There can't be many games where the lead character is lying unconscious in bed, drugged up to the eyeballs. As idyllic as this scenario sounds, there is more to it than sheer indolence: it's World War II, it's a hospital bed, and you are Violette Summer, a British spy loosely inspired by the tragic real-life story of special operative Violette Szabo.
Providing the inspiration for a stealth-action game was possibly the furthest thing from Szabo's mind when she was skulking behind enemy lines during her all-too-short life, and we can only speculate as to her reaction to the game being unveiled in a monolithic wartime bunker in Hamburg. Publisher Gamecock is adamant that the female character hasn't been employed for titillation purposes - a claim that is somewhat undermined when they flash up artwork of her in both a leather catsuit and a skimpy night-dress.
It's all apparently in context though, as the nightie is representative of her hospital attire, as she lies injured, enduring fevered flashbacks of her wartime missions. This is where the player takes over, as you are essentially playing through Violette's memories, a concept that gives developer Replay Studios a certain amount of leeway in terms of authenticity.
As creative director Sascha Jungnickel explains, "We took this method of storytelling in order to be able to bend the scenarios a little bit more, because it takes you away from the realism approach. It doesn't need to be totally realistic. A game that's fun normally isn't realistic. It's easier to have a strange story that takes it away from the realism without any excuses afterwards.
"When you play Call Of Duty of course it looks realistic but it's not at all. The people, how they run, they're coming the same way always. In the end the game looks realistic but it is not realistic. I think when you don't claim to be realistic, then you cannot be judged for not being. It also gives you more of a chance to work artistically, especially in terms of lighting and so on."
That lighting provides a key gameplay element, as when the on-screen Violette is shrouded in a violet (geddit?) hue, she is effectively invisible to nearby enemies, free to continue her skulking in the shadows in the manner of a fairly conventional stealth game, or as the Germans charmingly refer to it, a 'sneaking' game.
That sneaking takes place in the traditional World War II settings of France, Germany and Poland, and our brief demo finds young Violette knee-deep in the sewer network of Warsaw. Charged with the task of finding three British agents who have important information, she has to lead them to safety, or, somewhat brutally, provide them with a cyanide pill to ensure that the information goes no further.
Emerging blinking into the daylight, evidence of the Nazi purge is everywhere, with the streets strewn with furniture ala Schindler's List, and the flash of gunfire from the windows indicating a systematic extermination of the local populace. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Violette has a few tricks up her leather sleeve, including around 15 different close kills, a sniper rifle, and, in a showcase move, pulling the pin out of a soldier's waist-mounted grenade with such timing that when he walks past his mate it blows them both up.
It's all good stuff, but the ingenious methods of meting out death all take a back seat to the extraordinary Morphine Mode. If it all gets too much, Violette can inject herself with morphine, at which point the action slows down, the screen goes wibbly-wobbly and she appears in the aforementioned skimpy nightie, swiftly despatching nearby Nazis. Medal of Honor it isn't, and the best explanation we managed to garner is that when Violette is dreaming about moments of extreme peril, she starts bucking in her hospital bed and the medics have to pump her with morphine to calm her down.
Either way, it's as unusual approach, and one that probably wouldn't have worked with a male character - the nightie wouldn't fit, for starters.
"For a sneaking game I think a female lead is quite a good idea," says Jungnickel, "because - mostly male - players I think will care more for a female character that he likes. She's more fragile, easier to hurt, you don't want her to die. I'd take much more care than I would of Sam Fisher, because I don't care if he dies."
One of the main criticisms of stealth games is that once your cover is blown, it ceases to be a stealth game. As the saying goes, you can't put toothpaste back in the tube. However, in Velvet Assassin, seemingly you can.
"You can re-hide," confirms Jungnickel. "You can reset every situation by running away and waiting for everyone to calm down. That's basically the mechanic that we loved in the Manhunt game, which I think is still the best sneaking mechanic of all the games. It takes a while but people will definitely calm down and you can have a retry."
As for other 'sneaking' games that Replay respect, Jungnickel says, "The Hitman game had some mechanics that I liked, especially the camouflage. In this you can take an SS uniform and run around undetected."
It's a further reminder of the political implications of developing a World War II game in Germany. However, Replay MD Marc Möhring doesn't see any conflict.
"I think we have grown up with it," he says. "If you're going to movies, if you're reading books, the historical shadow you see it every time. You see great pictures but in the end we are losing so from the political and educational aspect, we are very liberal and open here. We know what we did, and we have no problem with it, my generation and the generation after. And we're sitting on one of the buildings that was used in the Second World War. They tried to bomb this down but it was too strong."
Perversely, World War II was concluded quicker than the development of Velvet Assassin, which began in 2000 as Resistance, then Sabotage, accompanied by a litany of bankrupt publishers, and "a long story of disaster." It's finally shaping up though, and is promised for the end of this year. Morphine at the ready.
Velvet Assassin will be released in late 2008 on PC and 360.