Not Murder by Numbers

Velvet Assassin humanizes soldiers, shows war's horror

Velvet Assassin could have been one of the best assassination games of all time, showing the realistic side of both the hunter and their prey, as well as the real horrors of war that we are often afraid to face, especially in the game industry.

How many games have hoards of Nazi armies charging out from spawn points, manning machinegun nests and generally shooting like mad at your unnamed hero? Sure you kill them, but only because they are in the way. You don’t feel anything for your opponents, or even remember them after the level is complete. That’s not what you get with Velvet Assassin. Those who you have to kill seem real, and you might even feel some, gasp, remorse about ending them.

Unfortunately all of its good traits only serve to remind players what could have been. Granted that the game ramps up and becomes more playable after about the third mission. But even then, some rather dated gameplay elements keep Velvet Assassin from achieving true greatness. It’s a flawed masterpiece, very much like the main character.

You play as Violet Summer, who is loosely based off of real life OSS agent Violette Szabo. The real Szabo was captured, raped, tortured and eventually murdered and cremated in a concentration camp by the Nazis, at the ripe old age of 23. So it’s no wonder that Szabo’s daughter (who has written an excellent book called Young Brave and Beautiful, about her mother’s real exploits) didn’t sign off on the project, hence the name change.

When the game is humming along, which really starts after about the second mission, it’s amazingly good in terms of storyline. As an example, you find letters written by the soldiers that stand in your way. Some of them are love letters to their girls, and others are laments about the horrors of war and how they long for peace and family. So you begin to see your enemies as real people, and find out that they’re not the faceless, mindless, evil Nazis found in most games. But still, they stand in your way. So after learning that Hans told his mother not to worry about him because he has a guardian angel and a strong faith, you end up sticking a commando knife in his eye and killing him in a violent, painful way. Such is war.

The horrors of war are also not brushed over. In one mission you have to sneak through the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Nazis interned most of Poland’s Jewish population. They are in the process of exterminating everyone who lives there when you have to travel through it on a mission to get a cyanide pill into the hands of an agent who needs to kill himself, so he won’t break under torture. Cheery mission, but it’s what’s expected of you. There are few happy endings in Velvet Assassin.

The ghetto is a horrible place. You hear people screaming off in the distance, being shot and killed. Also, just about every alley you run down, you find piles of bodies. Men, women and children have all been lined up and shot by the death squads. One really disturbing scene I ran across was a murdered family. Some distance away, a small boy was also gunned down. I don’t know his story, but he apparently saw what was happening to his parents and tried to make a run for it, which was just what the snipers covering the street were there for. He didn’t get too far. The Nazis just left his bloody body there, lying about halfway across a pedestrian bridge. And he wasn’t the first or last murdered child I saw that day. At least his death alerted me to the presence of the snipers, whom I killed, so perhaps his death wasn’t meaningless.

And even here, the enemy is made human. I was sneaking across a rooftop and saw a lone German, kneeling over a dead Jewish man. He was talking to him like they were old friends, saying how sorry he was, how he didn’t want to be there, how messed up Germany was after the bombings, yet how even that was nothing like the horrors in the ghetto. He seemed like a good man forced to do despicable acts by his commanders. I liked him, and was glad that I was able to kill him quickly with a cut to the throat.

But for all its triumphs in the storytelling department, Velvet Assassin fails on simple gameplay mechanics, or I should say, level design. When people play an assassination game, they are looking for a sandbox. The Hitman series is the best example of this, though other titles like Splinter Cell and to some extent Assassin’s Creed follow suit. There you are given a mission and an open world to play in. You can stalk your kill anyway you choose. In Hitman, you can drown your target in a pool, poison their wine, sabotage their barbeque, drop a crate on their head or kill them in any number of clever ways. But beyond that, you can explore the world around the mission, find hidden paths or holes in the security, bide your time and strike when the time is right.

In Velvet Assassin, you are given a chute to move down in almost every level. It’s linear gameplay at its worst. Also, the game implements elements like dragging bodies away and hiding them so as not to alert other guards. But you can’t dump the bodies into the river or over the sides of railings, because there are invisible walls at all those locations. If your character can’t go over a railing, you can’t toss a body over it either, even if that would be the perfect hiding place for the corpse.

Also, the game wants to limit your ammunition as a way to keep it from becoming a run and gun affair. So you can normally only find bullets for your weapon in special ammo cabinets, which are few and far between. You have to go through levels with only a handful of bullets most of the time. But here is my problem with that. The guards you kill are carrying MP40 submachine guns, which they blast at you with abandon if you’re spotted. But YOU CAN’T PICK THEM UP. This has got to be one of the biggest rip-offs I’ve ever seen in a game. It lowered the gameplay score by a full gem alone. The MP40 is an incredibly easy gun to shoot, and a trained assassin like Violet should have no problem with it. The real Szabo was captured only after killing lots of pursuers with her Sten, which is a similar British submachine gun. But in the game, she leaves it lying there every time. If you are going to give the enemies a gun, then you HAVE to let the players take it as well. You can’t have it both ways. That’s a gameplay 101 rule. It might seem small, but gamers will end up hating a game over something like that.

But here is an even bigger complaint. You are allowed to pick up a Lugar pistol. Well guess what? The Lugar fires THE SAME AMMO as the MP40. It’s 9x19mm Parabellum rounds, which the German army standarized on long before WWII. So at the very least, you should be able to take ammo from your opponents after you kill them. But no, superspy Violet Summer would rather walk around with eight bullets in her pocket instead of taking the hundreds of rounds from the dead Germans she kills. Simply foolish. And not at all like a real OSS agent.

This all comes to a head in one of the final missions in the game, where you are armed with only a knife. Violet says "I must find a weapon at all costs!" This makes a lot of sense. But what does not make any sense is that you have to sneak through about 30 guards, killing quite a few of them to get to where the weapons are stored. Then when you finally do get to the cache, these are the same weapons that were carried by all the guys you killed along the way. Someone didn’t think that part out at all.

Even in normal missions, inevitably you will end up in situations where you have to move through a room filled with lots of guards. There is no way around it because of the level chute design. So you might have to resort to more violent, combat oriented techniques like a gun battle to get through. Gosh, an MP40 or even extra ammo for your pistol would sure come in handy.

When I could scrounge up enough ammo, I actually welcomed this type of combat phase in some places, like in the ghetto when my anger against the Nazis was at an all time high. My favorite kill was shooting a junior Sturm Führer in the mouth from my hiding place inside an abandoned shack as he was explaining to his men that the Jews being rounded up in boxcars would be well treated and well educated. Whether he was lying or stupid I don’t know, but killing him while all his men watched was very satisfying, even if it did stir up a hornet’s nest.

On the plus side of the gameplay equation, the controls are very simple. You have one action key that lets you interact with the environment. If you can climb a ladder, you press that key to initiate it. It’s the same key to craw through a hole in a wall or to jump over a fence. Especially on the PC, games can get bogged down with button mashing and combos and stuff like that. Here, you can concentrate on the story and the world around you, and not have to remember a lot of keys.

In a game that is trying to be realistic, the addition of a "morphine mode" is highly questionable. When the game starts, Summer is in a hospital bed, where she may or may not be surrounded by either Nazis or members of the resistance. It’s hard to tell and only slowly do you learn her fate. So she is basically remembering the missions you are playing. If you get stuck in a bad spot, you can enter morphine mode. This is basically a convulsion in real life where the doctors inject you with morphine. The effect in the game world is that you are shown in your nightgown, and have superpowers for a few seconds. Time basically stops and you can run right up to an enemy, even straight at him, and he will stand there while you kill him. It’s an extreme version of bullet time. I don’t really like it, but I wouldn’t call it a flaw, just a questionable gameplay mechanic. It didn’t alter the score either way.

In terms of audio, the game has some of the best. The Nazis will stop and talk to one another in perfect German and actually have long conversations. Because Violet knows German, you are given captions at the bottom of the screen. The interactions between the Germans is sometimes priceless and comical, like once where one soldier was accusing another of high treason for stealing his chocolate. They were both wearing gas masks at the time, and it was just one of those odd moments that you love in games. I know a lot of times you are supposed to be sneaking around them when they talk, but I loved just listening in and learning about life in the military.

Graphically, the game is pretty good. All the levels look realistic. It’s a shame that there are only a few skins for the Germans and even in great levels like the Warsaw Ghetto, the dead Jewish bodies are copies of one another. A little more detail in a game that is trying to humanize war would be a good thing. But other than that, things looked pretty good.

The bottom line is that I loved playing Velvet Assassin. Sure, the game is flawed and the ammo and gun management is very frustrating. But once you accept the rules of the game, you can have a good time with it. I played for an entire weekend to the exclusion of just about everything else. Of course I love assassination and WWII games. My advice if you pick this one up is to grit your teeth and get through the first couple levels. The game really does get better as you go.

It might sound like I am being a little harsh on Velvet Assassin, but only because my expectations were so high. Its disappointing that this game could have been so much better than it actually is with a few gameplay tweaks and better level design. But even in its current form, it was a lot of fun, though frustrating at times.

Velvet Assassin won’t knock Hitman’s Agent 47 from the top spot in the assassination club. But what it lacks in terms of an open world, it makes up for in realism, both of the horrors of war and the fact that the people you kill seem human. For that alone, Velvet Assassin is worth the experience.

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