Velvet Assassin

velvet-assassin
6.0 Overall Score

Compelling and believable characters | Moody music and tense atmosphere | Handles grim material with maturity and empathy

Inconsistent stealth mechanics | Robotic and repetitive A.I. | Nonexistent narrative

Along with aliens and dinosaurs, Nazis have long been the go to videogame villain, their factual atrocities blended with fictional abilities – the virtual Third Reich is always trying to resurrect ancient demons, creating genetically mutated monsters, or attaching Adolph Hitler’s noggin to a chain gun-wielding mech – to create the ultimate videogame bad guy. While the Nazis thoroughly documented history of genetic experiments and interest in paranormal phenomena have inspired some seriously bizarre scenarios, the grim reality of WWII is far more terrifying than anything dreamed up by a videogame developer. Replay Studios knows this, having grounded Velvet Assassin, their stealth action title loosely inspired by the story of British spy Violette Szabo, in the factual horrors of the war, from the fire-scorched villages to the body-strewn ghettos. As you progress through the game, slinking through darkened streets, sewers and prisons sabotaging the Nazis ruthless campaign from within, the chilling brutality becomes increasingly palpable. Unfortunately, so do the game’s glaring issues, the problematic controls, robotic enemies, inconsistent stealth and incomplete story spoiling what could have been gamedom’s most compelling examination of the darkest period of human history.

 

In Velvet Assassin, you play the part of Violette Summer, a lone British secret agent tasked with slowing, not stopping, the Nazi war machine by means of sabotage, subterfuge and assassination.  The first three-fourths of the story is told through flashbacks, as the game opens with a badly injured Violette lying comatose in an abandoned French hospital, reliving her various escapades as a mixture of memory and morphine-fueled delirium. The game’s 12 missions are introduced via a series of animated photographs and a voice-over explaining the objective, be it assassinating a Nazi war criminal, destroying a fuel depot or delivering cyanide to a captured agent. These are interspersed with brief story sequences focusing on the present, as two Allied agents argue whether it’s better to kill or hide you. Not until the very last mission do these bewildering cutscenes connect to the story as a whole, and even then it doesn’t make much sense. For the most part Violette is left to wander though this waking nightmare without context for her actions – we don’t know why she’s in the hospital, we don’t know why she’s sharing her adventures, and we don’t know how these missions are connected.

Though the story is practically nonexistent, Violette is nonetheless a compelling character  – as she delves further into enemy territory, the atrocities she witnesses make her start to question her own actions. Although the game gets points for its semi-realistic portrayal of the mental and emotional cost of war, it deserves a demerit or two for its approach to stealth. This is the most frustrating aspect of the game. Sneaking through the shadows is the best way to meet your goals, as melee combat is usually a guaranteed death sentence. It makes sense that a 120-pound woman, armed only with a knife, couldn’t take out a gun-toting guard head on. But it doesn’t make sense that once you’ve stealthily killed said gun-toting guard you can’t pick up his weapon, and blast your way through nearby Nazis until your ammunition is gone. Violette often leaves everything but her knife behind at the start of a mission, forcing you to procure weapons such as shotguns, pistols and rifles in the field. But instead of retrieving these weapons from dead bodies, you will be forced to hunt down sparsely placed lockers containing the very same weapons you just tiptoed over minutes before. It’s best to forgo gunplay when possible, as ammunition is limited, aiming is sluggish and weapons are ineffective, requiring you to pump two to three bullets into an enemy before they even realize they’ve been shot. There are a couple of poorly designed sequences in which you must blast through waves of troops, which will likely introduce you to the unforgiving checkpoint system. Of course, you can always employ morphine mode, which renders a suddenly negligee-clad Violette temporarily invulnerable, able to rush her frozen opponent for an easy kill. The idea is that use of the drug in the present is affecting her memory of the past, but it reads as a transparent attempt at titillation. Plus, there are so many vials of morphine lying around, you can cheat your way through half the game by shooting up, killing a guard, running away and shooting up again.

 

A stealthy approach is clearly preferred, with shadow-blanketed levels providing generous cover for you to sneak up on enemies, executing increasingly brutal, bloody stealth kills. When Violette is completely hidden in darkness, her silhouette in the corner changes from white to purple. When she’s close enough to her intended target, the screen turns slowly red. These visual indicators will aid you in pulling off silent kills without alerting nearby enemies, with a well-timed button press triggering an animation of Violette slitting her enemy’s throat, slashing his tendons or driving her blade into his skull. In addition to stealth kills, you can flip switches to electrify water puddles, pull pins off of the grenades of patrolling soldiers, or shoot barrels of toxic waste to release poisonous gas. These different attacks lend a sense of desperately needed variety to the otherwise linear levels. Unlike other entries into the stealth genre, there is no flexibility when it comes to infiltrating an area. There is only one path to take, often leading straight toward a group of robotically patrolling soldiers, so committed to their marching orders that they rarely react to blown fuse boxes or cast shadows, though you can draw their attention by whistling, turning off radios, stepping on broken shards of glass or failing to properly stash a dead body. If your cover is blown, and there are no nearby lockers or cabinets in which to hide, the best bet is to flee the area. Soldiers in this game have the memory of a goldfish, returning to their preset paths without a second though for the leather-clad lady once again crouching in the shadows. The robotic and idiotic A.I. contrasts sharply with the realistic setting, with levels playing out like puzzles as you methodically study the path and the pace of your enemies, often taking them down in a particular order to avoid raising alarm.

When you’ve memorized the enemy’s movements, familiarized yourself with the level’s layout, and timed your stealth attacks perfectly, it feels pretty good taking out a whole room of Nazis without firing a single shot. But getting to that point is a frustrating exercise in trial and error, and often results in having to play the same section numerous times before a working strategy is stumbled upon. It doesn’t help matters that enemies will sometimes spot you even though you’re supposedly cloaked in shadow – those Nazi super scientists must have developed some genetically-mutated carrots, because at times the enemy employs an uncanny ability to see through walls and around corners. It makes sense that a little shade wouldn’t provide adequate cover when you’re practically rubbing elbows, but the distance required to avoid detection isn’t consistent, a maddening flaw in the stealth mechanic that manages to spoil some of the game’s better moments, like the lifelike dialogue between enemy soldiers. Unlike most wars, WWII was a morally unambiguous battle between clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys,” but not all the soldiers serving in the German army were Nazis. German-based developer Replay Studios takes particular care not to depict the soldiers as cartoonish caricatures, but three-dimensional humans beings, making their inhuman actions all the more horrifying for it. Eavesdropping on soldiers’ conversations, you’ll hear them bicker over a stolen bar of chocolate, express doubts about their country’s leadership, and wistfully remember the pleasures of French wine and women. You’ll also hear them explain in coldly clinical how adding water to a ditch helps the bodies burn better. Of course, some of the emotional gravitas is lost when you hear these unskippable conversations for the tenth time thanks to the sparse checkpoints.

 

Velvet Assassin approaches this well-worn genre with level of maturity, empathy and realism not seen before, but is ironically sabotaged by inconsistent stealth, predictable A.I., repetitive gameplay and a story that never ties together. But chief among these complaints is the stealth, the most important component of any stealth-based game. There’s a leveling system based on how many trinkets you can find scattered about, allowing you to upgrade your stealth speed, morphine capacity or health but the benefits are imperceptible. Even maxed out Violette moves at a crawl, adding another check mark to her every-expanding list of spy shortcomings. She’s not good at fighting, which is realistic. But she’s also not good at sneaking, which is unforgivable. Some urban stealth levels are thrown in to try and break things up, with Violette donning an SS officer’s uniform so as to walk undetected amongst the guards, but get within an arbitrary distance and you’ll be discovered, as the enemy suddenly transition from oblivious to observant. It’s just another example one of the many good ideas spoiled by poor execution, resulting in a realistic but fatally flawed WWII game that will leave most gamers wishing for the return of Cyborg Hitler.

 

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Author: Kristen Spencer View all posts by

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