Cinematic power from the barrel of a gun: How Sniper Elite's killcam has evolved with the series

Rebellion's Tim Jones talks about how the game's killcam helps you reach out and touch someone
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Sniper Elite’s killcam was a lucky accident. The 2005 third-person shooter casts the player as Karl Fairburne, OSS sniper and secret agent, picking through Berlin in the final days of WWII and picking off both Nazi soldiers and Soviet invaders. It’s hard going, and needed something to provide players with a brief respite.

To feel like a badass, if only for a moment.

The answer? Slow motion shots of your enemies’ grisly ends. But Sniper Elite’s killcam, despite becoming the title’s trademark, was a late addition.

“The first Sniper Elite wasn’t originally developed with a killcam in mind,” says Tim Jones, Rebellion’s head of creative. “It’s probably one of the first things that people think about with the Sniper Elite series, but actually it came in to the first game late, a gory cherry on the top of our game.”

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Jones says that several people at Rebellion would probably, after a couple of pints, claim to be the mind behind Sniper Elite’s slow motion kill shots. After all, it’s a great idea. However, it was actually a team effort, a suggestion that, once developed and put into the game, just worked.

The original Sniper Elite is a hardcore game, and the momentary pauses, offering a brief celebratory moment after you put a round in someone, were perfect for breaking up the tension and giving the player a slightly bigger payoff for the time they spent accounting for wind and distance.

Jones is keen to stress that the franchise’s killcam is “somewhat separate” from the core game, an additional bundle of systems designed to enhance players experience, instead of acting as a "crutch" for the core game: “It’s important to us that the game stands on its own two feet with its own shooting mechanics, the AI, the level design, all the rest of it.”

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In the first game, the camera simply followed the bullet to the target. When the franchise returned in 2012, the sniping model in the game got a substantial upgrade, and so did the killcam, adding a skeleton and basic organs that could be torn up by bullets and shrapnel.

“We had conversations like: ‘Okay, how can we step this up? What was cool about the killcam before, and how much further can we go with it?’ That was the point at which we decided not to flinch from that,” says Jones. “Let’s really focus on what a bullet does to a target when you’re sniping. And that’s when we introduced the x-ray killcam to track it through the body and see how it breaks bones, punch holes through skulls, and all the rest of it.”

X-RAY SPECS

It became a gory spectacle, and with each iteration it’s grown in fidelity, taking players from putting a round in someone’s arm to going as far as hitting their hand, or truncating a finger. In the latest game in the series, Sniper Elite 4, the simulation that runs whenever you shoot someone is more detailed than ever before: it adds layers of muscle and more details with the way bones shatter and break.

More assets and more details also meant more complications though, and with every killcam essentially being its own small in-engine cinematic, there are plenty of new challenges.

Jones says most of these fall into two parts: “With Sniper Elite 4, we have all manner of different rules, setups, possibilities of shots and things that can happen that the engine has to pick from on the fly in any given situation to make sure it’s both valid and looks cool. It has to feel right within the rhythm of the game, like cameras not staring at a wall with the bullets on the other side of it for example.”

MULTIKILL

Now, the game adds a lot of variability to the killcam on the fly: sometimes

the game won’t show the path of the bullet to keep it punchy or it will give you a rest if you’ve just seen several in quick succession.

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Smarter, a hidden scoring system determines how good a shot is to decide how extravagant a killcam to serve to you, Jones explains: “It depends on questions like: was your target moving when you shot it? How difficult was the shot? How far away was it? Which part of the body did you hit them on? How long is it since you last had a killcam? What settings has the user put into their options with regards to seeing killcams?”

The end result is layers upon layers of systems laid on top of Sniper Elite’s core game working hard to make players feel like a badass any time they pull the trigger. While the killcams were added to the game long before the advent of services like YouTube and Twitch, later iterations of the franchise have provided perfect fodder for them.

Jones acknowledges the dissonance between the realistic sniping game and montages of people shooting Hitler in the testicle (Sniper Elite depicts the dictator with just the one) or ridiculous multikills with a single bullet spiralling through several enemies.

“While it is unflinching from the realities of what it means to shoot someone, we can’t deny its entertainment value either,” Jones says. “Ultimately what we’re doing is entertaining. I think there’s a fine line between horror, shock and humour. But it’s up to the audience to decide why it’s funny. I wouldn’t deny that it is. Sometimes it’s just shocking.” 

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