Velvet Assasin Review
An interesting take on WWII not often seen
Velvet Assassin is a stealth action video game that was released in April 2009. The game is inspired by a real life World War II secret agent/saboteur Violette Szabo. Players take on the role of Violette Summer, as she goes behind enemy lines to thwart the German war machine and eliminate various murderers and commanders. It was developed by Replay Studios and Southpeak Games, both being lower-budget studios. So for some, the game will definitely seem to be lacking polish and perfection that comes with big game studios. However, it’s also much better than to be called a “small budget production”. For those looking for stealth gameplay, and even some action, this is definitely a game worth looking into.
As mentioned earlier, the story of the game is loosely based on the chronicles of a real WWII assassin, Violette Szabo. If you wish to do some research while playing the game, you will find that the devs did put an effort into recreating some of her personality and looks, but of course a lot of the facts are missing and had to be creatively filled. The story told in the game is done so via flashbacks. At present, Violette is lying in a hospital bed while two mysterious men decide her faith across the room. She can hear what they are saying, but is powerless to do anything. They are not German though, so she feels no immediate threat. Violette then falls into one of her memories about a particular mission, and that’s where the gameplay begins. You play as Violette, carrying out her various missions as she remembers them. Each mission consists of a few chapters, and overall the game lasts a good 7 or more hours, depending on how much you wish to explore. There isn’t much to explore though, as the game is very much linear. You are often tasked with doing some side-tracking before progressing, but overall it’s a straight path to the end target. You will navigate many various underground bunkers, but there are plenty outdoor missions as well. The overall story is actually quite well done, and not as cliché as some may expect. Most of Velvet Assassin is a disturbing look at the events of WWII, not often seen in games, especially in the non-FPS genre.
The gamepaly shares many similarities with Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Thief, and the Hitman series, all kind of mixed together. Being an assassin means you will spend much of the game waiting in the shadows, plotting the enemy’s patrols and striking when it is safe to do so. There are no gameplay innovations here, but what mechanics are there, work ok for the most part. You start out each mission equipped with your trusty dagger and sometimes a pistol with 7 shots. From there, it’s up to you to decide how to get past the bad guys. For the majority of the time, it’s the safest to take out the enemies one by one, rather than try to sneak by without killing anyone. The kill animations do really stand-out, there is a lot of them and they are all creatively violent and satisfying kills. Violette can then drag the bodies into the shadows and away from patrols, though that’s optional. Leaving a body for a guard to find will cause him to bend over and investigate the cause of death, giving you a chance to take him out as well. Violette can also whistle, which will cause any guards within earshot to come and look around the area. If they fail to find you, they return to their patrol path or stationary position. All of these elements are pretty standard. The most important element in sneaking games, the light system, is done moderately well. During the underground sections, the light plays a big role in your survival and enemy alertness level. If they see a part of you, they will come to investigate. If you appear fully lit though, they will just start unloading bullets. The light is often sharp and shows clearly when the darkness ends. Another indication of being hidden is Violette’s icon being highlighted in purple. That same icon will have no outline if you are in the light, and will glow red if an enemy spotted you. Oftentimes, when you encounter a new area with enemies, a couple of them will go through a short conversation before begging their patrols. This gives you the chance to take out a guard that’s not involved in the convo, or to kill some lights in the area. Their chat is translated at the bottom of the screen, and you get some insight into the enemy’s state of mind.
Being of mixed genres, the game does offer a few cool and unique features. One of these is the Morphine. Lying around the levels are morphine shots, of which you can carry only one at a time. If you are ever in a tough situation, you can hit the morphine mode and crazy things happen. The world turns black and white, with red flower pedestals falling around you. You enter a state of memory alteration, if you will, and this allows you to freely move around the level for a short time. You move slower than usual, and the effect doesn’t last for very long, so it’s best used just to get behind an enemy. When it ends, you are back to normal form and in your new location. The guards do not see you during morphine mode, so the use of the mode is simple to understand. You can also take out the guard in this mode, but doing so will cause the effect to end right away, so if there is more than one guard in the area, they will likely notice you. As cool and seemingly useful as the effect is, I actually only used it maybe once or twice the entire game. Just did not have the need for it, I guess. Another cool element of the gameplay is your ability to change clothes into a German officer. This change can only happen during very specific parts of the level (further adding to the linearity of the game). In this case, you are free to roam around, but you must not approach any of the enemies, otherwise they recognize you and call the alarm. You have an indicator of how close you are to an enemy, so these gameplay sections are relatively easy to pull off. Most of the time, you are unfortunately unable to choose between switching outfits or rather continuing on as an assassin, because there are likely too many enemies in the next area for you to handle as a killer. You also can’t perform any physical kills while dressed up, as your German shoes squeak so you’re unable to sneak up on anyone. The last element of the gameplay is broken glass, which will make noise even if you sneak across it. The glass is found rarely, and often forces you to plan your attack carefully or find another route.
As a middle-of-the-road budgeted game, Velvet Assassin does a lot of things right to make it fun and playable, but at the same time some elements of the game show lack of polish and can cause frustrating and at the same time hilarious situations. Sometimes the enemies become alert for exposing very small part of your body. You also alert all guards in the whole (often large) already if you headshot just one of them, in the shadows. They instantly swarm your location (rather than the location of the dead body) and often this results in your death or a shootout. Speaking of death, you have rather low amounts of health, so just a few shots from the enemy will take you down. There are often med packs found lying around the area and on dead bodies though, so you won’t be dying that much. You can also upgrade Violette’s abilities; here the game becomes somewhat random. You can only gain experience for Upgrades by finding various artefacts scattered around the level and hidden somewhat well. This means that exploration, not skill of making kills, is the requirement for getting better. I completed the game having only found enough items for 6 upgrade stars total. The game allows you to get up to 20 stars, so I missed quite a few items, and a chance to make the game easier. You can upgrade Violette in 3 areas, Health – how much damage you can take before death, Sneaking – how fast you move while crouched, and Firepower – how much damage you can dish out with weapons. It makes most sense to spend the majority of your experience into the sneaking speed, as it’s the most useful of the 3 paths.
During the game, you will encounter many lockers, and these often contain another type of pistol (such as flare gun), some ammo for your current pistol, or a shotgun/rifle. These definitely come in handy at times during the missions. But at the end of the mission, these actually become a requirement. The devs made a decision, and every level in the game ends with a shootout, where stealth is not an option due to all enemies already being alert and looking for your location, and often because you are on a timer. The timer is actually used fairly, often it’s a bomb ticking that you’ve planted, not a cheap gameplay gimmick. The last level of the game is completely free of sneaking, but at least you are not on a timer. During these sections, stealth fans may be frustrated because they didn’t want to buy a third person shooter, or at least want an option to sneak past in your escape. Unfortunately, that option is not available, so beware. During these forced action sequences, you get to finally use the big guns and take out the baddies. The gunplay is passable, though there is a bit too much recoil. For a lady that can take out large German guards with a few knife stabs, and then drag their bodies around, you’d think Violette was strong enough to handle an automatic weapon without getting so much recoil. But, if you use controlled bursts, the shooting is fine.
On the technical side, the game looks good. There are not many low-res textures, and some of the outdoor environments really stand out. Light, an important part of the genre, works great and most of the shadows are sharp and noticeable. Character models of the enemies are often repeated, except for the main characters, but that’s not a big deal. Violette is designed with care and detail, and definitely looks good, with or without clothes. The game runs smoothly maxed out even on medium strength specs, however there is a re-occurring issue of some small screen-tearing when you look around, especially in outdoor areas. It’s noticeable, but not game breaking or annoying. The sound design is top-class, as music often changes depending on how alert the enemy is, and what level you are in. The voice acting is quite good also, though maybe not historically accurate. Violette holds the narration well, and you get to hear a lot of German as well via the guards’ conversations.
If you are a stealth fan, Velvet Assassin is not without its faults. Some bugs that arise during the game may keep some people away, but that’s the cost you have to accept for having a limited-budget game on your hands. Most of the time though, the game is free of frustration and just takes some patience and timing. Since the last stealth game on PC, Splinter Cell Double Agent, was one of the worst in the genre, many have been starved for a good sneaking experience. If that’s the case, you will find that you dismiss many of the small issues in Velvet Assassin and simply enjoy yourself while we wait for Splinter Cell Conviction to revive the genre.