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Velvet Assassin (Xbox 360) artwork

Velvet Assassin (Xbox 360) review

"Few players will get through Velvet Assassin without grumbling about the camera issues or the many untimely deaths. But those who stick with it will have the privilege of viewing the game’s gorgeous graphics and color enhancements. They will be forced to overcome obnoxiously difficult scenarios that will test their true skills as virtual spies. Most importantly, they will have the joy of executing enemy soldiers with unwavering brutality."

One of the advantages of being a video game spy is that death is a temporary occurrence. It doesn’t matter how brutal the kill sequences are because, no matter how many bullets are fired, “Game Over” isn’t really the end.

Real spies don’t have that luxury. They know that getting caught means death, torture, or both. If a group of spies were to play Velvet Assassin, however, they would be quick to point out that not even in their darkest hours was their view obstructed because the camera hovering over their heads couldn’t move past a wall.

Inspired by the real-life events of Violette Szabo (known as Violette Summer within the game), Velvet Assassin tells the story of a courageous British spy who must fight her way through Nazi Germany. Her tale is fairly compelling; mid- and post-mission voice-overs advance the story as Violette recounts her experiences. Whether or not those experiences included breathtaking sunsets, we may never know. But they are a part of this virtual experience, along with some of the most unique and highly stylized visuals of the current generation.

Throughout every mission, Velvet Assassin’s graphics are enhanced with blurry, out-of-focus backgrounds and exaggerated glows. These effects are implemented at just the right moments. When Violette goes in for a stealth kill, the screen is covered with a red overlay that darkens and intensifies as she moves closer to the enemy. When she’s killed, the screen becomes grainy and black and white. As you pan the camera around outside, the sun and shadow effects are much more vivid than anything you’d see in the real world. It’s fictitious, yes, and maybe a little facetious. But it is also very beautiful.

Velvet Assassin’s gameplay centers on three distinct elements: watching, listening and attacking. The first requires a great deal of patience, a fair amount of skill, and the desire to slaughter enemies quickly and silently. The second forces you to eavesdrop on the enemy before taking him out. Though you may have no interest in hearing a soldier whine about what he’s missing back home, it is vital that you pay attention. Otherwise the most important thing he has to say will surely be missed. During one scenario, you’ll hear two soldiers complain about the fact that they can’t use their weapons due to the toxic (and apparently flammable) substance circulating through the air. Doing so could cause a massive explosion. Consequently, Violette can't fire any weapons either and must rely solely on her stealth skills (and kills) to make it through.

In the beginning, Velvet Assassin is quite forgiving. The kill system is cakewalk-easy – simply crouch down, walk up behind an enemy and press the A button. This may turn off those who were expecting a hardcore experience from the start but should appeal to the masses as it allows any gamer to jump in and feel like a powerful assassin.

Your lethal actions are followed with one of several kill animations. Most of them are pretty gruesome – if you’ve ever wanted to know how many ways a knife can be used to silently eliminate a threat, this is the game to play.

But not every stealth kill is gruesome. Believe it or not, some are downright hilarious. While sneaking through a bunker filled with toxic gas, Violette could use a sharp object to finish off every foe she encounters. Instead, she merely takes off the enemy’s gas mask, causing his lungs to fill with the deadly (and paralyzing) toxin.

Though you may be distracted by Violette’s remarkable skills, it isn’t long before Velvet Assassin offers a reality check. First of all, you do not have a radar system. The only way to know if an enemy is out there is to physically look around for him. Second, you cannot hide from enemies just by standing behind a wall. The only way to stay out of harm’s way is to stay within the shadows. If Violette is colored with a soft blue glow, that means she’s within the shadows and cannot be seen. This is more than hiding in the bushes (which you can do). With the sun shining bright and dozens of light fixtures littered throughout each indoor environment, players will have to be creative if they want to survive.

Guns are noisy and bullets are scarce, so you can forget about shooting the lights out. It is occasionally possible to destroy a fuse box, but that removes just one of several lights in a particular area. Taking a cue from the Resident Evil remake and Silent Hill 2, you’ll come by several large fans during the earlier missions. The effects here are gorgeous, but that’s not the cool part. One of the fans is so large that you can fit within its shadow. If you time it just right, you can walk within the fan’s moving shadow and sneak right past two guards without them ever noticing.

Velvet Assassin eventually drops you into a mission that takes place almost entirely outdoors. For the first time, you are truly out in the open with nowhere to hide. Metal Gear Solid 4 tried to accomplish this, but the OctoCamo system made it possible to hide almost anywhere. In this regard, Velvet Assassin is much less forgiving than Konami’s masterpiece. Even after acquiring a disguise, it is next to impossible to move safely near an enemy. Consequently, the stealth kills that once seemed easy are now insanely difficult to execute.

This perfectly illustrates the roller coaster ride that is Velvet Assassin. It is clever, deceptively challenging and decently diverse. But when the missions get tough, you will need patience-of-steel to get through them. The difficulty is only half the pain – the other 50% comes from the lackluster checkpoint system. There are literally dozens of moments where you’ll re-kill the same enemy, re-collect the same item, and re-navigate the same environment because of an untimely death. You might think that prior accomplishments would be saved – and they are, sometimes. It’s bad enough having to play through the same scenario (and listen to the same enemy conversations, which cannot be skipped) twice in a row. When you’ve experienced it five or 10 times in a row, try not to let your anger make its way to the nearest window.

Unavoidably, those who wish to immerse themselves in the joys of Velvet Assassin must also endure its problems. First off, the camera: it works fine unless you’re standing near a big wall – if you are, there’s a good chance it will get stuck behind it, halting all progress until the camera is released.

Mission info – a critical part of any game – is vague at best. If this is your first stealth-action experience, or if you’re more of a casual player, expect to be confused (if not completely lost) from time to time. Velvet Assassin tries to make up for this with a few hints, such as information regarding Violette’s whistling technique (press Y to execute), which can attract attention and lure enemies to their demise. While this works well indoors, it is not very effective during the outside missions.

Despite the real-world emphasis on sneaking around, Velvet Assassin delves into the supernatural realm with Morphine Mode. After finding a syringe full of morphine, Violette can inject herself to trigger a fantasy scenario (the screen brightens, flowers are blown around and Violette’s apparel changes to something more casual) that slows down the action and allows you to perform one instant kill. This feature is helpful in a bind but serves no real purpose. Worst of all, it takes away from the realism the game was trying to convey.

Velvet Assassin will be remembered for its stealth kills, no question. The gunplay, however, is something we will soon forget. Using a control scheme that mirrors Splinter Cell, Velvet Assassin occasionally offers the opportunity to shoot an enemy. Aside from protection (which guns provide when you’re in a jam), they attract too much attention to be useful.

Few players will get through Velvet Assassin without grumbling about the camera issues or the many untimely deaths. But those who stick with it will have the privilege of viewing the game’s gorgeous graphics and color enhancements. They will be forced to overcome obnoxiously difficult scenarios that will test their true skills as virtual spies. Most importantly, they will have the joy of executing enemy soldiers with unwavering brutality. If that sounds like your kind of entertainment, don’t hesitate to become this assassin.

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Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (May 15, 2009)

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Lewis posted May 16, 2009:

I'm really glad you managed to get more out of this than me. I desperately wanted to enjoy Velvet Assassin. It does some things incredibly well. The idle chatter of the guards, the astonishingly beautiful lighting and skies, the sweaty-palmed tension...

...but I just couldn't submit to it. For every gorgeous sunset, there was a bizarre animation glitch. For every piece of moody atmosphere, there was a cripplingly, unfairly difficult section, with no checkpoints for ten minutes before and after. A totally linear mission, with multiple routes leading to dead ends. It makes some really basic game design shockers, which is such a shame, as with more polish I think I'd have really loved this. It reeks of Hitman, and that's never a bad thing.

It does all lead me on to an interesting question, though: to what extent can we be critical of a game based on certain ideologies it seems to possess? I do wonder if I'd have been more forgiving of its flaws if Velvet Assassin hadn't immediately projected itself as being so hateful and tasteless. Viollette Szabo only spent a minute amount of time in service, before being captured by the enemy. She was beaten, repeatedly raped, and eventually executed. Here, we have her running around in a skimpy nightgown as a morphine-addled alternative sex symbol. Her left nipple pokes out of her negligee in the opening cut-scene (and every time you die). The morphine mode doesn't even make any sense: she's given morphine in the hospital, so in her flashbacks she thinks she's taken morphine, and that makes her look like she does in the hospital, only she can slow down time... um, no. What?!

So yeah, I'd have been (well, was, when I reviewed at Reso) harsher on both the basic mechanistic stuff and the whole exploitative theme that seemed to run through it. It does a lot of things well, no doubt, but it didn't let me like it.
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zigfried posted May 16, 2009:

Despite all of its own claims otherwise, the game is so obviously not really based on Violette Szabo, that I have to wonder if the developers were the ones who wanted to promote the "based on..." thing, or if that was a marketing demand. I can see the developers watching a film and getting an idea -- "hey what if we make a game about another female agent, and Violette sure is a cool name" -- but if they really thought they were depicting anything close to her life, then they're nuts.

I totally see your point, but I don't think of her as Szabo, she's just someone else named Violette to me.

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Lewis posted May 16, 2009:

I think it's totally a marketing ploy, but that makes it even worse. From what I know, they approached Viollette Szabo's daughter about using the full name, but she refused, so they changed the surname to Summer. It's plastered all over the marketing blurb. So yeah, it's certainly nothing to do with Szabo - but they're making out that it is, which makes it purely exploitive.
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zigfried posted May 16, 2009:

From a marketing sense, it's exploitive, but I wouldn't necessarily apply that to the game. I guess the question is "how much should we hold marketing responsible for the game's content". Certainly there are cases where marketing sets us up for disappointment, or sets us up with entirely different expectations. In this case, the game is pretty much what I expected. In other words, not about Violette Szabo. Then again, I never bought into the hype, because the real life of Szabo obviously is not appropriate game fodder.

Now, if the developers themselves intended their character to be Szabo herself (as opposed to just being inspired by her) then that's something else entirely.


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