The creators of Sniper Elite V2, a third-person World War II shooter released this week, know that the success of a modern video game comes down to the details. They worked closely with historians to nail the feel of 1945 Berlin, all the way down to the pattern of the wallpaper inside a typical German home. The typeface on the Nazi propaganda littering the crumbling virtual urban streets is Antiqua, the preferred font of the Reich.
But the primary subject of research for the team was more, shall we say, internal: what happens when a sniper's bullet enters a human body? They consulted medical experts, ex-military snipers, photography of real-life gunshot victims and x-rays of bone fractures, gathering a mountain of data and funneling it through the incredibly powerful software and hardware used to create today's videogames. The final result: a realistic simulation, rendered on the fly, that they call the "KillCam," in which the camera follows a bullet as it leaves the sniper's gun, flies through the air, hits its mark, and invades the body--with all the bone-crushing, organ-bursting, blood-spewing destruction that entails.
I went to see Sniper Elite V2 demonstrated in a hotel suite in midtown Manhattan on a weekday morning. In the room were the same three people you see in almost every product briefing: a young PR girl with a notebook, for scribbling notes about me and my reactions, which is not as flattering as you'd think; a talky representative from the developer (this one was British, and named Tim Jones; he's the head of creative for the developer); and a stoic engineer-type, a stocky guy from the publisher who stood behind the couch and spoke very little but was outrageously, effortlessly good at the game. Before the demonstration, Jones asked if I wanted to play. I declined, theoretically so I could better observe and take notes, but mostly because I am lousy at shooting games. The stoic engineer took my place. He would be the sniper. Later, during the demonstration of co-op mode, Tim Jones would provide his ground-cover.
Jones and stoic engineer played that cooperative mode in a burned-out Berlin in 1945. The game is fairly cleverly designed, as far as shooters go; it's not a "shoot everyone in sight" sort of game--not a "run and gun," said Jones--but one much more about stealth and strategy. This level found the players tasked with destroying a cargo truck, which in turn required several sub-tasks to set up the final shoot-the-truck sequence. They'd have to draw enemies away from the truck, plant explosive charges, and set them off (by, not entirely realistically, shooting the glowing red fuel caps around the outside of the truck). While going through that checklist, Nazis would need to be dispatched. The stoic engineer would pick off long-range targets, and Tim Jones would set traps and place bombs.
I was going to ask the players to show me the KillCam, basically the entire reason I was there. The KillCam is triggered only when a particularly well-placed shot is fired, and I didn't want to watch these guys play videogames like I did in middle school when I was bad at Battletoads and hanging out in friends' basements. I didn't have to worry. Within a minute, I saw it. The target: a mirror image of the stoic engineer's own player, a Nazi sniper perched a few hundred yards away on the roof of an abandoned building, ducking behind a shard of concrete that once may have been a wall. The stoic engineer found his target, lowered the crosshairs expertly on the enemy--not directly on the enemy, but slightly above, because at this distance, the player has to adjust for the effects of gravity. (On expert levels, you also have to contend with wind, and the game features heart rate and breath-pattern meters--your shot will be more accurate if you shoot with a low heart rate and empty lungs.)
Immediately the game paused for the KillCam cutscene. Everyone stop what you're doing and watch this.
The bullet exploded out of the muzzle of the Gewehr rifle, emerging in a bright, jagged flash. The camera pulled back as it began its flight through the air, then quickly swung to the side. You could see the bullet rotate, see the waves, like dreamy smoke rings, left in its wake. The music muted slightly. Then, up ahead, I saw the mirror-image Nazi sniper, directly in the bullet's path. Time slowed down even more as the bullet approached its target. It's a perfect head-shot, an achievement. The stoic engineer will receive a small digital trophy for this, an award that will pop up in the corner of the screen. The camera rotated back behind the bullet to follow it as it got closer and closer to the enemy. Then it reached the enemy's face. Suddenly the Nazi's skin peeled back, like a Venetian blind rolling up, snapping backwards over his skull. I saw the bare, perfectly clean bone, the teeth, grinning and eerie, the spinal column beneath with its visible path of nerves. The bullet splattered through the cornea, shattered the bones of the eye-socket and cheek, broke through the blood vessels at the back of the eye, burst backwards through the brain cavity and punched a hole in the back of the skull, its course realistically altered by its journey. Blood and bone shot upwards, outwards, backwards. The entire cutscene took maybe eight seconds.
"Nice shot," says the talky representative. "Thanks," mutters the stoic engineer. I'd see the KillCam several more times, would see "Vital Hit" bullets pierce vital organs in the chest cavity (heart, lungs, liver, kidney), break ribs, turn collarbones and pelvic bones into coarse fragments of bone, and, on one memorable occasion, would see a bullet strike a hand grenade the enemy wore on a belt. The grenade exploded, almost robbing us of the full force of the KillCam, the Nazi's body reduced to pulp and shrapnel in the blunt force of the grenade, negating any need for an x-ray image of his death. (The name of this type of shot, for some reason: a "potato masher.") Not as clean as the sniper round, but rarer. The talky representative was excited to explain to me what had happened. "Did you see that? He hit the grenade!"
"Wow," I said.
What struck me most about seeing these guys play the game was how businesslike they were. Partly that's because these guys are the creators of the game: they've played it, I'm sure, hundreds or thousands of times already. Nothing in the game surprises them. But there was no posturing, no "Fucking awesome, man!" when a Nazi met his grisly end, not even for my benefit. No high fives, no elbow nudges, no cheering, no grins. Instead, in between the talky representative's steady monologue about the intricacies of Sniper Elite V2's gameplay, which I mostly ignored, there was quiet cooperation. "Coming up the stairs on your left," said the stoic engineer, who could see the talky representative's avatar from his sky-high perch on the rooftops. "Cheers," said the talky representative, as he set a tight-wire explosive trap, which the Nazis would trip when they reached the top of the stairs. Upon their explosion, the stoic engineer and the talky representative didn't so much give a nod of approval. They moved away from the doorway, because the explosion, while effective, had given their position away. They weren't watching an action movie. They were working.
And that's part of the what makes Sniper Elite V2 so interesting. It is easily the most graphic, violent video game I've ever seen, but the violence is relatively realistic, not cartoony. The game has the dubious honor of humanizing Nazis more than any of the scores of WWII-era games, films, and books that came before it: these are not anonymous targets, dispatched from far away with the tug of the R-trigger: once you see testicles exploded, fingers severed, an artery slashed open by the force of your bullet, that you shot, from your own gun, you feel the effects of your actions in a way I didn't expect. The original idea might well have been to create the most extreme, violent period shooter ever made. Blood! Guts! X-rays! But the effect is the complete opposite. You're not yanking a cartoon ninja's spine out of his body with your bare hands, or stabbing a shrieking purple alien with a glowing light-sword. You're killing people. And that's a messy business.
For all its talk of realism--the publisher has billed the game as "the most brutally realistic military sharpshooter out there"--there are serious lapses in realism throughout the game. It's realistic until realism interferes with the fun of the game, at which point realism can be cheerfully abandoned. Having to monitor your heart rate, wind speed and direction, and the precise loss of altitude your bullet will experience due to gravity over distance? Those are realistic variables, and fun ones. But with rare exceptions, a shot to the torso will kill any target. An exploded kidney will drop a Nazi like a stone, just as dead as if he'd been shot through the frontal lobe. Shots to the wrists or knees will sometimes mean instant death, for some reason (although most times, a leg shot will topple the enemy, leaving him to scream for help from his comrades--whom you can then take down).
But the question of realism isn't an easy one to answer--as a player, you don't really have the option of trotting over to a Nazi you've just shot in the torso to see if the splinters of bone fragment from his ribcage have reacted in a realistic way to the effects of the cavitation caused by the bullet, or if the enemy is bleeding out from a shot to the femoral artery in an appropriate time frame. You get, at most, two seconds of the bullet entering the body, then it's time to move on to the next target.
You yourself are remarkably bulletproof--you can take several direct hits before having to duck behind cover and heal up, which you will, automatically. You'll score "two-in-ones" fairly often, in which you'll kill two enemies with a single bullet. In the real world, that shot is referred to as a "Quigley," a reference to a 1990 Tom Selleck movie. It's extremely rare.
The AI are smart enough to locate you due to sound, but hiding for a few seconds will send them back to their regular rounds, where they seem not to notice that they have to step over the bodies of their fellow soldiers who were shot by a hidden sniper moments before. "Oh well, back to the patrol!" It's not tremendously more complex than the stealth mechanics of Sly Cooper, which is a decade-old game about a cartoon master thief raccoon and his two friends, a turtle and a hippopotamus.
The motives for creating this element of the game are murky, by necessity. It would be sort of untoward and unnecessarily confrontational for Jones and the other representatives from Rebellion and 505 Games to be vocal about the awesomeness of shooting somebody in the kidney and watching it rupture. Jones said it would be false to claim that the "visceral 'wow' factor [...] wasn't a big factor in our decision to design and implement it that way." Sniping feels like a relatively mechanical way of killing someone--you're removed from the act itself, separated by distance and the glass of the scope, making adjustments for wind and gravity and angle in the same way you adjust the steering wheel to keep your car in its lane. "It does force players to reflect on the fate of their enemies in a way that many other games gloss over," he said.
He also referred to the KillCam, in a sort of action-movie, U.S.-Army-recruiting video way, as a "heroic death sequence" for the fallen enemy. That's just one of a whole mess of ways to approach the game--in your gut, you may think it's noble, or you may think it's brutal, or, as much of the chat on messageboards shows, you may think it's awesome.
The messageboards are full of comments like this: "It'd be cool if they'd allow for a replay kill-cam, with a rotatable/zoom-able camera with editing tools and the ability to upload your videos to [Xbox] Live/PSN for others to watch." Or excited folks who "just got [their] first nut-shot." For them, the KillCam is just a new gore-delivery system, the latest in a long line of mildly transgressive evolutions in gaming violence. Shooting games are a dime a dozen, and as much as Tim tried to insist to me that what really sets Sniper Elite V2 apart from the pack is its stealth mechanics, I know better. Stealth isn't new. Watching your bullet puncture a lung from the inside, that's new. The trailers lean heavily on the gore. And no matter how educational or perspective-altering the KillCams are, you still get extra points for hitting a vital organ.
Reviews so far are mixed, but all mention the KillCam. The GameSpot review calls the KillCam shots "gruesome and gratifying" and "delightfully gory," and says "they never get old." The Official Xbox Magazine review uses the phrase "buckets of red awesomesauce." GameInformer's Tim Turi self-identifies as a "gore hound," but even he notes that "some of these kills made my stomach twitch a bit."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.