With only a tenuous grasp of real-life events, Velvet Assassin is based on the World War II missions of Allied British spy, Violette Szabo. And while never as ruinous as Vampire Rain’s laughable but unforgiving temperament, Velvet Assassin’s more primitive trappings – and emphasis on the immoralities of war over the gadgetry of the spy trade – set it apart from its stealth-action contemporaries like the Splinter Cell series. Think Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. With SS troopers.
At the height of its powers, Velvet Assassin marks a brave step in the maturation of World War II videogames. Before the credits roll, you will witness some of the worst atrocities Nazi Germany had to offer. Men, women, and – here’s the kicker – children
, all lying dead in the streets, executed with war-criminal precision. You will overhear conversations of torture and insinuations of rape, while also learning of Running Man-style execution games held for prisoners. You will see individuals hang from rafters like still life paintings.
But there is another side to that coin. One that uncomfortably (or fairly?) humanizes the soldiers serving Nazi Germany. You’ll extract pieces of translated conversation or letters that describe soldiers weak and weary from the war effort, soldiers missing their loved ones at home, and soldiers that wish for their own deaths more than the deaths of others. Some of the soldiers relish in leading the slaughter. Some of them wish they could erase what they’ve seen. Some toss locker-room banter just to get a rise out of the other soldiers they’re standing watch with. Throw in some heady conversations on culturally-rich topics to the mix, and the audio can get surreal.
The story is told from Violette’s deathbed and is relived through a feverish, morphine-altered nightmare. With a soundtrack tempered by her fitful dreams, shadow and light intermingle with a depravity and gravitas appropriate for the Second World War. Muzzle flash from automatic weapons light up windows in the ghettos, shattered glass crunches underfoot, and the SS vigorously hum what I can only guess to be the Nazi national anthem.
It’s only the second half of Velvet Assassin that begins to treat its subject matter with such an invigorating raison d’etre. But it’s that same second half that, as it ramps up the environmental storytelling, exposes the degrading quality assurances that were simple but largely intact in the beginning, further crucifying poor design choices overall. As a whirlwind tour of grievances:
Autosave points can be Hell and gone from the point where your mission went south, and – in one dire case – may even return you to a chamber full of toxic gas. Overly scripted guards begin defying rules established early in the game: They may sound alarms without provocation, fall in lockstep with your movements despite the presence of 100 percent shadows, or even be alerted to your disguises when guards are nowhere in line of sight. Guards have eagle-eye vision if the slightest light source shines over you, but they fail to react to your own shadow passing over them. One submarine captain, sleeping off his drunkenness, was impervious to being shot with a flare gun or being stabbed repeatedly with a knife.
Aside from the plethora of technical snafus (dead guards can clip through objects, walls, and floors which make them impossible to move out of the light), you have a flashlight that serves no verifiable purpose beyond, you guessed it, alerting guards. There’s the audacious inclusion of crate-sliding puzzles thrown into the mix as well. Moving a box to block a light source: good. Moving a box to reach a ladder: bad. Moving a box to reveal a minor trinket behind it: untenable. And while I understand that there needs to be an enemy to raise tension and stress in a game like Velvet Assassin, too many Nazis were assigned to stand guard over nothing more valuable than a puddle of water and a room full of junk. There’s also plenty of lever-pulling without ever knowing why you’re pulling them in the first place; a reliance on gamey contrivances that would’ve benefited from two seconds of exposition. Plus, the Germans speak Deutsche, and while it carries an air of authenticity, it’s nearly impossible to read subtitles while moving about the shadows, grasping for an upper hand in the situation.
Scenes almost invariably funnel themselves into dank, lifeless environs. A level may start with a vista-splurging view, or a wide berth of architectural eye candy. But it always manages to bottleneck itself into rows of benches and vehicles, sandbags and barrels. One sun-soaked dockside spider-crawl in Paris immediately dives into a far less memorable stroll along a nondescript sidewalk. Interior and exterior floor plans are designed strictly for the obvious purpose of hiding yourself and hiding bodies. A hedge-rowed street or countryside of hide-and-seek locations is no more organic in composition than a sterile crouch-walk through a crate-stacked seaside or tile-lined hospital hallway.
The multiple approaches to a kill can sometimes fall heavy-handed. A guard strolls into a corner and stands there for a few seconds. You can give him a close-quarters knife in the head, light up the pool of oil at his feet, puncture the barrel of toxic gas, or make the red barrel explode with a single shot. Pulling the pin out of a grenade from a passing soldier is brilliant, as is electrifying a pool of water and shocking every subsequent guard that comes to check on their dead buddies. But once you’ve seen guards fall for the old investigate-why-the-radio-turned-off-by-itself trick for the tenth time, the layer of ingenuity notably dulls.
Of course, one moment of self-deprecating humor makes up for much of that as you overhear one Nazi soldier comment, “Man, man, man. Who’s the idiot that left the power on? Everybody warns you about the enemy, but nobody warns you about an electrified puddle.” A rare moment of levity in an otherwise moody tunnel crawl.
Velvet Assassin takes a very specific story from World War II and does an admirable job of turning a videogame into a platform for a telling a war morality tale. It’s entirely disjointed, which lends the tale, surprisingly, an aura of veracity, and serves to pull a few stitches on a historical period that simply won’t stay sewn up. But there are copious oversights in areas as simple as button-mapping and crystal-ball-using enemies that endanger the story’s shaky cohesion.
This is a World War II story that’s thankfully less of a bunker blockbuster and more of an ethically exploratory ride through a side of war rarely explored in videogames. Now if only they could’ve gotten the videogame parts right…
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