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The main character is Karl Fairburne, an American OSS secret agent disguised as a German sniper. He is inserted into Battle of Berlin in 1945, during the final days of World War II, with the critical objective of obtaining German nuclear technology before the Soviet Union does.
The game follows protagonist Karl Fairburne as he attempts to prevent the Soviet Union taking control of Germany's nuclear secrets in and around Berlin, April 1945. Very little information is known about his background, other than he was raised in Berlin as the son of an U.S. ambassador to Germany before the war broke out, that he studied at West Point shortly after America's entrance into the war, and the fact that he was chosen for this mission because the city was his childhood home.
There are several factions contending for supremacy in the city, including the German resistance, who wish to aid Karl, the Soviet NKVD, and the Nazi forces. Martin Bormann, an extremely powerful figure within the Third Reich, is one of Karl's targets for assassination as he plans to meet up with an NKVD contact at the Brandenburg Gate to defect to the Soviet Union; the real Bormann mysteriously disappeared without trace during the fall of Berlin. The rest of the characters (such as Dr. Max Lohmann, a key German scientist who Fairburne is assigned to help capture and escort out of Berlin to America in order to prevent him from falling into the hands of the NKVD) are fictional.
The game is unlike most other first or third-person shooters in that most of the gameplay involves stealth and patience. To reinforce the stealth aspect, there is a camouflage index measured in percentage that displays the visibility of the protagonist. Fairburne uses several WWII-era weapons, including sniper rifles (Gewehr 43, SVT-40, Mosin-Nagant M91/30), a silenced pistol (Walther P38), submachine guns (MP 40, PPSh-41), machine guns (MG 42, DP), an anti-tank weapon (Panzershreck), and hand grenades (which can be also used to make tripwire boobytraps). Only one weapon of each class may be carried at a time.
One of the main features of the game is the option of realistic ballistics, involving factors such as bullet drop, wind strength, and breathing when attempting a shot. Sniping gameplay is in first person scope view, whereas movement and use of all other weapons is in third person view. When the player makes an extreme sniper shot, the view follows the path of the bullet in slow motion, while the camera rotates around the bullet.
Sniper Elite was awarded "Best PC/Console Game" in the TIGA Awards of 2005. As of 2010 the game holds an average GameRankings scores of 73.44% for the PC version, 76.65% for the PlayStation 2, and 76.97% for the Xbox.
Rebellion's book imprint Abaddon Books released a novel inspired by the game, Sniper Elite: The Spear of Destiny (Jaspre Bark, Abaddon Books, August 2006, ISBN 1-905437-04-8). In this book, Karl Fairburne's mission is to stop the renegade SS general Helmstadt from selling a working atomic bomb to the Soviets.