It’s easy to write off the Sniper Elite series. It’s jam-packed with slow-motion X-ray kill cams of bursting testicles and eyeballs popping out of shattered Nazi skulls. At first glance, it’s a relic of early video games’ obsession with blood, excess, and self-serious protagonists. I never touched the series until recently. but Sniper Elite 5 launched on Xbox Game Pass a few weeks ago. Now? I’m excited.
Sniper Elite 5 is indeed gory and excessive, and its protagonist would feel right at home at a poker table with Master Chief, Leon S. Kennedy and Cliff Bleszinski. But it’s also home to exquisite level designs. In fact, its sandbox missions are so good that I already rank them among the best from Arkane Studios, IO Interactive, and Eidos-Montréal. They’re nothing short of mesmerizing, and I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks combing through every nook and cranny of them, constantly marveling at the craft, cleverness, and daring on display.
There’s the first mission, The Atlantic Wall, which spans the idyllic Normandy coast, now rendered treacherous by defending the Nazi war machine. There’s “Occupied Residence,” a series of dirt paths that wind through farmland on their way to a massive castle. There’s War Factory, a tangle of pipes and vents and furnaces. And then there’s the Spy Academy.
Sniper Elite 5The third mission begins in a quiet forest clearing, but the view soon expands into a panoramic view of Beaumont-Saint-Denis. It is a massive tidal island with medieval walls rising out of the surrounding bay, the ramparts obscuring the lower reaches of a town rising to the spiers of a gigantic abbey. Everything is covered with seaweed and shrouded in fog. The view alone is overwhelming.
It’s based on Mont-Saint-Michel, the tidal island that incidentally also inspired The Lord of the Rings. Minas Tirith and Dark Souls‘ New Londo Ruins. However, none of these works featured sniper rifles or Nazis, and in that regard, Sniper Elite maker Rebellion Developments understood the task.
In the beginning, Spy Academy is a shooting range. It’s low tide and the soldiers patrolling the sandbars have little to no cover once I release the first bullet. The same is true of the long, narrow causeway that leads from the island to where I lie on an awkward ledge. Once I’ve thinned out the enemy ranks, I continue to use the causeway to my advantage: at its base is a series of arches that allow me to jump from north to south and back again while the Nazis probe my last known position . It’s a true coastal walk as I make my way into the somber city.
And then rebellion pulls the proverbial rug out from under my feet.
What started as a sniper’s dream has become a sniper’s nightmare. Like an inversion Divine Comedy, I left paradise for the fiery confines of hell. The streets of Beaumont-Saint-Denis are narrow, sight lines are short and it’s patrolled by a bunch of Nazis I can only describe. My overall goal is to scale the island and infiltrate a top secret meeting between enemy officials. But no matter where I stand – no matter where I “shop” – I am always exposed on at least one side. As I climb, rifle slung over my back and silenced pistol raised to cover the next corner, I’m always concerned about a suspicious window overhead, always worried about an abandoned bakery in my peripheral vision that might not even be deserted . I enter the abbey and its pews are the only cover I can find.
I won’t spoil the rest of the mission – I honestly don’t think I could. The odds that you’ll take the same stilted, frightening detour I did are close to zero. But I will say that helicopters weren’t really a thing in 1944. You won’t have the luxury of an airlift from the roof of the church. In Nazi killing land, every climb is followed by a descent. And the Nazis are usually more vigilant in the last part.
Spy Academy is one of those rare sandbox missions that re-contextualizes what came before and forces you to reconsider what kind of game you’re actually playing. What started out as a series of shooting galleries in various locations across France becomes a tactical stealth game with seemingly endless possibilities do shit. Spy Academy rests comfortably in the sandbox stealth pantheon of dishonored 2‘s “Clockwork Mansion”, hit man‘s “World of Tomorrow” and Metro Exodus“Volga.” It’s so good.
Part of me wishes Rebellion hadn’t revealed its feat so early Sniper Elite 5. But most of me realize how smart his placement is. As the third mission, it’s late enough to have an enticing introduction but early enough to discourage you from forming bad habits. The rest of the game is a delicate interplay between scenic gunfights and hand-to-hand combat. In this way, Spy Academy is both an invitation and a warning—a tutorial and a thrill.
So many sandbox missions feel like they were built from the ground up. Technically, they probably were. But Spy Academy feels like it shaped – as if carved from something too big to imagine. It’s as if Rebellion Developments encountered a colossal mountain of digital limestone, chiseled away at its edges, and found this wondrous mission beneath the surface. Its grand scale is matched only by the attention to detail in its brine-soaked stone.