Version tested: Xbox 360
As everyone knows, you should never judge a book by its cover - you should judge a book by holding it so the pages fall open naturally, thereby revealing how many dirty bits there are. However, you should always judge a videogame by its cover. The back cover, to be specific.
This comes as advice from someone who used to write the back covers of videogames for a living. I also used to lie awake feeling guilty for lying to the kids about the latest release being "high-octane" and "adrenaline-fuelled", when the honest thing would have been to write "a stunningly mediocre racing game just like the seven you already own and the 14 coming out later this year".
The back cover for Velvet Assassin describes it as "an intense stealth action game". As anyone who's ever played a videogame knows, this translates as "a game about hiding, with a bit of shooting thrown in". The back cover says to expect "surreal visuals". This means "everything goes a bit wibbly and blurry now and again". We're promised "a haunting narrative", or rather "a very slow voiceover by someone who sounds a bit depressed". But it's these three words which tell you everything you need to know: "World War II".
But wait! Velvet Assassin is not your typical World War II game, according to its makers. You don't play as Generic Man, a plucky young allied fighter battling behind enemy lines, killing hordes of Nazis and blowing stuff up. You play as Violette Summer, a plucky young allied fighter battling behind enemy lines, killing hordes of Nazis and blowing stuff up. But wait! She's a woman, do you see?
Just in case you don't, Violette is depicted in the opening cut-scene and on the menu screen wearing a slutty nightie. She doesn't wear the nightie when killing Nazis, because that would be silly and gratuitous. Except she does sometimes. Specifically, when you use one of the morphine syringes left lying around everywhere.
It's all to do with the other thing that's supposed to set Velvet Assassin apart from all the other World War II games; the story is told by Violette as she lies in her hospital bed, and the levels are interactive flashbacks. When you take morphine time slows down, enabling you to take out enemies with ease. For as long as the morphine lasts everything goes wibbly and blurry, and Violette sports the slutty nightie. On one level all that might sound complex and intriguing, but think about it harder and you'll realise it's just stupid.
Violette appears to have attended the same finishing school as Lara Croft; she talks with the same plum in her mouth and wears outfits designed to make you want to put your plums in her mouth. She's skilled in creeping up on people and killing them in all manner of sneaky ways, from slitting their throats to pulling the pin from grenades they're holding to slitting their throats.
You're given mission objectives such as "find the gas mask" or "place the explosive" or "kill the naughty bossman Nazi" (paraphrasing here), but generally levels play out in the same way: you sneak from point A to point B killing any Nazis you find along the way. To kill them you can use a stealth move, or shoot them with guns and ammo you've picked up, or get hocked up on morphine and murder them in slow motion.
That's the theory. In practice you sneak from point A to point B trying to kill Nazis but failing, and having to restart from the last checkpoint again. And again and again and again. There are many reasons why you might fail and few of them are your fault.
You might fail because the enemy spots you sneaking around, even though you're skulking in the shadows that are supposed to conceal you. You might fail because Violette is surrounded by the purple glow (or rather, violet glow - do you see?) that's supposed to mean she's hidden from view, and you assume the game works properly. It doesn't.
Or you might fail because you can't shoot anyone. Guns and ammo are stupidly hard to get hold of; you can't take them off the bodies of enemies you've killed, because that would be... Who knows? Too easy? Too logical? Historically inaccurate, as the Nazis used magic spells to ensure their weapons would miraculously disappear in the event of their deaths?
In any case, you're left to - wait for it! - search lockers for abandoned guns and ammo. These are few and far between. What's more, Violette doesn't carry weapons over from one mission to the next. Well, who needs a pump-action shotgun when you've got a small knife?
If you do manage to arm yourself, don't bother trying to shoot at close range. No matter how hard you hold down the targetting button Violette will fire blindly into thin air, even as one of Adolf's minions batters her over the head with the butt of his magical rifle.
Guns are only good for shooting from a distance. And only then if you're sure you can get a one-kill headshot. And only then if you can hide from any nearby soldiers in the shadows. And only then if the shadow system works properly. And only then if you haven't given the whole thing up as a bad job and thought to yourself if Sylvia Plath had been a videogames journalist instead of a poet she wouldn't have lasted as long as she did and that reminds me must put the oven on.
It doesn't help that the game is painfully linear. There's only ever one path to go down, and every time you're forced to restart from the last checkpoint the same old Nazis can be found trudging the same old preset routes. They also have the same old subtitled conversations in which they whine about running out of chocolate and not being able to smoke near oil barrels.
(Oh yes, there are plenty of oil barrels in Velvet Assassin, along with plenty of wooden crates and locked doors. Often, the locked doors can be opened by Rusty Keys found on the dead bodies of your enemies. Sometimes, just to spice things up a bit, you'll come across Shiny Keys. There are a lot of easily disabled fuse boxes lying around, along with levers that turn red lights green. There are desks laden with oil lamps and old maps and abandoned medical kits. It's a miracle there's not also a lava level and a mine cart race.)
You don't even get to choose how you dispatch enemies. Let's say you decide to take out that soldier standing on his own with your penultimate bullet. Effective, but then you turn the corner to find two enemies standing together. They'd spot you if you tried a stealth kill, and you've only got one bullet. No problem - use your only morphine syringe to slow down time and perform melee kills.
But what's this? Around the next corner there are two more enemies standing together. Stealth kills are out, you're still a bullet short and you're out of morphine. You could try to shoot one then stab the other in real-time, but what with Violette having all the close-quarters combat skill of an orang-utan in a barrel, it's unlikely you'll succeed. So you'll end up dying and starting again from the last checkpoint.
In this regard, levels become like puzzles - it's a matter of trial and error as you work out which techniques you're supposed to use in which situation. There's also a lot of waiting around and hiding behind crates/in outhouses/within the shadows as you learn the patterns your enemies follow.
That's what good stealth games are all about, of course; they reward you for thinking ahead and being patient. But this isn't a good stealth game. You don't feel rewarded for clever thinking, because there's only ever one way through. You can only survive by working out what the game wants you to do - there's no scope for working out your own solutions to problems. The fact enemies are so thick and endlessly repetitive in their behaviours makes things even more tedious.
If you're a serious stealth fan, and if you've got huge amounts of patience, you might get something out of Velvet Assassin. It's certainly challenging. There is satisfaction to be had when you pull off a sequence of kills in the right order using the right techniques. The problem is this is only possible when you've spent ages working out what you're meant to do and what the enemies are going to do, and when all the elements of the game work as they're supposed to. Success is more down to luck and perseverance than skill and patience.
Besides, nothing else about the game makes doggedly plugging away worth the effort. The visuals are well short of spectacular. The storyline tries to be mysterious and intriguing, but it's daft and dull. The mission objectives, locations and level layouts are clichéd. The mission structure is far too repetitive and rigid. The nightie thing is silly, and about as sexy as Solid Snake running round in a leopard-skin posing pouch.
According to the back of the box cover, Velvet Assassin is "an incredible gaming experience". In a more honest world that would read, "A frustrating gaming experience". Or perhaps, "A gaming experience that is similar to many gaming experiences you have had before, the main difference being it isn't as good." No.
4 / 10