It’s a strange world, the way two elements can come together from their needless existences and create something beautiful together – when hydrogen met oxygen, when francium met water and when Kiefer Sutherland met the role of Jack Bauer. For every combination of beauty though, there are infinite possibilities of unreached potential or even simple failure. Can you imagine the output if Kanye West had written Blowin’ in the Wind, or Tom Cruise was recruited to play John Locke in Lost? Neither can I and neither do I wish to because some things are just not meant to be together. So what relevance does this have to South Peak’s latest Xbox 360 release, Velvet Assassin?
Velvet Assassin fits into the latter category of analogies – a creative concept which is crippled by the practicalities of creating a gaming engine capable of fulfilling the developer’s vision. Pretentious title aside, Velvet Assassin’s idea of playing as a female German Sam Fisher during World War II behind enemy lines could have produced at least a unique stab (no pun intended), at the dry third person action genre. Taking ‘influence’ from Hitman: Blood Money, our story begins with the main character lying injured, reliving her own war in her mind through the game’s levels.
Despite its promise, Velvet Assassin ultimately doesn’t have the tools to match its ambition. Another elaboration of Splinter Cell comes in the shape of being possibly one of the darkest games graphically of the generation thus far. Ubisoft managed to counter this with the modern day environment, giving the player night vision goggles, whereas our Miss Summer has nothing more than a small torch to navigate the levels, and hiding in the shadows isn’t the most effective tactic if you lose even yourself.
The game’s engine falters so badly by combining all of the worst traits of Splinter Cell, Hitman and Manhunt in such a spectacular way that some sections become virtually unplayable. On an early mission, the player has to sit through over a minute (I timed it), of needless Nazi banter before you slip out of the shadows and approach the back of the first victim’s neck. No matter how hard you try, you cannot time the move so to make a clean execution without alerting his nearby ally. A poor checkpoint system adds to the humiliation, sending you back a good five minutes and with no option of skipping ‘that’ guard conversation. Velvet Assassin truly is a game stuck with its head in the past.
Putting aside the comparisons to titles on a significantly larger budget, it is unfair to write this off as a joyless experience. The game works best when sneaking through its picturesque outdoor environments with nothing more on the agenda than slitting the throats of the dummies the developers call Nazis; as simplistic as the executions are (imagine Manhunt but without various tiered ways of killing), they never fail to raise a faint smile. Had there been any variety, let alone a greater one, to the ways in which to take out the enemies then perhaps progressing to the fourth level wouldn’t seem quite so mentally exhausting.
Perhaps the most embarrassing hour for Velvet Assassin can be seen with the narration. Our flashback levels come complete with verbal instructions from the memory of our dying heroine. Unfortunately the script writer doesn’t understand the concept of tenses and their relevance, with one such verbal prompt actually saying “Careful! Broken shards! I had to walk quietly here”. I’m hardly Noam Chomsky, but maybe a simple “There were broken shards littered in this corridor” wouldn’t have been quite such a tension killer. It’s these discreet flaws that wear the player down over time until you just wonder why exactly you’re playing this game, is experiencing this new environment worth the frustrations the physical side of the experience provides? One can become accustomed to the highly suspect effect of morphine (allowing you to slow motion run through flowers to execute somebody from the front; someone prescribe me some of that, please), but subconsciously timing the A.I’s predetermined paths is not what I would call a game.
There’s a beautiful world out there which is screaming to be discovered in Velvet Assassin, but The Ark hasn’t fallen into Noah’s path in this instance. The game’s concept isn’t a completely unique one but the prologue makes you want to care about the character and delve into this unique portrayal of Nazi Germany, but a brief and technically hampered single player experience doesn’t allow it to fulfil its potential. It would be generic of me to say the I.P. has potential and that Velvet Assassin 2 could be something special, but we all know that the chances of this are minimal.
Despite its solid foundations, Velvet Assassin doesn’t have the brute strength to be anything more than a brief distraction for extremely patient, hardcore fans of the traditional stealth genre. Perhaps if it were a little more Metal Gear Solid than Splinter Cell then the war torn mind of Violette Summer wouldn’t slip by so quietly. Maybe she’ll find her true partner one day, and if so then colour me interested.