Publisher: Southpeak Interactive
Developer: Replay Studios
Release Date: April 30, 2009
It's time for another entry into the WWII genre but it's not a shooter or an RTS.
Ever since it was known as Sabotage 1943, I've been eagerly following the development of Velvet Assassin, a stealth game in the vein of Splinter Cell, only set in Europe. The player takes on the role of a secret agent working against the Third Reich. As a fan of stealth games since Thief: The Dark Project on PCs (followed by Ubisoft's spy series and Konami's Metal Gear franchise), I was eagerly looking forward to someone doing something different with WWII that didn't involve mowing down even more divisions of the Wehrmacht.
Replay Studios' work with Velvet Assassin is inspired by the true life story of Violette Szabo, a British operative who had helped the French Resistance during the war; she also conducted sabotage missions against the Reich until she was captured, tortured and ultimately executed. From the eerily frozen title scene of Nazi officers standing over her hospital bed as she stares off into space, the player will relive several missions behind enemy lines as she lapses in and out of consciousness until the very end. Replay didn't have to use Szabo's name at all, since the game dispenses with anything related to her history, but the fiction ties together all of the missions in her head.
Velvet Assassin comes off as a low-tech version of Splinter Cell, peppered with inspiration from Thief. Players used to having Sam Fisher's arsenal of tricks will have to contend with no radar, a whistle with which to lure foes, peeking through keyholes to see what is on the other side of a door, and donning disguises to scout out areas. (This is a lot less useful than it sounds because guards are apparently gifted with psychic abilities to know who you are.) Controlled and viewed from the third-person perspective, Violette can crouch low and sneak through shadows to avoid detection, and an icon shows whether she is visible so you can gauge the level of risk. Sneaking up silently behind enemies allows the player to assassinate them, and whistling can lure soldiers into opportune ambushes.
Extras — such as cigar cases, lighters and special objectives — also add to an experience system that gives the player the chance to customize how quickly Violette can move while sneaking, how much damage she can take if the bullets start flying, or how much morphine she can carry. At the start of the game, Violette can only carry one syringe of morphine, which symbolizes her "real world" need to dull the pain as she lies in her hospital bed until the player can improve the skill. Using it in a mission temporarily freezes the enemy in his tracks, and a dreamlike render of the scene allows the player to kill an enemy or sneak by without danger. It's a somewhat bizarre transition into her head, but it works. I didn't find much use for it since I played it from an extremely stealthy perspective, but impatient players may find it to be a nice way to get past the more troublesome patrols.
When lead is the better option, Violette can also make use of whatever weapons she discovers in weapon lockers. Although she starts out with a silenced pistol with only seven shots, she can also make use of flare guns, grenades, lugers, shotguns or the Stg 44 assault rifle. For some reason, Violette can't take weapons from slain enemies, but she can search their bodies for keys, medicine or rare packets of ammo. In this way, Velvet Assassin firmly reminds players that this is a stealth game; being discovered by the enemy and engaging in a firefight often results in a quick death, even if she finds an armored vest. She's no Solid Snake, and she can't carry medical packs for later use. Unfortunately, there are moments in the game that force her to fight anyway, and those events feel as linear as the areas where you're railroaded into sneaking along a set path.
The Mature label applied to the game isn't merely because of the violence, although Violette's character makes the best case for it. In Replay's retelling, she hates the Nazis with every fiber of her being and isn't shy about showing it. Jean Reno's turn as an assassin in the film "The Professional" mentions to Natalie Portman's character, Mathilda, that the knife is the last thing that a "cleaner" learns because "...the closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client." Replay's Violette is in the same business.
When you can get her close enough to the enemy for a kill, a short, in-game cut scene shows off her random handiwork with whatever she has on hand, doing things that even Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher probably wouldn't because he doesn't have that much hate in him. Have a shotgun? Watch her smash in someone's head twice with the butt for good measure. Knife? Hide the family jewels, although that won't matter when she has the key. She can also drag bodies and stuff them into corners if she needs to.
With this much effort paid to the animation work and great voice acting, the scenes really add to the narrative, whether it's set in a Parisian cathedral or within a murky prison crawling with guards. Velvet Assassin also earns its Mature rating for the material that it dares to touch upon within the context of its gameplay. It's a sobering and wholly unexpected turn, especially since WWII titles have almost always concerned themselves with wide-open battles and well-known conflicts, all of which have been sanitized to some degree by not mentioning the atrocities behind the front lines.
At one point, Violette has to make her way to a nearby prison by passing through the Warsaw Ghetto during the 1943 uprising. Nazi Germany is forcibly removing the Jews, so she arrives only to see empty streets, abandoned furniture and the chilling sound of gunfire in the distance. Violette's disturbing detour into this vividly depicted terror is fictitious, but the location and the events that transpired within its walls are not. Toward the end of the game, Violette and the player are exposed to more of the ugliness perpetrated by the Third Reich. Although the impact of these disturbing scenes may be lost on players concerned only with Achievements, Replay Studios deserves credit in attempting to provide them with more than just another gallery of targets.
Despite the promising nature of the title, jarring flaws mar the polish of what could have been a perfectly fine addition to the stealth genre and a great example of how to expand upon the hackneyed WWII setting. That's probably the most disappointing thing that I've had to write about Velvet Assassin, as it was highly enjoyable when it came together.
Violette's basic stealth mechanics were solid enough, but the enemy AI's superhuman ability to find her in the shadows often spoiled my sense of disbelief. It's smart enough to conduct searches, renew patrols, and call out for its friends in case it sees something suspicious, but that doesn't excuse the infrared-sensing ability that it sometimes uses to see through walls. However, it's also relatively easy to exploit the often-forgetful and somewhat crude AI by retreating behind doors that it can't open or repeatedly fooling it by whistling.
Running away also helps because the AI will only go so far; an invisible border keeps it penned within its area, so you can simply wait around a corner until the AI enemies decide to return to their posts. Dead bodies are quickly forgotten, and a gunfight is eventually glossed over as foes resume their positions, humming away as if the cut throat on a nearby friend was the result of a shaving accident. I tried to imagine how the soldiers may have rationalized someone falling on his own dagger repeatedly. Accidents happen in war, right?
Then there are the checkpoints that can turn large patches of the game into brutally repetitive exercises in what not to do. Bad checkpoint systems aren't new, but with so many titles with decent ones in the field, Velvet Assassin's feels as if it had ignored them all. In one example, I went through a two-story warehouse filled with four or five guards and an attached building with its own guardians before the game saved my painstakingly planned assassinations. Failure meant more rote memorization and mechanical repetition. More frustratingly, other checkpoints show up only a minute after the prior one. One section in the game had two or three checkpoints separated by the ridiculously simple sequence of taking out a guard and sneaking into another area.
The engine can also be a little glitch, as I've seen corpses fall through the ground — one fell at such an angle that only the boots of the victim stuck out and slid across the soil like black leather periscopes. Finishing the game unlocks no extra costumes, art renders, historical dossiers or behind-the-scenes material. Velvet Assassin also has no Live support beyond Achievements, so dueling assassins will also be disappointed. There's really little to offer aside from another difficulty level, unless players want to spend more time and find every little extra hidden throughout the game.
When Velvet Assassin gives up on stealth at the end of the game and decides to spawn waves and waves of soldiers, I regrettably also gave up trying to enjoy the gameplay. If I had wanted to play another WWII shooter, I would have loaded up Call of Duty: World At War instead of sneaking through roughly 10 hours of backstabbing black ops, only to experience how such a promising stealth game throws away its entire premise. Here's a hint: Invest in health early and forget the morphine. At least the visuals accompanying the end credits had soothing music to remind me of the title's better qualities.Score: 5.8/10
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