Review / Velvet Assassin (Xbox 360)

I like stealth games. Who doesn’t? They’re nice counterpoints to the general trend of action games that demand you run through levels and kill your way to objectives. It’s nice to sneak your way there. I have to admit, though, that the genre has gotten rather popular since I first had this reaction to stealth action in 1998 when both Metal Gear Solid and Thief: The Dark Project came out. Since then, Splinter Cell has come on the scene, as has the Hitman series, Hideo Kojima made three more Metal Gears, and a fourth Thief game is a-coming, not to mention stealth elements to be found in Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon games, and even in a Call of Duty from time to time. All of these games are revered and pretty much mainstream at this point, with Thief being the arguable exception. Stealth action arrived a while ago, with a handful premier titles pretty well established, so what is it that Replay Studios thinks they can do throwing another IP into the mix with Velvet Assassin? Well, it seems like they felt they had something on their hands. Sometimes, I too felt that way while playing it. However at the end of the day this game is, ultimately, a generic stealth game filled with tropes you’ve seen done before – and better.

Velvet Assassin is set in World War II, and follows the missions of British assassin Violette Summer, who is loosely based on the real life spy Violette Szabo. Just a cursory glance through Szabo’s Wikipedia page suggests that Summer has but one thing in common with her, they were both Allied spies. Where Szabo organized a resistance, sabotaged bridges and provided intelligence, Summer is sent in to kill kill kill. Most missions are based on a premise that goes a little something like: “This Nazi authority figure is responsible for x y z atrocities and today he shall breathe his last breath.” There are some others as well. Stop the captured spies from talking to the gestapo, plant some charges and blow some stuff up, escape, etc. Replay Studios seems to want to convey a more significant story than this, though, as the visuals are very cinematic. Lighting is very intense, colors are all but sapped from the scenery, which is also appropriate given most locales are dark (prisons, sewers, basements with toxic gas and the like) and very often it can look downright gorgeous. It’s a shame that often those pretty moments occur when the framerate can drop a little too dramatically. Despite the visuals these are really just spy missions loosely tied together by a little flashback framing. It’s all just window dressing for the main show, which is the sneaking.

Odds are you’ve played a game with a similar setup. The objective here is to get from point A to point B without anyone catching you on your way there. Enemies follow very strict patrolling patterns, or sometimes just look in one fixed direction, and you have to find a way around them. Unlike other stealth games, this one seems to very strongly encourage killing the enemies, and not simply evading them. If you manage to get behind an enemy, you can press A to get a flashy animation where Violette will elaborately stab their back, slit their throat, shoot them in the head, or break their neck. The game even keeps track of how many silent kills you accomplish in each level.

Controlling Violette is hit and miss. It’s pretty easy for most to pick up and play, since there are virtually no special moves to speak of. Moving Violette around feels exactly how you’d want it, except when she inadvertently snags on corners or walks into things the camera may not have made readily apparent. There are some other bugs, as well. I once started from a checkpoint literally falling through a hole where there was a ladder. Another time, after climbing a box and climbing down, Violette got stuck inside the box, leading to a forced restart.

Using the environment is an important part of keeping out of the enemy’s line of site, be it with walls, shadows, or even bushes, but mostly shadows. You can also try and distract your enemies by whistling to draw them away from somewhere, turning off the radio, or shooting them in the face. The indicator that you’re well submerged in the shadows, or just out of light and hard to see, is a deep blue glow that surrounds Violette. In this mode, it takes the enemy standing inches from you to be spotted at all. It’s one of those liberties that is common among stealth games both for playability reasons, as realistically this stuff would be worlds harder, and for immersion reasons, as an enemy soldier being so close to you should be the most nerve-wracking thing ever.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case in this game. See, this game has, quite possibly, the most inconsistent, ill-conceived stealth indicator ever implemented in a game. More than once, Violette was assuredly glowing blue, yet the ominous noise that indicates I’ve been spotted (usually followed by the less-ominous sound of machine gun fire) kicks off. What can I do but raise my arms and say “Are you kidding me?” This once happened in a DARK CAVERNOUS SEWER. After a while of this, enemies drawing near didn’t raise tension, but rather relief, knowing that the blue glow was not lying this time around. If any scene looks dubious about how well it conceals, it’s almost never worth chancing. If it looks pretty safely concealed, then there’s a 50% chance it’s not.

You can also disguise yourself. Occasionally, there will be a perfect-fitting woman’s SS uniform laying conspicuously on a table (as do medikits and morphine syringes, which will be addressed). Disguised, the trick is to not get close to enemies. Like when in shadows, it takes getting practically inches from enemies for them to spot you as a phony. As they grow more suspicious of you, the screen grows an increasingly intense red, until a white flash confirms that they know you’re no SS hottie. When you first get the disguise, a mini-tutorial text pops up saying don’t get close and don’t do anything strange. By this, they mean don’t point a gun at any troops, as this blows your cover immediately. This does not, surprisingly, include literally running away from them as they grow more suspicious of you. Your first instinct will be to keep walking, prim postured and hands held behind your back. Don’t worry about it, just run away from them when they’re a few feet away, they don’t bat an eye until you’re DAMNED close.

Enemy AI is pretty much non-existent. They follow their set paths, and if they catch you, they run in your general direction and shoot on sight. Sneaking by will put them in search mode, which will require more sneaking, or they will get close enough that you can’t even run away, as it only takes a couple shots to bring you down. However, they don’t run for cover if you fire back. Nor do they climb ladders or crawl through ducts like you do, and they may very well be unable to go through many doors as well, as they seem to load entirely different sectors. So they can be easy to avoid, but because they can be so impressively dumb, and because your “caught” status is limited only to the particular section of a level you’re in, it’s not satisfying. You can simply run to a room you’ve already cleared and wait things out a while. If you choose to be noble and evade them on terms the developer intended, then it will be tougher. Their search patterns are unpredictable, and it may well be some of the more intense parts of the game. They may have their back to you scoping out some corner, and you just can’t decide if you should or shouldn’t creep in for the stab, because they very well can turn around and spot you, and it only takes a few shots for Violette to go down.

It should be said that successfully clearing a room without once being spotted gives a very satisfying feeling. If nothing else, the sense of successfully sneaking is here, and it’s something that certainly gives the game value. If you die in these instances, it’s a fair loss. It’s a chance you took and it did not pay off. It’s the heart of the game, and it’s not bad at all. Keeping that in mind, it’s truly a wonder why this game has levels sectioned off in such a way that enemies can’t follow you through some doors. This issue springs up in several other games, and not necessarily stealth games, as Dead Space had a similar hurdle for enemies. It’s really baffling that modern games still have yet to get around this blindingly obvious flaw in their logic.

Speaking of dying, though, this game runs on the checkpoint system, so when you die, you will return to your last checkpoint. Checkpoint will exacerbate your fury that that Nazi dude was able to spot you in what you thought was good cover, because there’s a distinct possibility that said checkpoint was a whole other stealth skirmish prior to the one that killed you, forcing you to face it all over again.

Another feature this game adds to try and mix things up is Morphine. Every game these days apparently must have some bullet time variation in it, and this is Velvet Assassin’s. You are able to carry one syringe of morphine on you at a time, and you will find them strewn about the different places Violette infiltrates. This leads one to believe that Nazi occupied territories and facilities thrived on the stuff. Anyway, press X to activate morphine at any time, and the game will then go into an inexplicable bright white where rose petals are falling all around, Violette will be in her underwear, and all Nazi troops will be frozen into place. Is this a realistic account of the powers of morphine? Probably not, but for sake of the game, it’s handy. If you’re spotted and see no way out, it’s a good escape device. If you see one lone Nazi soldier who’s the one obstacle between you and successful infiltration, it’s a good out as well. Initially, morphine will only last about ten seconds, but you can get upgrades to increase the time.

Upgrades are acquired each time you gain 1000 experience points. There are only three attributes you can upgrade, morphine’s time span, how fast you sneak in stealth mode and your strength, or how much damage you can take. I focused completely on stealth speed, and found it to do very little, if anything, so these upgrades will likely not give a drastic edge. At least for that attribute it didn’t seem to. You gain experience from two things: Finding hidden collectibles throughout a level, and accomplishing secret missions. This can be finding and killing certain people, or acquiring certain items that may be useful in the context of the story if not to your mission directly. It’s a fun little addition, but in my play through, the effort didn’t seem completely warranted.

The game will take about twelve hours to complete, depending on skill and patience. Besides the collectibles and hidden items, there’s not too much incentive to go back after beating it. One main problem with the game’s basic mechanics is that they leave very little room for creativity. There is sneaking and stabbing, and moving on. Period. By the end of the game, it is no longer gameplay, but routine, and the animations rewarded for successfully creeping up on someone lose their luster about halfway in.With the simplicity of the core mechanic, you’d think they would try and get more creative within their boundaries. Instead, it’s sneaking around Nazis in mission one, and sneaking around Nazis in mission twelve, save for two or three points when you are unavoidably spotted and you have to gun your way out, but those are awkward hiccups more than pulse pounding releases, as the combat is far from the focus of the game.

What’s there is fun, but you’ve seen these tropes before, and you’ve probably seen them done better.  As those credits roll, you’ll likely reflect more on all the odds and sods that you swear you were hidden during, the little bugs, and the fact that you dealt with the same Nazi troops in the same way repeatedly for several hours rather than all the satisfying kills or the tragic tale that unfolded before you.

+ Visuals really can be stunning at times
+ The heart of stealth gameplay is there, with successful sneaking leaving a great sense of reward
+ The “basics” approach to the stealth action is laudable

– The stealth mechanic is incredibly picky, to the point that it’s hard to tell what is a hiding spot or not
– Core gameplay gets repetitive, with each level being, ultimately, a slightly harder version of the last
– Framerate drops and other little bugs evoke a vibe that this game may not really be finished