The Good: Outstanding narrative. Wicked atmospheric. Some original FPS game mechanics. The Bad: Checkpoints unevenly distributed, will probably require most players to go through some pieces of the game over and over again. The Ugly: Awful enemy AI. Yet another game where I get to spend all my time checking out our heroine’s ass. Yay.
How close can a game come to greatness and yet fall horribly short? That certainly seems to be the question that Velvet Assassin is trying to answer, as it did so many things right and so many things wrong, the result being a game that hovers tantalizingly close to great, and yet much of the time is just annoying and frustrating. You’ll thrill as you weave your way through an enormous catacomb full of Nazis, creeping from shadow to shadow, knowing that one false move will mean your death, and then you’ll get to do it all over again when, near the very end, you step into the wash of a flickering light bulb, are instantly shot dead, and have to restart at the last checkpoint.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me get rolling by saying that VA is a stealth game, in many ways like the Splinter Cell series of which I am a big fan. It uses a third person camera like SC. This allows you ample opportunity to admire our heroine’s figure in tight leather, one which seems to use roughly the same measurements as Lara Croft, and also gives the camera many opportunities to get hung up on various bushes, statues, crates, and other objects and leave us looking at nothing useful. VA also relies very heavily on the stealth kill, a kill your character instantly and graphically inflicts with a knife on anyone she can sneak up behind. If you’re squeamish about seeing a guy knifed in the groin from behind, this is a game you should probably avoid. Face to face your character is an abysmal fighter, particularly when you have a knife and your enemy has a gun – the game is really all about sneaking. There are some guns. For one, your enemy seems to almost always have one, but you can’t pick up guns from guys you kill. You have to find your guns in gun cabinets, and those are few and far between; ammunition is rarer still. This actually turns out to be a good thing, because head shots from concealment are laughably easy, and the game would be over in about an hour if you could just shoot your way through.
You play as Summer Violet, the titular Velvet Assassin. The beginning of the game finds you critically injured in a hospital, the missions all told in flashback. You’ve been a spy working for the MI-6 during WWII; infiltrating, stealing classified documents, killing bad guys. How you ended up in the hospital is also told in flashback, movies salted around during the missions. You also get scenes of you in the hospital. The mixing of all of these scenes, the distant past (the missions), the closer past (how you were injured), and the present (you in the hospital) are all woven together with the quality of a good novel. Each location is infused with moody lighting; the golden light of fall, the harsh glare of halogen lamps, the silvered shine of moonlight. The artwork, the architecture, and the scenery are all outstanding – as good as I’ve ever seen in a game. Voice work, of both the lead character and the overheard conversations of the guards and others, are quite good as well.
Far and away the greatest weakness in this game is the enemy AI, and it unfortunately detracts from just about the entire gaming experience. Guards walk a fixed patrol route, pausing each lap to stare at the walls, giving you plenty of opportunity to kill them. If you do something to distract them from their route, like kill their coworkers, they’ll give a very modest chase, give up very quickly, and go right back to their patrol (with their partner’s body gradually cooling on the ground nearby). If you kill one guard, the next guard to come along will kneel by the body to give you and opportunity to kill that one in the same spot. I’ve actually piled up eight guards in that fashion.
Running a close second on the annoyance scale is that game works on fixed save locations, and their placement is a little uneven. Sometimes you have to work through several complicated rooms filled with guards, and without the ability to save you’re stuck going through pieces of them several times before you get it all right. Other times the save spots are almost right on top of each other, say, just down a few empty lengths of hallway with maybe one guard at the end. The ability to save the game anywhere would have reduced the irritation factor by a factor of ten. It seems like kind of a noob problem to me as many other games (the most recent one that comes to mind is Deadspace) that use the fixed save point system manage to get it right.
There are on the other hand a number of really neat touches to the game mechanics. Glass or debris littered on the floor in some locations makes it impossible to sneak. You can look through keyholes or peepholes to try and see what’s in a room before you open the door. Here’s a fun one: if you sneak up on a guard who has a grenade on his belt you can pull the pin and sneak away. You can whistle to try and draw guards off their routes to kill them (though it doesn’t seem to work very well most of the time because they’re so stupid). You can also don a disguise (a fetish SS frauline) to fool the guards. The usefulness of this trick is kind of mixed, because although you can run around doing many strange things while dressed in disguise, simply getting too close to a guard (even with a closed door between you) will blow your cover – go figure. Finding certain objects strewn around gains you experience, which can be used to improve your characters stats. I wouldn’t call it anything near RPG depth, but it gives you something more during the missions to shoot for. All of that stuff, if the AI was better, would have really been the icing on the cake.
It’s disappointing, really. VA is a great story idea, the narrative of which really succeeds, but the actual gameplay itself is a letdown. And it’s not really as through the entire game fails on all cylinders. The level design is good, the artwork is great, and many of the game mechanics work quite well. It’s the stupid things the guards do, as well as the problem that if you die you have to go back to the last checkpoint which could be quite some distance behind you, that drags everything else down.