I’d love to have been in the meeting where the invasion mode for Sniper Elite 5, called “Axis Invasion,” got pitched. I’m not sure how much of a hard sell it was, but it must, at the very least, have taken some explaining.
“So, you’re trying to out-snipe the good guy? And this is, what, a training mission to prepare Karl for the main mission?”
“No, it takes place in the main game. You invade the main game as a Nazi soldier.”
“Right, thanks for clearing that up. Wait… what?”
As for myself, I went through a range of emotions when I heard about this new cat-and-mouse multiplayer feature. Coming off Elden Ring and Deathloop, both of which sported similar modes, I grinned at the prospect of diving into someone else’s game and crushi– er, giving them a break from the usual AI-controlled foes.
It wasn’t until later that I became a little embarrassed at my prior excitement. It started to register that I’d be playing as one of the most evil and genocidal forces the world had seen. And I wouldn’t be doing it from some virtual war room or top-down map, either; I’d be ventilating the good guys in full FPS-o-vision.
When I finally tackled the solo campaign in Sniper Elite 5 and saw Nazi swastikas scattered around the opening, which are all but absent from the game’s trailer, it finally sunk in. Skull badges or not, Axis Invasion would turn me into the bad guy.
Admittedly, I’ve done worse things in games; while playing Civilization Revolution I made a point of playing as Gandhi and unleashing nuclear weapons on the world. Just last week I was playing a game where you slaughter innocent people and turn them into pies.
But World War II is real enough, and recent enough, that Sniper Elite 5 Axis Invasion makes me feel a little weird about winning. Weird enough to stop playing? Not at all, which serves as a testament to both the brilliance of Axis Invasion and the shoddiness of my own ethical standards.
Axis Invasion is a sublime game of cat and mouse, with those roles switching at a moment’s notice. Yes, Deathloop’s invasion mode is fun, but the powers each player can wield risk overcomplicating things. Sniper Elite 5 Axis Invasion gives the invading Nazi sniper the ability to briefly make local soldiers more focused, and that’s it.
So, it’s down to tactics, stealth, and, less frequently, a quick trigger finger. One of my most memorable victories was when I lurked in a side room, reasoning that the Allied sniper wouldn’t think about checking every little nook. Sure enough, he crouch-walked past, which is when I sneaked up and stabbed him in the back.
It was exhilarating to have outthought my enemy, though it was tempered by the knowledge that I’d stabbed one of the good guys to death. But invasion mode mostly succeeds because it doesn’t give you time to think about that; it’s sufficiently addictive and sufficiently attention-grabbing that you’re laser-focused on the whereabouts of your prey.
I say “mostly” because Sniper Elite 5 does something a little odd if you let your invader’s scope linger on an ally. “Tagging” a German soldier, accomplished by looking at them through your scope, means that you’ll be alerted if they catch sight of the host player. Keep looking, though, and you’ll be given a little factoid about that soldier.
Rudolf Wegener, for example, “prays nightly for his best friend back home, who lost an arm in a bombing raid,” and Reiner Baumann writes romance novels under an assumed name. Some of these factoids are more negative in nature, but it still feels off. Maybe Sniper Elite 5 is trying to poke fun at the Nazis. However, as the New York Times points out, humor can have the opposite effect, and these statements risk playing into the myth of the “clean” German army.
What Sniper Elite 5 Axis Invasion does get right, regarding the above, is it penalizes you for stepping above that rank-and-file. The more kills you rack up, the more uniforms you unlock, which, thankfully, don’t include SS uniforms. But if you start dressing as a German officer, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.
On the other hand, if you wear the default soldier’s outfit, you have a better chance of hiding in plain sight. And believe me, that’s an awful lot of fun. Let the Allied player wander in, and then while they’re occupied with the AI-controlled soldiers, sneak around and dispatch them; it’s a worryingly satisfying endeavor.
It isn’t the first FPS to have you playing as a WWII German soldier; a piece of Battlefield 5 DLC cast you as a team of German tank operators, but it sported a suitably grim conclusion. Sniper Elite 5 Axis Invasion isn’t “canon” in the same way the single-player campaign mode is, but it lets you walk away victorious. So, for me at least, success in Axis Invasion comes with an undercurrent of discomfort.
But at the end of the day, you’ve won. You’ve beaten another human player, whether you sniped them from afar, cackled as they stepped onto a mine, or gutted them before they knew you were there. Should you enjoy your victory? Absolutely. But when the Kill Cam’s finished its gruesome business, if you don’t feel just a little uncomfortable, take a moment to remember that, yes, you are the baddies, no matter how much Hans likes cheese-making.