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Velvet Assassin [360]

Such high hopes for this one. Velvet Assassin was to be a World War 2 game that’s neither an FPS nor an RTS, but a stealth game. It was relived in flashback, with a morphine mechanic to give you more freedom in play style and get you out of tight spots. More than that, it was based on the life of Violette Szabo, a rather under-appreciated British agent who helped sort out the French resistance and assisted with D-Day before being captured, tortured, raped, and executed. Such high hopes, and yet it succeeds at exactly none of these things. Velvet Assassin is a broken game. The idea is that, as Violette Summer, players go on a series of missions ranging from sabotage to assassination, in which they sneak around in shadows, dispatch Nazis, and Save the Free World. What this usually entails is hiding in shadows, being spotted from far away, being shot, and then reloading a checkpoint five or six rooms back. Initial impressions are actually fairly good. Graphically, the game is quite stunning, and whoever worked on the art style deserves praise. The lighting effects are excellent, and the faint purple glow to indicate when Violette is hidden fits well with the slightly stylised look of the game. Voice acting is adequate and authentic, with the Nazis speaking German that from what I can tell is subtitled quite accurately, and the musical score adds a lot to the atmosphere. Early kills let you sneak up on opponents without much difficulty, and stab them to death in a short in-game cinematic which, in terms of violence, is often vaguely reminiscent of Manhunt. One in particular features your hapless opponent being viciously and frantically stabbed in the chest over a dozen times while they lie prone on the ground. I understand that Violette’s husband and family were killed by the Germans, but damn, the girl has problems. Then you go towards the first building and teleport through the door when you try to use it. This is weird. There are no loading times here. Some doors can be opened normally (but not closed, which you’d think is a bit of an oversight in a game revolving around staying out of sight.) Others, despite the lack of loading times, basically teleport you into a new chunk of the level. Enemies can’t actually follow you through these either, which amusingly lets you pop out, take a few pot shots at guards, and then run back in again and wait for the search parties to wander back to their patrols. Or at least, you could if you had any ammo, because Violette is sent into the most heavily fortified Nazi strongholds with a knife and, occasionally, a silenced pistol containing seven shots. This would be less infuriating if ammo wasn’t implausibly scarce, or the gun aiming wasn’t incredibly twitchy with a dreadful dead zone on the analogue sticks. You can’t scavenge ammunition or weapons from felled enemies, which would be understandable in the stealth context (no noisy weapons) were it not that you can use these weapons. Hell, you can use flare guns. You just have to find them in lockers, which is also the only place you can get ammo for them. When you’re using the exact same weapons as your enemies, this again feels like an oversight – presumably for balance purposes – but in terms of creating a stealth game that’s based on reality and was intended to be somewhat realistic, I wasn’t aware that Nazis glued their f**king weapons to their hands. The most egregious example comes towards the end of the game when one mission objective is along the lines of “Get a weapon at all costs”. Because you can’t rob the dead (except for keys, letters, and other trinkets, which we’ll get onto) Violette gives stabby death to about 30 heavily-armed soldiers before you find the locker containing the gun which Violette can magically use, despite being the exact same machine gun the enemy soldiers are using.
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Keys, letters, and other trinkets, then. Velvet Assassin has a fixation on locked doors, which require keys to open as British agents are too polite to pick locks. This is yet again a videogame mechanic shunted in, and playing Hunt-the-Key has never been fun. In this case, it’s there to make sure you kill every Nazi in the area, because they’re almost always the ones holding them. Letters, on the other hand, are there to point out that not all Nazi soldiers were hideously evil, and some were just doing the job they had. Which would be understandable were it not that for one; you have to kill pretty much every Nazi in the game, and for two; you rarely see the other side, with almost no acts of horrendous violence towards anyone other than Nazis up until the last few missions of the game. I doubt I’m the only one who felt slightly uncomfortable after completing a mission only to be told that yes, the submarines were sunk, but the bombing run also killed 30,000 innocent civilians. More uncomfortable still when one of the enemies killed had just penned a letter to his girlfriend telling her that he couldn’t abide what we has being asked to do anymore and he loved her very much. The plot, such as it is, is that the game is told in flashback, with Violette lying comatose on a hospital bed. The missions are her past exploits, and during them, you occasionally get flashes back to the hospital room with people discussing what to do with her. These tend to crop up at the worst possible times, mid-mission, with no warning whatsoever, and are largely pointless as the real plot only kicks in when you arrive at the penultimate mission. The flashback basis does give way to the morphine mechanic which, honestly, is quite a nice touch. At any given point that you have morphine, which despite its medical uses is still lying around slightly more regularly than I’d expect, you can tap a button to go into a morphine mode. Violette’s model shifts to her nightdress-wearing hospital form, the screen goes white and blurry, and all enemies are frozen for a short time. In this mode, you can perform stealth kills from any direction, and it’s a nice way of picking off a particularly troublesome guard whose patrol intersects too regularly with the others. It doesn’t function so much as a Get Out Of Jail Free card, as it only allows for one murder (although it can be used to get further away.) It’s more for making difficult groups of enemies easier. The fundamental flaw, though, is in the stealth mechanics, and the way they interplay with everything else. They usually work serviceably – or they would, if the game didn’t keep changing the rules on you. Sometimes, areas previously clear will mysteriously fill up with new enemies, with no prior warning. The first time this happened I assumed it was a bug, but no, there are scripted respawns which are so rare it feels unfair to walk out of a room and immediately be spotted. At times the game becomes a shooter, which doesn’t work thanks to the arsey aiming. At times guards will spot you from miles away when they shouldn’t. Guards routinely have scripted conversations that are entertaining the first time you hear them, but are occasionally hampered by the script, such as one conversation on the very first mission in which one guard complains that another just spat on his face – while they’re both wear gas masks. It’s worth noting that the first time you hear them won’t be the last, either, because there’s no manual save and checkpoints occur every five or six rooms. With gun controls the way they are and escape from enemies who’ve spotted you almost impossible in the tight, linear areas, being spotted generally results in death, which results in a reload ten minutes back. If there’s a conversation or two in the way, then you’re going to have to sit through them again because guards facing each other are, obviously, impossible to stealth kill. Amusingly, guards being alerted to your presence doesn’t necessarily make them immune to the backstab. A tactic I began employing towards the end was to run at them, and run behind them to get a stealth kill while they turned around. This sometimes even felt necessary as guards move too quickly for you to catch up when they’re patrolling, and while there’s an experience system in play that lets you increase certain attributes, I never really noticed the one that increases your movement speed while sneaking actually making a difference. Even with you start to understand the occasionally Byzantine stealth mechanics, Velvet Assassin is a broken and unpolished game, with a few bugs scattered around for good measure. Good graphics and sound can’t make up for a stealth game that lacks some of the most minor touches we’ve come to expect, like the ability to shut doors, or slightly more open areas. If you’ve already played Thief, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, and Hitman, then play them again, as this isn’t even worth it on a rainy weekend.

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