There were several things that stayed with me long after I’d put down Velvet Assassin – the most vivid of which was the morphine. In this World War II stealth-action game, morphine acts sort of as bullet-time; when you botch a sneaking mission and your character Violette gets shot at, you can inject yourself with a syringe of the magic medicine which turns everything all orangey with little flower petals/red blood cells floating everywhere. While this is going on, Violet appears onscreen in her hospital nightie (sexy), can run super-fast, and kills people in lightning-quick shanks. Naturally, you can’t get through the whole game injecting yourself with morphine – there are only so many syringes you can find in a level. The morphine bullet-time is mostly just a way to get you out of trouble when all else fails (and it is not so effective if more than one guy sees you). The developer has other interesting ways to kill people in mind for the player – such as the taint-stab (yes, taint-stab), the skull-shank, and the ever-popular “sneak up, pull pin on Nazi’s grenade, sneak away, boom!” attack.You play Velvet Assassin as Violette Summer, who’s not really Violette Szabo from the real-life Allied spy corps, mostly because the daughter of the murdered spy didn’t sign off on the project. Developer Replay Studios did try to entice Tania Szabo into at least seeing the game, they say, but she just wasn’t interested. Maybe it’s for the best – Violette Szabo died horribly; how fun can a game be if you know you’re going to end up raped and executed at the end? With Violette Summer, there’s some ambiguity as to what happens because she narrates the gameplay as a flashback from a hospital bed. She could be dying, she could be sick, she could be captured – we won’t know up until the very end when Violette finishes her story. Thus, during the “flashbacks,” if Violette screws up and is about to be caught, the game allows you to shoot up morphine and run around in a hospital nightie – it’s not that she botched her mission, she’s just misremembering how it went and she needs a shot of the good stuff to recall exactly how it happened. Gameplay is meant to be stealth, not action – so if you’re playing “the right way,” you ought not to be running and gunning. I’m not even sure you could get by in this game doing that because Violette dies after like three shots and there don’t seem to be that many ammo caches throughout the levels. There are plenty of opportunities to increase your stealth, though. As you crouch, creep, or run (if you’re feeling bold) through levels, you’ll come across areas where you can affect the environment to up your chances of going undetected or of scoring an awesome stealth kill. For example, I crept into a hallway lined with floodlights. The blue tinge around Violette’s body faded, telling me I’d lost my stealth on account of being in the light. I could have risked it and run down the hallway because there wasn’t a Nazi in the way – but running creates noise, which can attract nearby Nazis and I could hear one whistling to himself somewhere nearby. So instead, I followed the cable running from the floodlight back behind me to a control panel. I pressed the action button, which shut off the light and then snuck down the hallway. At the end, there was a door. I peeked through the keyhole and spotted another Nazi – but he wandered away into another room, leaving the radio (uh… gramophone? Whatever it was…) turned on. I snuck into the room and waited for him to come back so I could stab him without his buddies seeing (and hide his body – if the NPCs see bodies, they’re on to you), but he never reappeared. The PR rep gently suggested I try screwing with the radio and sure enough, an option appeared to let me shut it off. As soon as I did, the Nazi in the other room swore and started walking back into the room, swearing about the cheap thing being on the fritz. I took my chance and taint-stabbed him, dragging the body under a work table before creeping into the next room for my next kill.
After playing through that one level, my biggest beef was that if you dragged a body while crouching, you automatically stood up after letting go of the body. So you had to press another button to re-crouch; not very efficient. Other than that, obvious gripes about not having all the dialog recorded yet and Violette’s box-pushing animation being a little too sexy to be practical, I was actually pretty pleased with my experience. But Velvet Assassin didn’t stop there for me. We went on to try the Warsaw ghetto level and I got a chance to examine the second thing that stuck with me: the visual style. Now, the build I saw was still early alpha, so textures weren’t all there and lighting wasn’t finished – but even with the kinks, I got a real sense of the “dynamic lighting” Replay Studios is so proud about. It was especially apparent when comparing the Warsaw level to the intro level in the French countryside. Groups of levels are set in locales which look and feel distinct from one another and different from what you’d see in real life. The architecture is somewhat realistic (the developer got a hold of old aerial photos of Warsaw to recreate as much of the pre-bombed city as they could), but the lighting and coloring in each level creates a distinct sense of atmosphere. The French countryside had a lot of orange colors in it, creating a tense, cautious feeling. The later Warsaw level had more reds and blacks – evoking a sense of horror at the atrocities of war. That was the biggest thing that struck me as I played Velvet Assassin: Replay Studios, a German developer, is not pulling any punches when it comes to representing the horrors of Nazi occupied territory. They’re not being over the top with the violence, or reducing the enemies to mindless hate-killers with bad dialog. Subtle scenes and story exposition hidden in levels (letters in drawers, NPC dialog, etc.) simply remind you that 1) you’re in one of the worst wars in recent history and 2) the bad stuff being done is being done by other people with families – people you’ve got to kill to succeed in your mission. The Warsaw level was particularly hardcore. As I crept through the deserted streets strewn with furniture that had been thrown from windows as last-ditch attempts at barricade the roads, flashes in darkened windows and distant pops of gunfire and screams told me that the Nazis were still rooting through the town, looking for survivors and killing them. I turned a corner and came upon an execution ground – the blood still bright red on the brick walls, the bodies of women and children slumped against them with their hands tied behind their backs. War is hell. William T. Sherman wasn’t kidding. The moody feel to the levels adds a layer of emotional depth to Velvet Assassin that I wasn’t expecting to see in a Gamecock game. Not to diss on the publisher – but when I think of Gamecock, the last thing I think of is “serious war story.” But Gamecock says Velvet Assassin is very much a Gamecock game because of its uniqueness; and they’ll do what it takes to nurture out-of-left-field games like this, presumably even after being bought by SouthPeak Interactive. That’s why we won’t be seeing a demo for Velvet Assassin, sadly. The developer wants to use that time to keep on polishing the game. And Velvet Assassin is going to need it, if some of the subtler stuff is going to get fixed. At present, there are gameplay mechanics that don’t quite work or aren’t integrated well into the game. For example, there’s a sort of RPG element where you can find hidden items in a level, thus earning XP. You can spend the XP on buffing your stealth skills or your gun accuracy and stuff – but the developer says the buffs won’t make gameplay too different and they don’t require players to complete these “side quests.” So in other words, it’s a cool idea that doesn’t exactly have a place in the game yet – something you’d definitely want to fix or cut before release. I’m cautiously optimistic about this game. It probably won’t be the prettiest game on the market and there really isn’t much to the game besides sneaking and stabbing – no code-cracking mini-games or super cool gadgets (definitely not a Splinter Cell clone). Honestly, Velvet Assassin feels like it has more stealth than action – so you’ll spend a lot of time waiting. The steep punishments for being impatient (attracting more than two Nazis, getting sniped from two buildings over because you weren’t crouching, missing little details like the floodlight control box) might also get on a lot of people’s nerves. But the game takes its subject matter seriously, it doesn’t over-sex the heroine, and stealth is a genre of gameplay that usually gets crammed into shooters or the odd RPG segment instead of taking center stage. Even Hitman, Thief or other stealth-action games sometimes give into the “peer-pressure” of shooter action games instead of going all out on stealth. Velvet Assassin ships sometime in “early 2009.”