The story of Violette Szabo, the real ‘Velvet Assassin’, is a deeply unhappy one. She was an Allied secret agent during World War II, but in the middle of only her second mission she was captured, tortured, abused and eventually executed. The perfect story, sixty-six years later, to make a videogame about then…
Replay Studios are utterly insistent that they’ve fictionalized the story to a large extent, but we’re not sure if this helps or worsens the sour taste that Violette’s often skimpy attire – and bruise-like eye makeup – leaves with anyone familiar with the game’s tragic inspiration. Like Hitman: Contracts, Velvet Assassin’s twelve missions are presented as flashbacks, recounted as Violette lies feverish and morphine-addled in a future hospital bed.
There’s an unsettling coldness about the game; after a quick briefing and hallucinatory cutscene you’re dropped into each mission and expected to get on with the task at hand – typically offing some evil top Nazi, or stealing documents, all while sneaking up and jamming your knife into the necks of around half the Third Reich. The wonderful ambient soundtrack and shadow-drenched environments combine to create the sort of oppressive atmosphere you’d find in Hitman or Thief – although Velvet’s stealth mechanics are basic in comparison.
The fundamentals are in place – stay out of the shadows; kill guards by creeping up behind them, before dumping their body in a bush – but missions are too strictly linear, and environments too small, to really give you much choice. Thief: Deadly Shadows let you put out nearly any light source, had a number of huge environments to explore, and let you take out enemies by non-violent means; Velvet Assassin makes you follow a rigid path, and forces you to kill. Aside from a rudimentary experience system – and numerous collectibles squirreled away in stages’ darker corners – the game can often feel a bit light.
As a genre, stealth is all about trial and error, and as such a manual save system is pretty much mandatory, to avoid the kind of frustration that makes you set fire to a game disc, break it in half and then throw it into the sea. Velvet stumbles by relying on checkpoints that are too few and far between, forcing you to repeat large sections until you’re violet in the face. The last thing you’ll want to do on the fourth attempt at a tricky section is creep around agonizingly slowly, picking off guards one-by-one; and by forcing this kind of annoying repetition, the game is essentially ruining its best bits.
You’re probably already aware of Morphine mode – where Violette runs around slowly in an uncomfortably bloody nightie, essentially bagging a free kill – and it’s an interesting addition, once you get your head around the concept. We feared it would completely break the game, but as you’re limited to one syringe at a time it’s a good way to let off steam during more frustrating encounters. The game’s other gimmicks – pulling the pin off a soldier’s grenade, turning him into a walking bomb; disguising yourself as an enemy officer; setting fire to a convenient patch of oil – are also inventive and fun, although they never really feel integrated into the action when the time arrives.
Despite our reservations about the plot, we had an entertaining time with Velvet Assassin. It never hits the highs of the average Hitman mission, but the game’s palpable atmosphere, and solid sneaking mechanics, should satisfy anyone suffering from stealth-deprivation – and help keep your mind off the agonizing wait until Agent 47, Sam Fisher and Garrett finally emerge from the gloom.
May 26, 2009