Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Velvet Assassin

Post-Launch Review
Velvet Assassin (PC)
Developer: Replay Studios
Publisher: SouthPeak Games
Released: April 28 2009

Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the story of real-life World War II British spy and saboteur Violette Szabo. The player takes the role of Violette Summer, hospitalized and comatose in France (I think). While her protectors argue over whether it's safe to keep hiding her from the Nazis, Violette is lost in memories of her missions during the war... but when the Nazis find her location in the hospital, she's forced to take action despite her state.

At Launch
The game received mixed reviews, earning a 61% score for the PC version and 56 for the XBox version. Reviewers praised the atmosphere and style. Views on the plot were mixed: some reviewers enjoyed it and others criticized it. Stealth and gunplay mechanics were generally panned.

Post Launch
I can't find any information on updates. Current version is so maybe there was a tiny patch for something or other but I don't see it listed anywhere.

The Good
Art Direction
Velvet Assassin is a pretty game. Lighting is used effectively and there are plenty of bright but soft colours to make outdoors areas appear unique and peaceful. The interiors of Nazi facilities are dark and grey, providing some tonal contrast.

Little Details
There's an area of deadly fumes in a Nazi bunker that requires gas masks. When Violette stealth-kills a Nazi soldier in that area, she does so simply by pulling off the gas mask.
Violette can disguise herself as an SS officer to infiltrate areas she wouldn't be able to just sneak her way through. However, the uniform comes with high heels, so she can't move silently while disguised.

Experience System
You earn experience by picking up hidden collectibles — usually personal trinkets like a watch, miniature telescope, or war medals. Every 1,000XP, you earn a point to put into one of three skills: Morphine (increases morphine capacity & duration), Sneak (increases speed while sneaking), or Toughness (increases health). However, you gain no experience at all for kills. It's a neat way to encourage exploration and to slightly customize your approach to gameplay.

The Neutral
Stealth System
Some reviewers thought it was inconsistent and not very good. I didn't have any problems with it. Generally the rule is if you're in shadows or bushes and enemies aren't too close, you're hidden. If they get too close, they can spot you even while hidden. I haven't had any problems with it. There's nothing particularly innovative or different — you've got your standard body hiding and guard distracting mechanics — but it worked just fine for me.

Again, nothing particularly notable going on here. There are a few different guns — silenced pistol, Luger, shotgun. The only real problem is the reticle: you don't get a central point on your crosshair, but at least it's still possible to get headshots from short range. Not to mention that Velvet Assassin is primarily a stealth game, so I'm not too concerned with amazing gunplay. It would only be a problem if Velvet Assassin were a shooter instead of a stealth game.

The plot isn't bad, per se. It's just that there isn't really enough of it to judge one way or the other. Violette is in a coma in a hospital bed reliving memories of the war — the actual gameplay missions — while two French resistance fighters argue over whether or not they should risk protecting her from the Nazis. And that's pretty much it, save for the last two levels (out of 13) which I won't spoil for you.

A Little Repetitive
There's not a huge variety in terms of gameplay mechanics. You're hidden while in shadow; you can move bodies out of sight; you have a couple of guns; there are a couple of environmental hazards to exploit; and every once in a while you get a disguise segment.
The last couple of levels are extremely challenging. That's either good or bad depending on how you like your games.

When Violette is in trouble, and she has some morphine on hand, she can use it to momentarily freeze the scene and gain the ability to assassinate one enemy from the front. It's a neat emergency mechanic, but I'm not really clear on how it works exactly. I assume what's going on is that hospital-Violette shoots up some morphine to slow down her memory/dream... but why would hospital staff just leave morphine lying around for her to shoot up with? It also raises a rather creepy question: is Violette really in a bad state, or is she keeping herself dosed with morphine?
That's why morphine is in the neutral section here: it's good as a game mechanic, but it sends mixed messages and unnecessarily complicates the game logic. It would make much more sense if hospital-Violette had some kind of high fever or other such disease, and morphine triggered whenever dream-Violette was reduced to her last hit point, because when that happens her illness flares up and her vitals spike.

The Bad
Checkpoint-Only Save System
There's no save anywhere. There's only sporadic checkpoints. If you screw up just before the next checkpoint, you have to re-clear several rooms full of enemies. It's sucky and annoying and ARGH.

The Last Level
In its final level Velvet Assassin decides it's going to become a shooter. This was a TERRIBLE idea. The crosshair isn't precise enough for an extended gunfight. Since it's a stealth game, you don't have the durability for an extended gunfight. And yet, for some reason, the developers thought it would be a good idea to throw an extended gunfight at you.
This would actually not be a problem at all... except for the damn checkpoint system. The final battle consists of maybe 20 (maybe more) Nazis coming at you in waves. If you could save between waves, this fight would not even show up on the review. I was playing hard mode (meaning increased enemy damage) and I was literally yelling in frustration.
The worst part is that there's no payoff. You get a 20-second cutscene of a sad ending. I understand that it's based on a true story, but come on, give me something to feel good about after I've spent the last half hour replaying a two-minute gunfight over and over and over.
If you play the game and need some help with that last fight, try this: when you see the group in the churchyard, fire a couple of shots, and fall back to the burning car. From there you should be able to get an angle where they can't fire on you. Once they're dead, you have as long as you need — the next wave won't spawn until you enter the churchyard. When you do so, run all the way to the back and hide behind the tree. Alternate your shoulder view, as you'll have guys coming from left and right. Again, you should be able to get an angle where they can't see you. If you pull it off right, the only challenge is to conserve enough ammo to make it through.

The Verdict
Recommendation: Maybe.
If you enjoy stealth games, you should definitely give Velvet Assassin a shot. It looks very nice, it's mostly fun, and there's some very clever attention to detail. However, if you do try it out, consider playing on normal mode, if only for the checkpoint frustration and the very last fight in the game.

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