Review: Velvet Assassin (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Velvet Assassin
Genre: Stealth/Action
Developer: Replay Studios/ML Enterprises
Publisher: SouthPeak Games
Release Date: 04/30/09


The stealth action genre, despite being populated with a fairly large amount of titles at this point, is very much a love it or hate it genre in the gaming world. Some people love the idea of spending ten minutes hiding in the shadows waiting for the right opportunity to strike an unsuspecting foe only to slink back into the shadows again. Others hate the fact that your protagonists in these games are made of Kleenex and don’t want to spend hours navigating one stage. Some folks think Thief and Hitman are the feline’s sleepwear, while others think they’re a sleep aid. The best stealth action games are those that manage to be both tense, riveting games of hide and seek AND action-packed thrillers. This is why Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell are widely regarded as “great games”, while Tenchu and Manhunt are more for fans of the genre than anything else. Velvet Assassin fits mostly into the latter category, despite all of the promising things going for it. While it presents an interesting take on the genre and features some neat ideas, a lot of the same problems that have always afflicted the genre afflict the game… as well as some new, unwelcome ones.

Velvet Assassin tells the story of Violette Summer, an operative for the Allies who is tasked with numerous seek and destroy missions against Axis targets of opportunity. The story itself is loosely based on the story of real-life Allied operative Violette Szabo, meaning that the concepts contained in the story are marginally true to life, even if the actual story isn’t. Unfortunately, despite the interesting subject matter and concept, Velvet Assassin rarely does anything more with it than saying, “Here’s a bad person/place/thing, take them/it out” with a little bit of flavor text added on. This sort of thing isn’t specifically bad by itself, but considering that the actual CONCEPT behind the product is pretty interesting, it’s kind of depressing that there is no notable depth or development to the plot at all until the last few chapters, when we begin to realize that there’s more going on than just some reminiscing of missions past. The final stretch of storyline leading to the ending is actually fairly powerful, all in all, but it’s kind of too little too late by that point. While the concept and execution are mostly quite good, a little more development early on would have done wonders for the experience.

Visually, Velvet Assassin looks good, but not great. The game environments are well rendered and realistic, and the character models are well skinned and look nice in motion. The game also makes good use of light sourcing and effects, which is important for a game where your character uses the shadows to survive. However, fire effects aren’t particularly impressive, the game occasionally has problems with enemies glitching in the environment (alive or dead). While buildings and vehicles look nice, the various weeds and other such flora you hide in don’t quite look like one would expect. Aurally, the game fares a little better, as it sounds quite believable and appropriate from start to finish. The music is, as one would expect, mostly composed of a dramatic rolling orchestral score (because it’s WWII), but the score manages to avoid feeling generic by shifting in intensity depending on whether or not Violette has been discovered. This helps to improve the ambience of the experience. The voice acting is also quite solid, if not spectacular, and the sound effects sound very true-to-life and fitting.

The control design of Velvet Assassin can essentially be summed up as “Hitman, in World War II, with a female protagonist”, although this is a bit unfair in practice. You’ll be dropped into a locale with a general idea of your mission and how to go about accomplishing it, and then you’ll have to figure out the particulars yourself. As you’d expect, the particulars of each mission amount to “sneak around a lot” and “wipe out lots of bad guys”, and Violette is reasonably prepared to accomplish both of these tasks. You start out each mission with whatever equipment Violette thought to bring with her (usually her knife and a gun of some type), and from there you have to sneak and kill your way to your destination. The controls themselves are mostly standard fare: the left stick moves, the right stick looks around, and you’re given a button to toggle sneaking as needed to stealthily creep about the surroundings. Violette also carries around a flashlight for investigating the darkness, when needed, which can be flipped on or off at the press of a button, and she can jump small gaps and crawl through holes as required to get around.

A good portion of the experience is spent stalking and killing any and every soldier in your path from the shadows, and Velvet Assassin offers enough ways to get the job done to be entertaining. By default, you’ll spend most of your time sneaking up behind a target and pressing A to silently dispatch them, though as the game progresses, you’ll find more interesting ways to accomplish this task. Sniping enemies from long range with a head shot is, of course, a viable tactic when one has an implement with which to do this (most stages start Violette off with a silenced pistol to accomplish this very thing), but you’ll also be able to shoot puddles of oil to set enemies alight, pull the pin from a soldier’s grenade to make him into a mobile time bomb, shoot up poison barrels to gas the enemies, and other fun stuff. She can also hide in cabinets and dress up in SS uniforms to fool the opposition or sneak past heavily defended areas. Aside from having access to all sorts of useful killing implements, Violette also has access to “Morphine”, which gives her a temporary edge against the odds. The idea here is that all of the missions presented are happening in Violette’s mind as she remembers them, so when you enable her Morphine, it distorts the memory, essentially allowing her to move around as time stops. This is useful in a number of different ways, as it allows Violette to move and act unhindered by reality. This means she can use this to run across a well-lit area without being spotted, or to run up on a soldier and slice up his sweetbread without him having a chance to react, or to run away from danger when spotted, and so on. Morphine is limited in quantity, though, making it a commodity that should be used sparingly and when needed, not abused. Violette can also collect novelties and treasures, dubbed “Collectibles”, as she progresses through each area. Collecting these items earns her Experience Points, as does accomplishing hidden objectives within each area. Once enough points are earned, Violette levels up and can devote a point to upgrading one of three abilities: Morphine, which increases the time Morphine is active, Stealth, which allows her to move faster while sneaking, and Strength, which allows her to take more damage before expiring.

You’ll need the help, mind you, because the Axis armies won’t take your efforts lying down. Obviously, you’ll be sneaking across tactical locations and avoiding detection as best you can, accomplishing whatever goals need doing along the way, but your opposition has no intention of making this easy for you. Soldiers often watch each other’s blind spots, meaning stealth and strategy will be required to make it through locations in one piece. The enemies also use other tricks to make things difficult, including covering obvious walkways with broken glass (which you can’t sneak across without making noise), shining spotlights down corridors, electrifying fences and puddles, and other problematic traps for you to avoid. You can turn the tables on the enemies and use some of these traps to your advantage, but others will simply require you to avoid them or disable them, which can often be a tense adventure by itself. The core product is about ten to twelve hours long, depending on your ability and whether or not you hunt for goodies, and you can go back to the campaign to unlock more experience points and Achievements as you wish. There are also a couple different difficulty levels to run through, depending on how much of a challenge you’re looking for. Your stage performance is also graded at the end of each section in several different ways, allowing you to try and improve your performance if such a thing interests you.

Unless you’re a big fan of stealth gaming, however, it probably won’t. Velvet Assassin, though presented nicely, is fairly bare-bones in execution. In something like Splinter Cell or Tenchu, the stealth mechanics are interspersed with the usage of goofy gadgets and abilities to make progress. Something like Manhunt or Hitman, however, is more straightforward, but compensates for that by offering multiple ways to accomplish a task or, alternatively, visceral brutality that makes the experience more convincing and terrifying. Velvet Assassin eschews these designs and instead opts to present a straightforward experience that’s quite linear, and offers little to no novelty and gadgetry aside from the Morphine gimmick. It also usually only offers one way to accomplish tasks, and in most cases, this is quite boring. A good stealth product will try to keep things interesting by changing up the rules or giving the player new and interesting tools to use or what have you. While Velvet Assassin TRIES to do this, it often fails, partly because most of the creative traps you can spring attract more attention than they’re worth and leave you more vulnerable than simply doing the job yourself would, partly because most of the alternate dispatching methods pop up sporadically at best, and partly because they often don’t work as the product suggests. Here’s an example: in the fourth section, you’re confronted with three guards, two of which pace and one of which is stationary. At this point you’re introduced to the pin-pulling walking bomb trap, which the dialogue implies will see your victim walk into his associates and take them all out. Four repeated attempts at this puzzle showed that this assessment was, in fact, in error. While this would indeed take out the guard HOLDING the grenade, the other two would come away from this little more than annoyed by the resulting explosion, as well as alert to your existence. Again, if the trick worked as expected, it would have been a neat idea that would have been fun to play around with and useful, but since all it seemed to do was draw attention to my silent agent, when said trick was presented to me in the following stage, I didn’t feel particularly comfortable attempting it.

This is further hampered by the enemy AI, which alternates between being swift on the uptake and bone stupid, depending on the circumstances and random chance. Now, to be fair, products of this sort HAVE to rely on presenting your opposition as at least a little dim, if only because NOT doing so often ends with the player frustrated and overpowered. Thus, it makes sense when, say, opposition gets so bored of searching for you that they return to their posts and go back to ignoring you, even if it’s illogical. That said, it isn’t so much that the enemies are stupid as it is that they display random flashes of brilliance that make it hard to know WHAT you’re going to be facing off against. While gradually increasing enemy intelligence is a good thing, intermittent enemy intelligence that’s not in any way expected or consistent is not. So, for instance, having an enemy see you from halfway across the battlefield when you’re behind cover, but not turn around when you take out one his allies RIGHT BEHIND HIM is bad. Having SOME enemies react to you tripping the circuit breaker when others don’t, even at comparable distances, is bad. It also doesn’t help that the enemies are REALLY stupid in most respects. Yes, it’s nice that the enemy reacts when they see your shadow cross their line of sight in a spotlight. No, I don’t expect enemies to specifically notice that their friends have suddenly stopped patrolling their assigned areas, but I kinda do expect that, say, someone might notice if a door randomly swings open in front of them and no one comes in. Or that if they’re looking out the door and a shadow moves into their field of view, that they might be suspicious of this thing. I would also like to think that if one hears an unexpected noise, no matter how faint, two feet behind them, they might turn around and look to see what caused it. These things never happen in Velvet Assassin, which is kind of amusing, considering so many other, similar products do, in fact, do this thing.

There are other annoying quirks to the product that make it less than enjoyable as well. Engaging in a fire fight with enemies is never a good idea, as you’re often outnumbered and you die in two or three hits for a good long while. This is fine, as this is a stealth experience, and actual combat shouldn’t be high on your list of priorities. So, of course, you’re FORCED into these sorts of situations as you progress through the chapters, and as you might expect, they’re outright awful. You can upgrade your Strength and find the occasional bit of body armor to help keep you alive, but even with this sort of assistance you’re still mostly going to get ripped apart like tissue paper in combat. While the forced scenarios are infrequent, they’re unwelcome all the same. This is especially hilarious when one realizes that the first of these sorts of mandatory fire fights doesn’t actually give you a checkpoint BEFORE said event, but instead chooses to place said checkpoint about ten minutes and one fairly boring stealth sequence prior to said fire fight is really only the belligerence icing on the annoyance cake. This is doubly hilarious when one realizes that the last mission of the game ends with ONE GIGANTIC FIRE FIGHT, and no matter how impressive your product, ending the game with the type of gameplay your game does the WORST is not even close to being a good idea. The environments are surprisingly uninteractive and linear, and while being in an enclosed space or being surrounded by electrified barbed wire fencing makes the concept work, being surrounded by knee-high boxes and parked trucks does not. I can’t climb over the box? Or under the truck? While adhering to realism means that you can’t jump ten stories high and survive a rocket in the face, if the player can jump higher and further than the character they’re manipulating, especially if said character is supposed to be a heavily trained professional, that’s kinda sad.

Speaking of an uninteractive environment, it’s also really annoying that you seem to be utterly unable to take out lights unless you hit the circuit breaker, considering you can ACCESS the means to do so fairly easily. It’s understandable that you can’t take out the lights themselves, as most every one you see has a guard over it, so that’s at least mildly explained, even if it’s not entirely sensible. But you can’t cut the wires even if you can see them, nor can you take out the power generator even if you can see it. Really? Why not? One would think wire cutters would be a good piece of equipment for a professional killer to have, considering the circumstances. Even then, lodging a bullet into the generator should be able to take it out easily enough, but no. It also seems particularly stupid that you can’t scavenge gear from the enemies you take out, even though they’re all fairly well armed… unless the game says so, in which case you can. The developers have also apparently never heard of “taking cover”, i.e., pressing yourself up against walls to look around or hide, because Velvet Assassin doesn’t allow you to do that. For that matter, Velvet Assassin doesn’t even tell you how to manually reload. Yes, it’s in the manual. No, it’s not particularly intuitive to press left or right on the D-Pad to reload. Yes, you will have to look in the manual to figure out how to do it. This is not a particularly reasonable thing to do, considering the game tells you how to do everything else, and while that’s not the worst thing in the world if you bought the game, if you rented it and the rental company did not provide said manual? Good luck with that.

Velvet Assassin is really a bit of an unfortunate product, as you can see the good game within trying to bring itself to the surface, but it’s so mired in unfriendly mechanics and archaic design issues that many people may well never find it. The concept is interesting and the product is well presented, and the controls and gameplay are certainly responsive enough to work with. Someone who isn’t interested in stealth gameplay might find the design and mechanics boring, but if you’re a fan of such things, you’ll certainly find some enjoyment in what Velvet Assassin is trying to do, if nothing else. Unfortunately, between the limited options, linear design, sporadic enemy AI, archaic and/or questionable gameplay limitations, and not entirely functional gimmicks, ones patience is tested with the product within the first few hours and many may be turned off altogether. To be honest, Velvet Assassin is a product that is carried almost ENTIRELY by its gimmick, and while said gimmick is honestly interesting and enjoyable, dealing with everything else associated with said gimmick may put off all but the most patient of people.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE
Final Score: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Velvet Assassin is the sort of product that probably would have made a big splash had it come out about ten years ago in its present state, but stealth-based action games have advanced beyond what Velvet Assassin offers, leaving it an amusing but ultimately uninspired experience. As a WWII stealth-action game, it’s fairly unique, and the presentation makes the most of this whenever it can, which makes the experience initially appealing, if nothing else. The mechanics and gameplay are solid enough that anyone can pick up how things work quickly enough, and there are some entertaining gimmicks to keep the game from feeling stale for genre fans. Unfortunately, the design is incredibly linear, the environments are mostly uninteractive, the options the player is given to accomplish their missions are often limited and uninteresting, the AI is sporadic and mostly deficient, and there are a whole slew of small-but-annoying quirks and omissions that render the experience one for the fans only. It’s not so much that Velvet Assassin is bad as it is that it’s underwhelming; given some more polish and time to develop, Velvet Assassin might have been something special, but in the condition it’s in now, it is instead something novel but forgettable.

3 Comments
  1. Mark B.

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