The mysterious appeal of the sniper rifle

I will always take the sniper rifle. Even given only two weapon slots, I will pass up rocket launchers, rail-guns or a machine gun shooting 1500 rounds per minute t ensure I have the ability to pick off my target from a high atop well-scouted lookout at 50 feet.

Now I’m not a fan of competitive shooters, so my preference for Dragunovs over Desert Eagles is purely derived from the amount of fun I have playing with the gun, not from stats or lethality, but it is interesting to consider what makes the ranged rifle such a unique and enjoyable part of a combat game.

If you consider the appeal of the shooter in general to be tied up with our will to power – being drawn to an experience that allows us to exert dominance over others – then the sniper rifle could be seen as merely an extension of that, although with the odds pushed even further in the player’s favour: the sniper rifle puts one in a position of power over enemies without actually being in direct danger oneself. The ranged rifle also introduces an element of voyeurism – there is power and fun in watching your victim stroll about, hunt for you or display stiff idle animations (depending on the game) as your sights trace the outlines of their frame, completely unaware they could be dropped at any minute.

Mass Effect
Sniping in Mass Effect.

Despite all this it does seem there are players who favour sniper rifles and players who can’t stand them, which would indicate there’s something more nuanced going on than merely that a ranged weapon offers superior control, power and fun. Wielding a scoped weapon shifts the tactical situation of a player fundamentally, requiring them to think in a different way and practice different traits, in this case patience and precision. The game becomes not about outright overpowering and intimidating your enemies, but about outsmarting and outmaneuvering them. A well-designed game places three key limitations on the available sniper rifle:

  1. Its very slow to fire. Perhaps it takes a couple of seconds for each bullet to slide into the chamber, or perhaps the rifle only holds one bullet at a time. In a sci-fi setting, perhaps the rifle needs to charge before firing.
  2. Ammo is scarce. Every bullet is a precious commodity.
  3. The rifle is virtually useless when fired without looking down the scope. No aim assist should be applied to sniper rifles.

These limitations are of course weighted by advantages:

  1. Extremely powerful shots. A sniper rifle should have the ability to kill with a single shot.
  2. Range. You could easily kill from a position that that is completely out of the sight of your prey.

The risk-reward proposition of fighting with a sniper rifle is much more appealing to me than with just about any other weapon. Finding yourself in close quarters will put you immediately on the defensive and usally have you plugging away with a comparatively under-powered sidearm. However, play your surroundings to your advantage, know your enemy and be patient (and lucky) and you could take down a squad of antagonists before they even know you’re there. All this in mind (and with the regretful omission of Sniper Elite V2, which is still sitting unplayed on my shelf), let’s take a look at four very different classics in the sniper rifle department and what made them fun. Or not.

GoldenEye – ‘Sniper Rifle’

GoldenEyeLooking like a rolled-up sleeping-bag with a pole poking out the end and sounding almost exactly like the whisper-quiet silenced PP7, GoldenEye‘s sniper rifle was a revelation to console shooter fans. The buttery-smooth variable zoom meant that from as soon as the first stage you could get a read on enemy positions way before they had a chance to spot you. And who could forget picking off all the guards along the dam before you actually walked down it, making the climax of the stage fall somewhat flat? The ability to lean while zooming was also a plus, and given the right stage as skilled player could execute perfect stealth playthroughs even on the harder difficulties. Personal highlight: Setting up sniper-only multiplayer duels with one-hit-kills. Sniping takes on a whole new dimension when your enemy is also packing a scope. Flanking was made impossible by the ever-present menace of screen-watching, so the only solution was to lean out of cover and hope you smoked them before they got their finger to the trigger.

Perfect Dark – ‘FarSight’

Perfect DarkTaking the fun of GoldenEye’s sniping to the next level, the FarSight included a heat-sensitive scope that allowed you to track enemies from anywhere on the map, and a railgun shot so powerful it could go through any barrier. The result was the ability to hit any target from anywhere. This concept really takes all the above theory on the art of sniping to its extremes, even though the FarSight lacked the traditional sniper ability to zoom. A sly player can really make a killing with this weapon, but using it literally makes you blind to whatever’s right in front of you. The FarSight necessitated a really great hiding place (or a real quick trigger finger) to make it work. Personal highlight: any time you tracked a foe on the FarSight’s psychedelic screen for so long you lost track of the fact that they were totally in the same room as you and lining up to pop you in the face.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – ‘Barrett .50 cal’

A sniper scene halfway through CoD 4’s campaign stands out in my memory for going against just about everything that, for me, makes sniping in video games fun. The scene involved a mounted .50 cal rifle and a dodgy Russian arms dealer some massive distance away. Your AI counterpart instructs you to account for wind, steady the shot, etc, but the end result of all the fiddling and breath-holding is always that you shoot the guy’s arm off and then have to get the hell out of dodge.

Rule one of boring sniping: remember the Coriolis effect.

You might argue that canned sequences like this go against what makes shooters fun in general, and that’s probably true, but I was really hoping people would start running everywhere and I’d have to use the rifle as in a traditional shooter to defend myself. As it stood, the act of preparing a few minutes to fire one shot and have no actual control over the outcome left me feeling cold and detached. Given the rhetoric of the game’s campaign as a whole – especially the AC-130 stages – these feelings are almost certainly what the designers intended, and in this sense the sequence highlights that the mechanics of sniping in real life and in a fun video game are worlds apart. Thankfully the game’s over sniper rifles provide a suitably satisfying experience for CoD fans who favour a ranged weapon.

Gears of War – ‘Longshot’

Gears’ longshot really goes to show that the joy of using a sniper rifle (or any video game weapon) is really dependent on the quality of the systems underpinning the game. In Gears of War the snap-to-cover system that kept your head out of enemy range, the active reloading system that gives you a supercharged shot if you have expert timing, and the ease with which enemy heads are separated from their bodies with a clean shot all came together to make one of the most purely satisfying sniper experiences of recent memory. Personal highlight: the section where a hoard of Locust are running far below and Marcus will count out the kills if you’re good enough to make them with the longshot. “ONE”. Reload. “TWO”. Reload. “THREE”. Reload. “FOUR!” Reload. “THAT’S FIVE MOTHERF*CKERS!”

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