Velvet Assassin Review
What happened to stealth games? For a while there we were getting some great first- and third-person sneaking action from franchises like No One Lives Forever, Hitman, and Splinter Cell. Since then we got Assassin's Creed, but I was disappointed in how the main character was caught like a petty thief after every big kill he did. So since then we've seen a few companies start up again: there's a new Splinter Cell coming soon, and Replay Studios has just put the finishing touches on Velvet Assassin, their retelling of a story of a real British spy that went to France in World War II.
Right from the start, you can tell something's just a little wrong with Velvet Assassin. First, it's WW2, a setting many gamers are already very sick of; the developers had better be delivering a stellar title to make this setting worth it for people. (Hint: it's not.) But beyond that, anyone who's looked into the history of WW2 might have heard of Violette Szabo, the woman that this game is based on. She was parachuted into France and helped organize a resistance movement against the occupying Germans, and was extracted. On her second mission to France, she was captured, tortured and raped repeatedly, eventually shipped off to a female concentration camp for hard labor, and was executed. Even Violette Szabo's family decided to stay away from this game, and I imagine it has something to do with the box art and the game's equivalent of Szabo prancing around in her underwear - more on that later.
In-game, you play as Violette "Summer" - it's supposed to be only inspired by real events, after all, even though it does mention Szabo on the box - proudly shows off an impressive ass on the game's front cover and has her stalking around, stabbing Nazis in the neck whenever they turn their backs. This is not nearly as instantly fun as it may sound, and eventually you do get some fun and interesting kills in, but it takes a while for the stealth assassinations to break free of tedium. Early on, for the most part you'll see two or three soldiers and you'll have to listen to some weird or boring conversation (in German, subtitles sit below) and wait for one to say "I'm going over here!", follow him until he is proudly staring at a wall with his back exposed, and yes, stab him in the neck. (Maybe the game will really mix it up by stabbing him in the upper chest or slitting his throat.) Then you'll deal with the other two in a similar fashion.
Once you get further into the game you can do fun stuff like pull the pin on one guy's grenade as he patrols right by other soldiers, causing a big explosion, but don't expect to ever see the level of imagination that went into better stealth games like the Thief or Hitman series. It'd be helpful if the levels were designed to be less like first person shooter maps with a linear design, and more like a proper stealth/assassination game where you have multiple methods of entry and only really need to kill some single high-ranking target.
But the strangest part of this game has to be the morphine. Apparently Violette is just flat-out addicted to the stuff, and she can use it when she gets in a pinch to slow down time and either get to safety or finish off an enemy from any side. But - and this is in all seriousness - she has to do it in a little white negligee while flower petals fall from the sky. Yes, whenever you hit morphine to assist in a situation or get out of trouble, Violette magically loses almost all of her clothes, and then they are back when the moment has passed. It just feels like it's a blatant way to show a lot of skin, and really doesn't look right at all. It's nice to have the ability to fix a mistake here and there, but then again, reverting back to your checkpoint and just not getting detected at all (if that's an option in that particular situation) is an even better idea.
There's some other silliness here, as well, like the ability to don a female SS officer's uniform to blend in with the enemy. In this uniform, your proximity to enemy soldiers will drain a meter and you'll be exposed to the enemy if it goes empty, so you'll have to stay away from the Nazis for the most part. The messed up part is that for the rest of the game you're taught how to sit in the shadows with a light blue outline around you denoting that you're hidden, but that system magically doesn't work when Violette is wearing a disguise. If you're close to an enemy soldier, even fully hidden in the dark, your meter will still drop and you can still be exposed while in the pitch black. It's just poor game design that is simply targeted towards annoying and frustrating the player.
The whole game always skirts the edge of too much frustration to bother continuing. With forced checkpoints that are sometimes far apart and a need to sit and watch enemy patrol routes for a while - it's usually better to just revert to your last checkpoint if you get caught, because Violette can only take one or two hits before she dies - the whole game becomes an exercise in trial-and-error stealth that, unlike what we've seen with the best of the genre, winds up being something that has to be endured rather than enjoyed. It's not like other stealth games aren't like this, but the story and settings here are only barely compelling enough to keep the most patient of gamers going - and at least in those games you can often have an entirely different kind of fun by just running around and killing indiscriminately like you're playing an action game. Velvet Assassin puts a stop to that kind of outburst of enjoyment by limiting your ammo to a trickle, even though every guard you take out has a loaded weapon that you can't actually pick up. Not that you'd actually want to do this, though, as the basic shooting mechanics in this game are about, well, as basic as you'll get. If Replay Studios wanted people not to play this like they would a shooter, they certainly succeeded in suppressing that ability, but it doesn't exactly improve the game.
If you're an action gamer and want to figure out if this game is a good idea to try, here's a simple way to decide: if at any point you got even slightly bored in Gears of War 2 or Halo 3, then you will almost surely run out of patience at some point with Velvet Assassin. It's not that Violette's adventures in Nazi-occupied territory are particularly bad, but any stealth game comes with an assumption of frustration in figuring out patrol routes, minimizing the amount of time you're exposed, and dealing with whatever systems are built into the game to detect you. And most stealth games make up for it by adding interest through a great setting (say, Mardi Gras in Hitman: Blood Money) or an interesting ongoing story, but Velvet Assassin almost completely misses the mark on both counts. If you've been dying for another stealth game since the genre went dark a couple years ago then this game might just scratch the itch, but don't buy it just because there's a great-looking ass(assin) on the cover or because you want to play yet another action game. You'd be disappointed on both counts.