Velvet Assassin is a stealth action game that's loosely based on the real-life World War II Allied secret agent, Violette Szabo, who was captured and later executed by the Nazis.
That's not a spoiler, though, because the game has only two things in common with Szabo's life: the setting and the first name of the main character, Violette Summers. Beyond that, the game swaps out "secret agent" for "assassin," and revolves entirely around Summers taking out various fictitious versions of real-life people – something that likely never would have happened in real life because the Feminist movement didn't kick in ‘til the 60s.
Despite these creative interpretations on actual history, however, German developer Replay Studios says that Velvet Assassin strives to provide a grittier, more realistic look at what Europe was like during WWII than you'd get in other games set on the front lines. The developer also makes it a point to emphasise the stealth gameplay over action, reminding you constantly that Summers isn't a burly soldier or a gadget-supported spy. She's just an average woman caught up in a bad war.
Loved Moody Atmosphere: Velvet Assassin makes excellent use of dynamic lighting, edgy music, colour contrast and dead bodies of civilians to create levels that put you on edge. The Warsaw Ghetto level in particular creates a sense of surreal horror as Violette creeps through empty streets in broad daylight, past ruined furniture dragged or thrown from houses during Nazi raids. The primary colours in this level are orange and grey, which lulls the eye so that when Violette does come upon a dead body – like a child sprawled beside a hole in where he had obviously crawled to escape – the bloody bullet holes are like a slap in the face.
Implicit Feminism in Character Design: Violette Summers might not be a real woman, but her character model could pass for one. In addition to her realistically proportioned hips and bust, she also has muscles in her upper back that a woman really would develop from stabbing things over and over again. And aside from the dominatrix look she gets from donning the SS uniform in some missions, Summers is relatively under-sexed by modern video game standards which makes it easier to take the game seriously.
Collectibles and Secret Mission Objectives: Velvet Assassin a linear game, but it has a role-playing game element plus side missions in each level that give you more to do and reward you with Achievements. The RPG element comes through collectibles – finding them in levels nets you experience points that you can put toward upgrading Summers' stealth, strength or morphine capacity. These stats can have a dramatic impact on gameplay, but it doesn't unbalance the difficulty. The best collectibles worth the most XP usually come from the secret missions you stumble over in levels. For example, in a prison level, the main objective is to deliver a cyanide pill to a captured spy. Careful exploration of the level gives the player the opportunity to not only silence the spy but also assassinate the prison warden for an Achievement and a collectible worth a lot of XP.
Stealth Challenge: When the game gets it right, the stealth gameplay in Velvet Assassin is really challenging and incredibly satisfying. Each room in every level is like a puzzle; the pieces are the lighting, the Nazis' position and the options for killing Nazis. The lighting is a major piece and the most realistic because if any light is touching any part of Summers' body, she's not "in cover" even when crouching behind a wall of crates. The second major piece is less realistic: the Nazis follow a set path that you can divert them from by whistling to lure them toward you. The least realistic but most awesome piece of the puzzle is the killing part: you can shoot puddles of oil Nazis happen to be standing in to set them on fire, pull the pin on a Nazi's grenade let him blow himself up or just sneak up behind him and press A when the option comes up to perform any one of Summers' stealth kills – including the rare and infamous taint-stab. Usually, there's more than a few ways to get the job done and it can be pretty fun to figure out which one is the most efficient or kills the fewest Nazis. When you pull off whatever you decide to do – and when the game doesn't sabotage you – it makes you feel like a ninja. A very small womanly ninja with a bad haircut.
Hated It's Broken Eight Ways From Sunday: Velvet Assassin has a lot of bugs. Aside from the occasional hard lock, the game also has a severe saving problem where it can't keep track of your last checkpoint. It doesn't delete your progress, but you'll load up the game and choose "Resume Campaign" and it starts you at the beginning of the last level you were in instead of the last checkpoint halfway through that level that you reached. Or you'll be in a level, die and select the option to go back to the last checkpoint and the game will drop you at a checkpoint in a level you already beat. To resolve the issue, you have to quit out, select Load Game and go through the randomly sorted list of saves to find the right one (keep track of how many hours you've been playing – it's the only way to tell some of the saves apart). Other bugs include Nazis getting stuck in walls or the ceiling, which really sucks when the game teleports them behind you as it struggles to resolve the mapping issue. The camera will swing behind shrubbery or obstacles so you can't see where you're going. The subtitled German dialog is poorly localised so it doesn't read like natural English. And in one particularly frustrating bug, the guards on a lower level of a mess hall were somehow alerted to Summers' presence when she peeked into the room through a keyhole on the second story – but not when she opened the door and just walked into the room.
Deliberately Sabotaging Stealth: Several levels in the game devolve into shootouts by design. You can tell these sections apart from normal stealth sections because the game suddenly provides you with a shotgun, a sniper rifle and/or an assault rifle and enough ammo to get you through a zombie apocalypse. After all the time you spend sneaking in levels and putting experience points into the stealth stat—because it's supposed to be a stealth game—these sections make it feel like the game is spitting on you. With bullets.
Nazis With Flamethrowers: I can't tell if these enemies are buggy or just designed to be unfair – but they can see twice as far as in the dark than their regular Nazi counterparts despite wearing thick masks. They have a range that spans like half a city block and they can somehow still torch you even when their flamethrowers aren't pointed at you. Easily the most frustrating enemy of the game.
Maybe a Little TOO Moody for Some: The dialog between NPCs and monologues contained in letters you can pick up throughout levels to fill in back story ranges from inane ("You stole my chocolate bar, you sheiskopf!") to overwrought ("My Dearest so-and-so; Do not mourn me, I am already dead inside…"). It appealed to me, but only because I found it funny and the over-long conversations between Nazis made for good sneaking opportunities. Likely, the macabre tone of some of the speeches combined with the increasing angst Summers expresses throughout the game will probably get on a lot of peoples' nerves – especially if they're not fond of assassins waxing philosophical about death on the battlefield.
The Ending: It is bad, it makes you feel bad and it doesn't make a lot of sense.
I liked this game. It's flawed and it's frustrating; but when the stealth gameplay worked, it pushed me outside my action/shooter comfort zone in a good way. There were a handful of times when I felt proud of myself for getting through a room or even a whole level without having to use the game's morphine mode to slow down time for an instant kill; and it was fun to unlock new Achievements like "Gotta Light?" for shooting 10 Nazis with a flare gun. Plus, I'm a woman so I identified with Summers more easily than with burly male characters in other war games.
Sadly, though, I can't recommend Velvet Assassin. It's broken and it abandons stealth for shootouts far too often to maintain the realism claim that would set the game apart from average World War II games. To me, it's a fantasy where a woman character can be powerful and compelling without magic powers and huge tits. But that fantasy doesn't hold up against real life. In real life, spies run away, the actual Butcher of Paris survived WWII to be pardoned for his crimes, Violette Szabo died a horrible death and Velvet Assassin isn't worth the money.
Velvet Assassin was developed by Replay Studios and published by SouthPeak Games, released April 28 in North America and May 21 in Australia for the Xbox 360. Retails for $US60/AU$100. Completed campaign on normal difficulty, unlocked 30 out of 45 Achievements, maxed out the Stealth stat.