Although the mountain of games that are produced seemingly on a weekly basis would have you believe otherwise, World War II wasn't entirely about massive battles between armies, stopping Hitler's search for occult items or sending a one-man wrecking crew to win the war by himself. There were plenty of secret agents, resistance fighters and other soldiers that contributed to bringing down the Third Reich. Take, for example, Violette Szabo, a British secret agent decorated for her service during the war. Replay Studios and SouthPeak Games, inspired by her story, created Velvet Assassin, a stealth action title that places players deep behind enemy lines to wreak havoc on the German army. Unfortunately, a weak story and very inconsistent stealth elements severely hinders the gameplay.
The story of Velvet Assassin is told from a flashback perspective, and introduces players to Violette Summer, a British secret agent who is frequently sent behind enemy lines. Unfortunately for her, the game starts out with a tragic turn of events: Violette has been badly injured and is trying to recover in a remote French hospital. As she lies in a coma, she remembers many of her previous missions, where she would be dispatched to destroy key installations or assassinate German officers. For the most part, the story sequences are threadbare – briefings for her missions are displayed via a few photographs which animate as she explains what she needs to do. But these are extremely short, lasting around thirty seconds each. There are very few details on why she's in the hospital or why she feels the need to explain or recount her adventures. It's only within the last mission do you get filled in on certain elements of the backstory, but this is too little too late. As a result, the story doesn't really make any sense, and it could have been told normally without the flashbacks, moving from one mission to the next. While this would change the morphine mechanic (which I'll get to later), it would make much more sense than the cluttered tale as it currently exists.
Story potholes aside, the primary focus of the gameplay is around stealth as you attempt to infiltrate enemy installations and bases. To aid you in this goal, a colored silhouette is placed at the bottom left of the screen. If the silhouette is outlined in purple, Violette is completely obscured from view, allowing her to move silently from place to place and prepare to strike a guard with a stealthy attack from the shadows. As Violette creeps up behind her intended target the screen slowly turns red, giving you an indication of when the best time is to strike. If you manage to pull off the move without anyone seeing you, a killing blow animation will play in response, so you'll see her slitting a throat, slicing tendons or repeatedly plunging her blade into enemies, amongst other brutal strikes.
Clearly, leaving a body lying around will alert any guard that comes across its path, although this can be used as a tactic to isolate and eliminate other soldiers. Violette can also perform a few other stealthy maneuvers to create confusion, such as breaking fuse boxes to cast areas into darkness or whistling to get someone's attention. You'll have to be careful, of course, because the enemy will try their best to detect anything out of the ordinary, such as shattered glass on hallway floors. They'll also search in groups and even turn on flashlights to peer into shadows. Completely blow your cover, and you'll need to either fight or run away as the guards call for backup and shoot at you. This frequently means disappearing into shadows and standing still, hiding in lockers or cabinets, or leaving an area until the alert status drops.
You'd expect with such a high focus on covert maneuvers that the sneaking mechanics would be extremely solid. Unfortunately, the stealth is completely inconsistent in execution. When it works, it's enjoyable, but when it fails, it fails in a big way. This is demonstrated with numerous issues. The first is that the game frequently requires you to be exactly in a specific position to trigger the kill animation. Manage to be off to the side of a soldier by the tiniest hair and you'll not only fail the attempt but will get a burst of gunfire for your effort. A second issue arises in the fact that the shadows don't always conceal you. During one mission, I turned all of the lights out in a room and sat silently in a corner, waiting to see who might walk in front of me. A guard that was probably fifteen feet looked into the darkness (without a flashlight, mind you) and raised the alarm. I reloaded the checkpoint, and magically, the shadows worked the way they were supposed to. This wasn't an isolated incident, in fact, it happened more often than not and forced me to reload multiple times as I worked through each
A third issue, which some might consider to be somewhat minor, is that the stealth action is extremely linear, which can cut down on some of the exploration or creativity of getting through each area. Unlike other stealth games where you can potentially infiltrate an area in multiple ways, giving you a certain amount of flexibility in how you'll advance, there's only one path available to Violette. Taking a non-violent approach or even sneaking past some guards without encountering enemies isn't even really an option because you'll frequently find that doors are locked and the guards have the keys on their body, forcing you to abandon stealth for killing guards. Even this can get to be somewhat frustrating, because at the start of every mission, Violette frequently leaves everything except her knife behind, forcing you to procure weapons in the field. Instead of picking up guns from fallen enemies, you can only acquire pistols, rifles and shotguns from weapons lockers that are conservatively scattered across a map, all of which have limited ammunition. While not particularly armored, many of these guards will take at least two or three bullets to the body before they go down, which can quickly exhaust your rationed supplies and put you in serious danger in firefights. Getting a headshot is key, but it's not nearly as easy as it seems unless you're close up.
The only guaranteed way to eliminate an opponent in battle is to trigger your morphine power, which provocatively places Violette in her negligee and has her running around while enemies are stunned and slowed down, allowing her to kill enemies in front of her without taking damage. Apart from this obvious admission to the supposed flashback premise for the story, there's no explanation why Violette uses the morphine apart from mild titillation, which is shaky at best. This is especially true since once the kill is triggered the animatic shows whatever Violette is wearing in "normal time" instead of the drug haze from the morphine. On top of this, there's a ton of morphine needles lying around sections, so it's possible to run through areas and slaughter guards, then run away, get another fix, and do it again. Plus, if the game needed bullet time, it could've been implemented by the number of stealth kills that Violette commits instead of the drugs she somehow shoots up in her mind, because it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Another issue is that Violette is extremely slow when it comes to her sneaking. In many ways, this pulls into account the leveling up system that the game has, which allows you to increase her stats by collecting items that are scattered about as well as accomplishing secret objectives. Every thousand points that you acquire allows you to augment your stats, letting you boost the duration of your morphine shots, increase the amount of damage you take before dying, or increase your speed when you're sneaking around. However, even with boosting Violette's speed significantly, some guards will just walk faster than she can creep, making some stealthy takedowns extremely difficult. At one point, it was more efficient to actually run, regardless of the noise that Violette made, because I could close the distance between myself and my target and pound on the kill button to still eliminate guards. The success rate was about the same as before, and yet I could move much faster with this method.
Finally, as a quick aside, what's up with essentially ruining the purpose of disguising yourself? At various points in the game, players are given the opportunity to dress up as an SS officer, which allows you to walk amongst guards without instantly attracting attention or getting shot. There are two issues with the disguise, however. The first is that you aren't able to sneak around because the boots you wear make noise. The second is that if you get within a random proximity of a guard or do anything out of the ordinary, your cover is blown. After a while, you'll start to realize that it's sometimes easier to try to take out the guards with your standard methods than walking amongst them because at least that way you have the option to move silently if you need to.
While Violette animates relatively well as she moves and sneaks around, there isn't a lot of fluidity to her movements. In fact, the most natural movement her character model exhibits appears to be within the triggered cutscenes. The Nazi soldiers that she goes up against also tend to move rather robotically, although the curious thing about these guys is that every single one facially looks exactly the same. Either Hitler managed to discover cloning for World War II, or these goons are all related. Flames also look rather bad in the game; in fact, when you run into the flamethrower troops, their attack looks horrible – almost like an orange cone that gets projected towards you. You'll also run into plenty of screen tearing issues, collision detection problems and segments where some soldiers will teleport through objects after getting stuck on environmental items. On top of that, Violette herself will get stuck on certain items, and the camera itself will sometimes have trouble tracking where you are, getting stuck in the environment. You'll also pick up on some slowdown during cinematics. At least the sound is good, and Violette's accent along with the German spoken in the game sounds pretty decent. While I question some of the words used when the Nazis are talking (would they actually say lad, bum or arse? That seems more British than German), it seems like there are good deliveries of lines. The additional use of rising music during detection attempts and key moments also works well.
Velvet Assassin could have been an interesting take on World War II by highlighting a facet of the conflict that's rarely covered by gaming. While it does bring in the secret agent angle, it also brings in a story that's completely thin and unsupported. Even worse, Assassin features flawed stealth action elements that can ruin the gameplay when they go awry, and only point out the hit-or-miss nature of the mechanics when they work well. If you need a stealth action experience, you'll probably want to look elsewhere.