Velvet Assassin Review
Written : Wednesday, May 20, 2009
By: Nate Gillick (GT: ThrawnOmega)
War is a story of violence, despair, and millions of atrocities, and Velvet Assassin seeks to bring that atmosphere to a video game in a way very few others ever have. Inspired by the life of British agent Violette Szabo, Velvet Assassin casts players as fictional agent Violette Summer, and ships them off to tackle dangerous solo missions against the Nazi army. With darkness as her ally, Violette aims to slow down the Nazi war machine to the best of her ability.
He'll never see death coming.
Velvet Assassin's narrative starts near the ending, with Violette bedridden as the game opens, while two men stand nearby, deciding what should be done with her. As they discuss her fate, Violette remembers her missions against the Nazis. This flashback-driven framework allows the game to bounce between missions stretching over several months of time without having to trouble with the events in-between them, and gives the story an almost episodic feeling, while retaining an overall plot arc. It's an interesting tactic, and works overall, though the story for the most part feels pretty minimalist; players are given a mission briefing before each level, and only what they need to know, to provide context to the following mission.
The grim atmosphere of Velvet Assassin more than makes up for its sparse storytelling, with levels well designed to showcase the horrors of war. Prepare to make your way through bombed-out buildings, damp crypts, prisons, and more. Velvet Assassin's most memorable moments may be the conversations overheard between German soldiers with some feeling regret over what they're doing, while others discuss what to do with pretty little Jewish girls, and a game they call "rabbit hunting," with sickening enthusiasm. Moments such as these are likely to be remembered long after the credits roll.
Velvet Assassin was designed to let players take their time and be able to analyze each situation before acting. Careful planning is necessary because while Violette is a well trained agent, she's no superhuman, and therefore will be quickly gunned down by the Nazis if they detect her. Staying in the shadows and sneaking up on enemies to kill them without being detected is required to survive her missions, and players can take all the time they need to figure out their next move, as enemies move in repeating patterns, and there's rarely any time limits in the levels. While hidden in the shadows, Violette's health bar has a bluish aura around it, indicating she's out of sight. She'll also be able to use bushes as cover, or hide behind walls.
Once a plan of action has been decided, Nazis can be taken out by creeping up on them and pressing the A button to perform a quick, silent kill. Simply creeping up on an enemy and pressing A could have become stale in a hurry, but there are 50 different kill animations, with the type of execution often tied to Violette's currently equipped weapon, and this does a lot to keep the kills brutal and interesting. Violette can do a lot more than merely sneak and stab at the Nazis, however. Puddles of water can be electrified to zap enemies, explosive or poison barrels can be shot to take out the enemy, the pins can be pulled out of grenades carried by German soldiers, turning them into walking bombs, enemies can be lured out of position with whistles, or Violette can change into an SS uniform and walk among them without being noticed, provided she keeps a moderate distance. There's plenty of variety in the options provided to players to handle the challenges they face, and tackling each challenge feels like an accomplishment.
Velvet Assassin makes great use of light and shadow.
When all else fails, Violette will come across guns as she completes her missions, but ammo is usually quite limited. While the stealth action of sitting in the shadows and planning really captures the feeling of being a predator stalking prey, the gunplay isn't up to par. The shooting controls feel slow and clunky, and gunfights will never go well for Violette, since she can't take much of a beating, and her health doesn't regenerate. Most of the game can be completed with only minimal use of firearms, making the mediocre shooting not too much of a problem, except for the final chapters of the game, where hiding in the shadows is replaced with liberal use of the STG44 Assault Rifle. The decision to break away from the game's strengths and end with an overexposure to its greatest weakness puzzles me.
Another way to deal with problems is the use of morphine. Scattered throughout each mission are syringes of morphine, which have the power to freeze time for everyone but Violette, allowing her to rush up to a frozen enemy for an easy kill, or retreat to escape the attention of numerous enemies. Players can only hold a limited supply or morphine, making it an important "get out of jail free" card, and not something that can be abused to make the game too easy.
Violette's sneaking skills, morphine usage, and health can all be upgraded through experience gained by finding collectables hidden in each mission, or completing secret objectives. These upgrades prove quite useful, but the method of attaining them is rather disappointing. Becoming more powerful for finding cigar cases or harmonicas just doesn't feel as satisfying as earning experience for well executed silent kills would, though the points for secret objectives are a nice touch. Each skill can be upgraded five times, and it'll take finding every collectable and completing every secret objective to max them all out.
Disappointments extend beyond the gunplay and having to find collectables to upgrade Violette. Enemy AI is pretty laughable when they're alerted to Violette's presence. While walking around in predictable patterns makes sense in a game designed to let players take their time and analyze each situation, their behavior upon spotting Violette isn't right. It's possible to run around a corner and shoot enemies as they come by, and the next Nazi in line will walk up as if he didn't see his buddy just get shot. They're also not as thorough in searching for Violette as they could be, often wandering around for a bit in the general area they think the disturbance came from before getting bored and going back to their usual route. The Nazi soldiers look more like individuals each searching out the enemy than a coordinated team. In fact, the Nazis never display anything looking very much like group tactics, which reduces the feeling of hunting human prey.
Velvet Assassin could also have done with some more checkpoints. While all the existing checkpoints feel well placed, there were many areas throughout the story where a checkpoint could have been added. Dying and having to replay ten or more minutes of action to get back to the spot where you died can become frustrating in a hurry, and having a few more checkpoints could have alleviated this frustration significantly. The game also has a tendency to hitch up when saving at checkpoints, making it impossible to act for a few moments while data saves. This isn't game breaking by a long shot, but it does get annoying.
Violette gets ready to off another Nazi.
Since ambushing enemies from the shadows is a core game mechanic, the use of light and shadow have to be great, and the lighting for Velvet Assassin is just that. Bright areas and shadows are sharply contrasted and easy to make out, with each of the game's areas perfectly lit to evoke the feeling of being a predator hunting prey. The rest of the graphics aren't of similar quality, with many generic character models, and environments that look dated, with plants and flames looking particularly ugly. Velvet Assassin's voice acting on the other hand gets the job done, but doesn't stand out as particularly memorable. What music is here works well with the game's atmosphere and mood to highlight particularly dramatic moments, which makes me wish there was more of it, as there can be long stretches of silence.
The achievement list for Velvet Assassin is a chore, with 260 points coming from finding collectables, and it's impossible to go back and replay specific missions to find missed collectables, making it necessary to find them all in one playthrough. Most of the other achievements are fairly standard, but the difficulties don't stack, forcing a second playthrough. The Blitzkreig achievement for beating the game in under five hours could be a challenge for dedicated fans of the game, but feels to be at odds with the game's intent to give players the time to think. It's a manageable 800-900 in a single play, but completing it will take two, possibly three runs through the campaign, and the replay value here is pretty low.
Velvet Assassin succeeds in creating a gloomy wartime atmosphere, with some chilling moments, and a satisfying feeling of being a predator hunting Nazi prey. However, Velvet Assassin isn't for everyone. The methodic pacing of the stealth action won't work for players looking for a fast-paced game, and dying repeatedly at certain spots will cause frustration, particularly in areas of the game that could have used a few more checkpoints. The shooting is sub-par, and the AI can be laughable at times, but for those willing to look beyond these weaknesses, Velvet Assassin provides some great moments.
The voice acting gets the job done, and the music works well to enhance dramatic moments. It would have been nice if there was some more music though.
The use of lighting and shadow is fantastic, but the rest of the graphics are lackluster.
It's easy to tell when Violette is hidden, and execute silent kills. While the stealth mechanics work great, the gunplay is slow and clunky, making shooting no fun.
Some more checkpoints would have gone a long way to reducing frustration, and the enemy AI is terrible. There's little reason to return to the game after completing it.
Hunting down the collectables is a chore, and the difficulties don't stack. Add in an achievement for rushing through a game that was designed to let players pause and think, and you have the icing on the cake for a list that is a manageable 800-900 in a single play, though the achievements sap some of the fun out of the game.
Velvet Assassin shows gamers the horrors of war as few other games have, with stealth action that captures the feeling of a predator stalking human prey. Unfortunately, clunky shooting controls and dumb AI break the immersion.