Velvet Assassin (Xbox 360)
If Lara Croft and Hitman's Agent 47 had a baby, that screaming, wailing bundle of joy would grow up to be Violette Summer, aka the Velvet Assassin. The game opens with Violette dying in a hospital. Game over, right? Wrong. The game employs the old, musty ruse of letting gamers play through Violette's memories of her life.
Personally, I hate playing someone's memories almost as much as I hate playing through virtual realities in games (see: Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage). Playing a videogame is already a pretty significant fictional leap. Playing through someone's memories only makes it that much more difficult to feel like whatever I'm doing, in the game, has any real value.
With her British accent, flattering wardrobe and expensive haircut, Violette Summer feels more like caricature than character. (See also: Lara Croft and Cate Archer.)
Her enemies are Germans circa World War II. These Germans like to walk around and smoke cigarettes. They like to stare off into the distance for three or four seconds at a time. They like to talk. (Man, do they ever like to talk. I was forced to listen to countless inane dialogues.) They like to listen to their radios. If you turn off a radio, any nearby German will report directly to said radio, to see who turned off their old-time-sounding music.
Of course, this is your chance to sneak up on the old sauerkraut-eater and stab him the neck. (I usually improvised a line here, something like, "They're playing our song," or, "And I wanted the damn thing turned off.")
Each area poses a stealth problem for you to solve. After a few levels, patterns begin to emerge. Example: There's the Two Guards Talking situation. (Hide, wait for them to finish their dumb-ass, totally inane conversation, and when they separate, creep up and shiv them.)
There's the One Guard Staring Off Into the Distance While the Other Guard Patrols the Area situation. And there's the Two Guards Talking With One Guard Leaning Casually Against Lamppost situation. And, as mentioned before, there's the Turn off the Radio, Hide, and the Guard Comes to See Why His Old-Time Music Isn't Playing Anymore situation.
Sound familiar? That's because you've done this before -- all of this -- in the Tenchu series, in the Metal Gear Solid series and in the Splinter Cell series (and in countless other stealth-centric series that I'm blanking on just now).
What is surprising is how much I still enjoyed doing these things that I've done many times before. I still felt the cathartic "ahhhhh" when, after several minutes of careful observation, I finally got the kill. I still enjoyed the sense of accomplishment I felt in leaving a trail of dead bodies in my wake. After all these years, there's still quite a bit of dramatic juice left in this old trope.
One of my favorite things to do in the game is to sneak up on a guard, pull the pin on his grenade, then let him march in between a Two Guards Talking situation. Boom. Problem solved. It's nearly impossible not to feel terribly awesome in this moment.
Here's a more ridiculous solution to the Turn off the Radio situation. Most levels feature conveniently placed -- or, inconveniently placed for the Germans, as you will see in a moment -- puddles of gasoline. When the German officer realizes his Wagner isn't playing, he makes a beeline for his radio and doesn't realize that he's standing in a gas puddle. Shoot the gas puddle with your gun, and boom, he instantly goes up in flames. (I've only shot a gun once -- it was my dad's .22 gauge shotgun -- and I wasn't aiming at a puddle of gasoline at the time. I'm no chemist, but if I did shoot a high-test puddle, I'm pretty sure that it would not immediately go up in flames.)
The game's environs should also induce a severe case of d?j? vu in veteran gamers. You want underground bunkers? We've got underground bunkers. You want cellars, church yards, bell towers and docks? We've got cellars, church yards, bell towers and docks. The whole game feels like one long composite of places we've been visiting -- and revisiting -- since the days of Wolfenstein 3D.
Like Agent 47, Violette can change her clothes. To change clothes, she must go into an outhouse or closet. In some levels, Violette changes into an SS Agent-lady outfit, and then affects a prim, hands-behind-her-back walk. During these levels, a white meter appears on the screen informing you when guards are suspicious of you. The more suspicious they are, the more the meter dwindles. The idea here is to keep your distance, keep the meter nice and long, and get to your goal, without being detected.
The problem is that the game has painstakingly taught you, up to this point, that darkness and shadows are always Violette's friends. But while dressed as the SS Agent, shadows no longer work for some inexplicable reason. Even if you're hidden, with that nifty purple aura surrounding you, your detection meter will continue to shrink at an alarming rate when a guard approaches.
This makes about as much sense as a gas puddle that burns when shot.
And when you are detected, it's almost always curtains for you. Why? You can't fight. You'll discover various weapons throughout your travels, but they're basically useless, thanks to the game's one-hit (or maybe two-hit) kills. When spotted, I got in the habit of immediately hitting Pause and choosing the Restart Checkpoint option. Trust me, this is a great time-saver.
Another example of the only-in-videogames logic: Finding treasures hidden throughout the levels, like gold bars and signet rings, earns you experience points. Get 1,000 experience points, and you can upgrade some aspect of Violette. You can make her stealthier, which makes her, I believe, more difficult to detect. And you can make her stronger, turning those one-hit kills into three- or four-hit kills. Either way, you have to find a lot of treasure, and upgrade her several times, for Violette to become hearty enough to stand toe-to-toe with enemies.
When spotted, you also have the option to use Morphine. Hit the X button, and the screen takes on an eerie glow, and rose petals are blowing everywhere, and -- pay attention, class, because shit is going to get seriously weird in here -- Violette is stripped to her underwear. And in this flower-blowing, underwear-wearing state, enemies are frozen, so she can run up to enemies and stab them in the face.
Clear some space on your mantle, Velvet Assassin; it's only May, and you've already secured the Most Gratuitous Use of Semi-Nudity in a Videogame Award. Speech!
There are good moments here -- dramatic moments, interesting moments. But, ultimately, the game unfortunately only has a single gear, and that gear is "slow." The sneaking/killing is rendered well enough. But I wanted a counterpoint to that. Let me move; let me go on a rampage; let me have some sort of kinetic, cathartic release. Example: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, after forcing you to creep about for hours, finally lets you hijack a Riot Guard and shoot the holy hell out of everything. Velvet Assassin, without such a cathartic counterpoint, is a disappointing, one-note experience.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.