I was really looking forward to playing Velvet Assassin. A stealth game where the main character is based on a real-life female World War II spy? It doesn't get much more promising than that. Much to my disappointment, the game simply doesn't live up to its concept. Velvet Assassin has plenty of good ideas and great potential, but is ultimately bogged down by mediocre execution.
When the game begins, its main character, Violette Summer, is lying comatose in the hospital, her feverish mind recalling her career as a spy. Her memories serve as the game's missions, which works beautifully as a narrative device. From there, however, things begin going downhill rapidly. As you might expect from a game about a spy, Velvet Assassin places a great deal of emphasis on stealth and cunning, which means you'll spend a lot of time crouching in shadows and sneaking past guards, who tend to be either clairvoyant or in comas of their own.
A purple line surrounds the silhouette that serves as your health meter whenever you're concealed from the bad guys, but that's no guarantee you're actually out of sight. You'll be still as a statue, supposedly completely hidden, and an SS officer will come down the hall and around the corner to kill you. Frequently, you'll have no idea what you did to tip them off to your presence and simply have to try something else once you respawn at the nearest checkpoint. Other times, you'll be able to get close enough to guards - even ones looking in your direction - to smell their aftershave and they'll still have no idea you're there. The inconsistency is terribly frustrating because when you do manage to sneak past a series of guards, performing stealth kills, hiding bodies, and generally wreaking all sorts of spy-like havoc, Velvet Assassin is really quite enjoyable.
The joy is shortlived once you realize you have to spend a portion of your time hunting down collectibles, however. In most games, tracking down well-hidden trinkets is an optional way to unlock bonus content like extra costumes, concept art, or maybe extra game modes. In Velvet Assassin, though, it's the key to upgrading your character. Finding items like harmonicas, telescopes, and signet rings nets you experience points, which you then use to upgrade skills like strength and stealth ability. If you want to move faster than a turtle with a bum leg and survive anything worse than a paper cut, you're going to want to upgrade your stats as quickly as possible, which means hunting around for random junk. Finding collectibles can extend the life of a game and provide respite from the stress of the main story, but making it mandatory for success saps a great deal of the enjoyment out of it.
One of the stats that you'll be upgrading is your morphine skill, which is Velvet Assassin's version of bullet time. Even the most stealthy assassin occasionally has to confront her enemies head-on, but using one of the syringes that you'll find sprinkled throughout the environment will drop your enemies into slow-mo and give you an edge in combat. It'll also swap your current outfit for a short, lacy nightie. The game explains this by saying the morphine is actually the result of Violette being injected by nurses as she's having a fever dream in the hospital. In her unconscious state, she can't tell the difference between dream and reality and so the real-world morphine interacts with the dream world. Translation: we needed a semi-plausible reason to put her in a skimpy nightie. The bullet time lets you pull off some really fun moves, but the costume change is just plain stupid.
The uneven AI, so-so graphics (Violette herself is pretty damn ugly), and frustrating mechanics are all the more disappointing because of the things Velvet Assassin gets right. The story and missions are quite involving, especially thanks to the game's low-tech approach to gathering intel. Violette doesn't have a radar or other nifty gizmo to help her spot the enemy, she looks through keyholes and eavesdrops. It makes the game more challenging - you'll blunder into a quiet guard more than once - but it makes you feel more like an actual spy. You can also switch which shoulder you're looking over when you're aiming a weapon; a simple mechanic that makes staying concealed while lining up a head shot far easier than in other games. Though sloppy in some ways - I never could see the broken glass on the floor that made it impossible to sneak quietly - Velvet Assassin is classy in others, like the fact that the Germans actually speak full-blown German, rather than badly-accented English.
I'll freely admit that part of my disappointment with Velvet Assassin derives from my longing to play as a character like Violette. The suave spies and World War II heroes are almost always men, so the chance to play as a cool-as-a-cucumber Nazi-killing chick was very enticing to me. If you don't share those particular feelings, you may very well like Velvet Assassin a bit more than I did. Probably not much, though.
Bottom Line: Velvet Assassin isn't a terrible game, it just isn't a very good one. If you're hankering for either a stealth game or a World War II game, you've got far better options.
Recommendation: If you've played every other stealth game ever made and will simply die if you can't play another one, knock yourself out. Otherwise, go play No One Lives Forever instead.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt's inability to resist adorable kittens would make her a lousy spy.