Past its fancy name and glamorous lead, Velvet Assassin is essentially all about sneaking. It's a game about lurking in the shadows--silent killing, dragging bodies, hiding in closets, and reloading your game after you've been spotted and gunned down by the guards. Like its World War II setting, the stealth gameplay also echoes the past. But is this a past worth remembering?
Inspired by the true-to-life story of allied agent Violette Szabo, Velvet Assassin casts you as protagonist Violette Summer, a deadly female spy tasked with killing Nazis behind enemy lines in World War II. As you'd expect, you'll embark on a series of missions to hamper Germany's war effort, but there's a key twist. Your missions are actually Violette's memories of the war, recalled as she lies dying in a hospital bed. Though the missions are not always well-connected, the setup provides an interesting and thoughtful take on the subject matter. Though there's not that much to it in the end, the story does have some emotional power.
There's no question about it: this is a sneaking mission. Velvet Assassin revolves around trial-and-error. Your primary concern is to move point-to-point in order to reach your next objective, and enemies in your way will need to be eliminated. Remaining undetected is absolutely crucial. Unless you're prepared for a battle, getting spotted will get you killed unless you have a convenient escape route or a morphine fix to see you through. Hidden objects in each level do provide side goals, but there are no additional modes and no chapter select feature to revisit past areas. The game is tightly focused on presenting puzzle-like situations with ideal solutions, and you're given a few tools to change things up.
Environmental interactions, like breaking fuse boxes or electrifying water, supplement your basic sneaking. Guns or sexy Nazi disguises you find can present an alternate approach or prep you for a forced action section. Morphine injections are a doctor-prescribed cheat-serum that can help bail you out of poorly-timed firefights with their surreal dreamlike god mode. Though the guns and drugs don't mesh all that well with the stealth gameplay, the variety is still an overall positive for the game.
So how exactly does a velveteen killer operate? Violette can toggle between sneaking and non-sneaking postures, and you'll need to keep quiet and still to avoid detection. A purple hue around your character lets you know you're hidden, and although overt action isn't usually your best choice, you can freely aim over the shoulder with whatever weapon you have equipped.
Though the sneaking is fairly fluid, the aiming and shooting mechanics aren't quite as slick. It's easy to line up the first shot, but after your enemies start responding, it's immediately clear that Velvet Assassin isn't designed as a shooter. Certain sections of the game flat-out force gunplay, so you'll need to make each shot count. You're almost always outgunned, so you can expect to reload your game fairly frequently and feel a good deal of relief once you finally make it through a major firefight.
While certain tactics are natural and necessary to sneaking your way through the game, you're very limited as to what you can and can't interact with. For instance, while guards aren't very bright, they all carry guns that they'll use on you with ruthless German efficiency. Meanwhile, Violette won't use anything that didn't come out of a conveniently-placed locker-including the weapons that her fallen enemies were carrying.
This very same absurd videogame logic also keeps you from shooting out lights and hopping over foot-high barbed wire fences. There's no in-game justification for these limitations, which can be interpreted as either as a misguided adherence to the game's sneaking focus, or plain laziness on the part of the developer. But for better or worse, it does keep the focus on sneaking.
Given how unforgiving it is, you'll also notice a good deal of repetition. Simply put, losing hurts. The game is very linear, your enemies run through their limited routines like clockwork, and until you finally make it to that distant checkpoint, you'll find yourself repeating the same steps over and over. Being forced to kill the same three guys repeatedly is no fun, nor is waiting for a lengthy conversation between Nazis to play out for the twelfth time. In Velvet Assassin, failure is time-consuming and frustrating. But at least the atmosphere is nice.
Velvet Assassin isn't cutting edge by any means, but the game's major strength is its excellent artistic design. You'll certainly appreciate Violette's varied kill animations, but the game's distinctive lighting style and sound design are what give each area a unique feel. The heroine's voice conveys believable emotion, and enemy soldiers speak real subtitled German, showing far more characterization than your average videogame Nazi. Where some games paint war as an awesome experience, Velvet Assassin succeeds in making it feel uncomfortable. And while running through a battlefield in a Morphine-induced haze is a bit odd, the effect does look kind of cool.
Velvet Assassin is a straightforward stealth game that's capable of scratching a particular type of sneaky itch for many players, but also feels slightly dated and accomplishes little that hasn't been done before and done better. While it has slightly more opportunities for gunplay than other straight sneak-'em-ups, it isn't particularly well-tuned for action. It's tough to recommend on its gameplay merits alone, but the look and feel of the game world will make the adventure worthwhile for some. Velvet Assassin isn't quite as smooth as its name, but by no means is it a disgrace.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.