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?