one point it seems that a tricky decision is inevitable: save a captured comrade or secure a bio-weapon. Yet the narrative just resolves it for the player automatically. We’re not talking Dishonored levels of depth here as a result, when the potential is there. It’s a pity, as it would give the woolly story some traction.

Ah, the plot. In general this comes across as incidental at best for the majority of the campaign. It’s so banal - one chilling section witnessing the slaughter of innocents in Sarajevo aside - as to be reductive. Your character just has to go somewhere, usually in a jungle, sometimes through a cave or a village, sometimes in the dark but not always, and shoot someone, in the face if possible. Yes, there are things like characters - little more than bundles of cliches - but it’s all secondary to the getting out there and aiming down the sights. Without having a real reason to do that, you question the point.

 photo sniper-01_zps60b6fcf5.jpgThis is backed by a script that is resolutely awful, with cliched dialogue and characterisation that come across like offcuts from a Steven Segal film, and not even the good one. Your character, whatshisname, has a lack of respect for authority. He’ll snidely talk back to his commanding officers. He shaves irregularly. Pre-mission briefings contain loads of swears, coming even from the hard-boiled American captains too, who surely should know better. One describes something as having gone “tits up” at one point. Later, in another exchange of stodgy dialogue, a Muslim jihadist under physical duress claims, I kid you not, that “they don’t pay me enough for this shit”. It’s not meant to be tongue in cheek either. It’s often just jarring. Frequently, it’s fantastically entertaining in its own inadvertent way.

With the campaign put to bed, and the notion of a story mode regarded as little more than a relic by many now, the real longevity of the any self-respecting FPS is in its multiplayer element. Unsurprisingly, there’s one in Ghost Warrior 2, too. This can lead to genuine moments of tension and even some outright thrills as you spot and silently dispatch a foe. But it’s a mode that’s limited in scope – a single shot being enough to take someone out when you see them – and tied to just one tactic and character class. You can change rifles, which makes minimal difference, and... that’s about it. There aren’t any exciting skirmishes due to the nature of the engagement. You’ll end up gawping around the map for most of the session, suddenly dying at some points and spotting someone to kill at others. Skill isn’t a massive factor thanks to the aim assist imported from the campaign and success becomes little more than knowing where people tend to congregate and hoping they don’t see you first.

There’s also just two maps included - average ones at that - and the whole experience is blighted by connection problems. If you think it’s annoying when your MW3 session migrates to a new host, try playing a game in which about 80% of connections drop, and you’re dumped unceremoniously back at the menu to boot. That’s if you’re even lucky enough to get in a session in the first place - sometimes the map doesn’t even load. It’s embarrassing. And with only one mode of play, team deathmatch, there’s little to recommend.

Sniper 2: Ghost Warrior’s influences remain blatant. No real shame there; taking liberal inspiration from a crushingly successful title is understandable, even expected. City Interactive obviously have to work to a budget too, albeit a now inflated one. Again, absolutely no shame in that either. Yet when there’s an economy of ideas - and there are precious few fresh ones here - there’s a problem. With just 10 missions over 3 acts, the campaign is an anaemic experience offering little to no replay value and not much of a challenge. Hamstrung in the long term by its multiplayer element, it’s a sleepwalker of a title from a team in transition. Hopefully next time they'll have woken up to the need to implement their own ideas.