Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Replay Studios
Review Date: 5/14/10
I'm not a fan of war games, nor am I a fan of stealth games. What sets "Velvet Assassin" apart is that it was inspired by a real life spy named Violette Szabo, who served Great Britain during World War II. Of course, "inspired by" simply means that it's a WWII game featuring a female lead, and it has nothing to do with the real Ms. Szabo. In reality, Violette Szabo was one of fifty-five female agents who were members of Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE), a top secret military organization dedicated to espionage, sabotage, and armed resistance. She completed her first mission successfully, but was captured by the Germans on her second mission after a fierce firefight. She was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the Nazi's a year later.
The main character of the game is a British female agent named Violette Summer, who finds herself badly wounded in a French hospital bed while two men discuss her fate. The majority of the game plays out as a flashback of her previous missions and the events that brought her to this place. It's an interesting narrative device, but it doesn't do much to enhance the story. If anything, the surreal moments in between missions just end up confusing the player. In her fever dreams, you guide Violette through various missions that include sabotaging fuel depots, assassinating German officials, and even sneaking into a Gestapo prison to kill a captured agent so that he doesn't talk under duress. It's all pretty grim stuff, and the game does an excellent job of rendering a dark and realistic World War II environment. Darkness is Violette's greatest ally, and she has to sneak through every mission without getting detected. Once you get spotted, it's pretty much game over unless you can evade your trigger happy pursuers long enough for them to lose interest in you. The patterns of the enemy soldiers are very rigid and predictable, which turns the game into a giant environmental puzzle. How can you get from point A to point B without being seen? While the gameplay is very linear, there are variations to how you can meet your objectives. Silent kills are encouraged and rewarded, but Violette can also use firearms, electricity, explosives, poisonous gas, and grenades to get the job done. Sometimes you can just avoid the enemy altogether. The game encourages exploration in the form of collectibles that you can find. These add up to experience points which you can use to upgrade Violette's abilities.
The strangest gameplay element is the use of morphine. During all of the flashback missions, Violette can use morphine to make her invincible for a short period of time in order to perform particularly difficult feats. The explanation for this is that the morphine is being administered externally in response to her stressing out over a difficult memory that she's reliving. While this doesn't really make any sense, it's just another tool that you have at your disposal if you need it. I didn't find it to be overly distracting, but it's definitely at odds with the otherwise realistic presentation.
Speaking of presentation, "Velvet Assassin" excels at it. The game is absolutely gorgeous and the real-time lighting effects are outstanding. The environments are beautifully detailed and very immersive. The atmosphere is consistently tense and foreboding, and the evidence of war lurks around every corner. The character models and animation are excellent and Violette is a stunning heroine. Melinda Cohen's voice work is superb and does a great job of defining and expressing Violette's character. I only noticed one spot where she briefly slipped out of her British accent and used an American pronunciation, but otherwise her performance is right on the mark. The intense stealth action remains satisfying throughout the entire game, and I never grew tired of watching Violette's ruthlessly violent silent kill animations. The stealth element works well in the WWII setting because there's no high tech equipment or electronic surveillance to deal with. It's just shadows and soldiers. The ambient music also plays a huge role in setting the emotional tone, and is appropriately tense and moody.
Even on the easy setting the game can be quite challenging and frustrating, and my biggest complaint is that save points tend to be spaced too far apart. This means that if you mess up, you'll be playing through the same pieces over and over, which can be very annoying and time consuming. However, I found the character and the setting to be so compelling and enjoyable that I would keep coming back to try again. The difficulty ramps up considerably towards the end, when Violette wakes up from her morphine induced stupor and has to escape the German soldiers that are descending upon her sanctuary. The focus shifts more towards shoot-outs, which puts Violette at a serious disadvantage (unless you're really fast and accurate when it comes to manual aiming). I finally had to give up at the very end because of the overwhelming odds against me, leaving me with unanswered questions about Ms. Summer's fate. Based on the rest of the game, I doubt there's a happy ending.