Unlike a traditional stealth game focused on keeping yourself out of view or secretly taking out unsuspecting foes at close range, in sniping games like Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts you’re better off keeping your distance. It’s all about reveling in the careful, precise sniping that requires methodical movements and attention to detail. Contracts, in particular, is slow at times and the obligatory escapes can be a bit boring, but the long stretches of downtime are often punctuated by exhilarating explosions of gore that make it worthwhile.
A mostly inconsequential story about oil companies, international espionage, and vague politics loosely connects 25 contract objectives across five enormous sandbox-style maps. A forgettable prologue explains why it’s morally okay to assassinate each target for money. It was nice getting some context for why I’m being asked to murder dozens of people, but at the end of the day the game is called Sniper and it gives me a long gun with slow-mo powers so I don’t need much other motivation beyond that. From there it’s just a matter of completing your objectives and cashing the check. Sometimes you’re also hacking computer terminals, planting bombs, or stealing intel – all basic stuff.Since the levels are so huge and mostly free of restrictions, it didn’t feel necessary or interesting to pay attention to the story. What makes completing a contract challenging, though, is the scope of the maps. They’re staggering in size and require fast-travel to get around in any reasonable amount of time. They range from urban coastlines full of cargo ships lining the harbor with massive oil rigs spread about, to enormous fortresses built into the side of glaciers, all the way to private mansions tucked away between forests. There’s a lot of variety, both visually and in terms of the environments forcing you to adapt your approach based on terrain and layout.
Most of the objectives are spread out so they don’t overlap too much and to allow you room to approach targets from different angles, but every now and then you’ll have to both kill a target and retrieve something that they were carrying. Those moments create delicious tension where simply landing a headshot from 300 meters away isn’t good enough: you have to get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in harm’s way, experiment with gadgets, and approach the level with more creativity than just camping in a lighthouse.
Similarly, after completing an objective, the other half of each mission is to reach an extraction point to upload the intel. This means you not only have to plan your attack, but your escape as well, which adds dramatic consequences for any decisions to be loud and aggressive – but this is also where the size of the maps started to feel like a hindrance. You cannot fast-travel when delivering intel, even if all enemies were killed on your way in, so prepare for lots of uneventful backtracking. At best, you’re moving through areas you’ve already figured out how to sneak through. The monotony is arguably a testament to its dedication to emulating the patient stealth of a “Ghost Warrior,” but in practice it leads to a lot of waiting, watching, and literal breath-holding.
There are three difficulty settings, with the lowest option being so forgiving that you have to quite literally kill someone in front of a guard’s face for them to start panicking and looking for you. On harder settings the AI becomes mostly capable, and enemies can sometimes notice you from a distance even before you see them, so the challenge is mostly there if you’re up for it. Generally their use of cover is fine, and they have a habit of leaving the tops of their heads or lower half exposed in a firefight to keep things from devolving into whack-a-mole. It’s still not easy to pick them off without room for error, but entirely possible. And of course, like with virtually every stealth game out there (especially Assassin’s Creed) if you retreat out of range for long enough they’ll stop searching for you and eventually reset, which always seems odd if you’ve just assassinated the person they were trying to protect.
Just like most sniping games, taking a shot in Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is both an art and a science. You need to pay attention to factors like the wind strength and direction just as much as how far away the target is, and even though your rifle’s optics do a great job of guiding you by showing how the bullet will drop off, lining up shots can be extremely tough. One contract required me to take out a woman who’d hired a body double, and I didn’t have the intel to tell them apart so I had to kill both. The issue is if you kill one, the other is alerted immediately, no matter where she is, and runs for the bunker. After shooting the first one I had to make a shot at a range of 350 meters at a moving target in high wind… and pulled it off! That was easily the most satisfying moment of Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts for me, having prevailed against all odds.
Sometimes you’ve only got one chance for a shot like that, and if you blow it you’ll miss out on that contract unless you manage to chase them down (or reload a save). In some cases, when they escape they’re now hiding in an even more heavily guarded bunker you’ll have to somehow penetrate, but at least there are no real “fail states” here other than dying.
Scoring a hit on those big climatic shots requires precision, so the over-the-top kill cam is meant to feel like a celebratory reward. It’s certainly cool when you pull it off and see an entire brain explode out of a skull, but it’s also a bit over-exaggerated compared to the rest of Ghost Warrior Contracts’ grimdark serious tone. Somehow bizarrely killing an enemy because your sniper shot tore through his knee cap and created a dismembered ragdoll feels a bit out of place, but I’d be lying if I said the extra flare wasn’t at least partially enjoyable. Lining up a tough shot, unsure if you’re going to make it, then having the cinematic start as you pull the trigger always resulted in a sigh of relief, confirming I got the kill.
There is a litany of gadgets at your disposal, too. You can spend cash you earn from completing contracts to unlock powerful new guns and upgrades for your suit and visor, such as the ability to spot climbable objects and traps or zoom your binoculars farther to tag more enemies. Plus, there’s an assortment of gadgetry – everything from grenades and C4 to drones that help mark targets, and even remote-controlled sniper turrets that can fire at enemies on your command. Using these to line up simultaneous kill shots is a lot of fun and all of the gadgets really open up the ways to complete contracts. Tagging enemies with the drone, setting up the turret on the edge of a cliff, ziplining down to enemies, then dropping tagged enemies with your turret just by pressing a button on your approach feels really powerful.
Completing all of the base-level contracts on the five maps can take around 12 hours if you’re a capable marksman. Beyond the core objectives there are some side challenges to offer replayability (like completing contracts without alerting enemies, getting chain kills rapidly, or completing all contracts on a map without loading a checkpoint) but nothing all that interesting to me. There wasn’t enough incentive to care much personally – once I checked off the contracts I moved on without hesitation.