Dark yet Captivating
Velvet Assassin (2009) is a breathtaking World War II stealth game about the missions of Violette Summer, a British spy loosely based on the real-life British intelligence agent Violette Szabo. Summer lies badly wounded in a hospital in France and recalls her operations behind enemy lines from the streets of occupied Paris, over Hamburg, to the Warsaw Ghetto, taking out Nazi officers and sabotaging Germany’s war machine all the while handling more than limited resources to pursue her objective. At no point does Velvet Assassin shy away from pointing out the horrors of war, but even more amazing than its premise and the suspense created within the game is that this World War II-era title was developed by a relatively small, independent German company, Replay Studios.
About Germany’s Handling of World War II and the Nazi Regime
Given the circumstances, I hope that the reader will forgive the author for briefly hijacking this review to address the way Germans tackle Hitler and what this means for video games in or from Germany.
Velvet Assassin is a lot darker and more reality-based than most video games using the Nazi-era as leitmotif. The heroine is not portrayed as too empathetic a person and most of the Nazis are not monsters either, with many of them talking about their girlfriends back home, their hobbies, aspirations, and what they would like to do once the war is over. The way Germany as a whole deals with the Nazi era is important to understanding why Velvet Assassin looks the way it does as their take on this period is quite different from most other countries across the globe.
A vast number of video games and motion pictures regarding the war that waged from 1939 to 1945 are U.S. American made and often portray the epoch in a rather cartoonish manner. In Germany, however, every city is plastered with Holocaust memorials wherein 11 million people died, 6 million of which were of Jewish descent, and all school subjects (aside from physical education) talk about Hitler’s dictatorship. Schools very often make field trips to burned down synagogues, concentration camps (KZs), prisoner-of-war camps (StaLags), or similar places to teach children about this period. At the same time, Nazi war bunkers are still a common site even today and every week one will hear about yet another documentary or historical study regarding the regime. Up until this year of writing, 2016, Germans still discover or dig up unexploded bombs from the war that the authorities then proceed to defuse; and it wasn’t until the 2006 football/soccer FIFA world cup where Germans finally started singing their national anthem once again.
Even though the regime ceased to exist more than 71 years ago, with most contemporary witnesses having either passed on or being well over 90 years of age, its remnants are clearly visible till this day and the Nazi era maintains to be very present in the collective memory of the people. It is displaying its strong influences in things big and small within the country: From the way Germans speak to the nation’s domestic and foreign policies.
One of these policies included legal changes preventing a re-emerging of the regime by keeping future generations from forgetting or distorting the past. The German penal code’s § 86 and § 86a therefore state that the display of anti-constitutional insignias and propaganda material, such as Nazi symbolism, is prohibited unless the publication in question serves the furtherance of education, art, or the sciences.
That means that the German releases of the Indiana Jones movies (1981-2008) have the swastika in them – as film is legally art – while the German versions of the Indiana Jones video games (1982-2009) do not – as video games are legally not art. Despite that, Germany has, for years, recognized that there is an artistic element to video games, but Germany’s Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (BPjM) and the representatives of Germany’s Supreme Federal State Youth Agencies (OLJB) maintain that, as video games are interactive, they have to be treated differently from film, which means that Nazi symbolism within video games stays prohibited even if it is used within a comedic context like in the Wolfenstein series (1981 ongoing) or South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014). It also means that Germany does not draw on the PEGI age rating system of the European Union, but instead uses its own USK age rating.
Given that Germans are constantly being reminded of the past and the way the nation accounts for it, creating a game about the Nazi era is both a bold and tricky endeavor for any German studio. Most German novels and movies about the Nazi-time try their hardest to stay true to reality – because everyone in Germany knows what this time looked like – and Velvet Assassin is no exception to this. It shows how many members of the Wehrmacht and the SS were just regular people without excusing their actions, but it also points directly at the atrocities done in Warsaw or the crimes committed by groups like the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the Dirlewanger Brigade, which consisted out of convicted murderers, rapists, and other criminals. In that regard, Velvet Assassin is a lot more German and also far more grittier than most games out there. While it is engaging, it is definitely not meant for the fainted hearted.
As Replay Studios was a small, independent developer that closed its doors in mid-2009, Velvet Assassin does not have as high a production value as Konami’s Metal Gear series (1987 ongoing) or Square-Enix’s Hitman franchise (2000 ongoing). When playing this game, players will hopefully take this into consideration and make a few concessions here and there. For example, the enemy AI is not as sophisticated as in its big budget counterparts and neither are the stages as complex as in AAA titles. Despite that the game manages to very easily capture the player’s attention right from the get-go and keep it up until the very end of its roughly 16 to 20 hour long campaign. Fans of Tenchu (1998-2009) will feel right at home here. The story is very grim and consistently points out how horrible the situation was for all involved. The Nazis are not just portrayed as evil monster machines and Violette isn’t shown to be a pure angel either, leaving the player conflicted at several parts of the game.
At any given point in time, Violette can only have up to three weapons with her, one of which is always her trusty knife with which she either stabs Nazi guards from behind or slits their throats. Bullets for the guns are extremely scarce (usually the protagonist will only have about seven of them with her) and prevent players from just running and gunning through the streets of Nazi occupied Europe. With that said, if you are an inexperienced player or become antsy quickly, Velvet Assassin is a definite pass, but if you are patient and mindful of enemy patterns, you’ll have a blast of a time.
In addition to the difficulty level, Velvet Assassin autosaves at certain spots that aren’t far away from one another area-wise, but due to the need to sneak through the levels strategically while exing off enemy soldiers, can take quite some time to get to. One of the more infuriating parts of the game is dying at a section then lurking in the shadows, waiting for the guards’ conversation to be over for the n-teenth time before they start patrolling so that Violette can finally kill them and move on. At least, it was infuriating until I remembered that she can whistle to attract their attention, which not only immediately cut their conversation short, but also got them in a spot where eliminating them was that much easier.
The game’s cohesiveness in enemy encounters is what I appreciated the most. Many stealth games, like Red Ninja: End of Honor (2005), have the problem that their chapters climax in action based boss fights that really break the pace and immersion. Most importantly, neither the player nor the character seem equipped for these confrontations as the rest of the game functions very differently. In Velvet Assassin, there are three instances where Violette has to use her gun and fight the Nazis head on, however, none of these situations feel too out of place and two of them are relatively easy – as long as you are playing with a mouse and keyboard. The third one, against the 36th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS also known as the Dirlewanger Brigade is hard, really hard and it will gnaw on every player’s patience. Sadly, unless one leveled up Violette’s strength (lifebar), they might get stuck at the final portion of this fight for quite some time as she otherwise dies after a few hits. If there were one aspect that could retroactively be changed about this game, it should be this last fight which ought to be replaced with a more stealth-based approach.
As mentioned above, the enemy AI is not as cunning as in some more expensive productions, which means that enemies have a hard time spotting Violette while she is hiding in the shadows, even if a real person would immediately have seen her. Even though this makes it sound as if the game should then be a breeze because of that, it really is not, as many guards don’t go to the dark corners and the exit usually won’t be found where it is dark. Not only that, once they discover the British spy, hiding in the shadows won’t do much good. It is therefore still important to lure the guards out one by one and get them without being spotted. Also keep in mind that when Violette catches their attention by whistling or by being too loud, their senses heighten and she is far less likely to disguise her whereabouts.
The Leveling System
Players can level up three of Violette’s stats during the course of the game: her sneaking ability, her strength – which raises her health and allows her to take quite a few bullets before dying – and the morphine (explained further below). Points are gathered by eliminating enemies stealthily, completing hidden stage objectives, and finding collectibles. Just by killing the enemy soldiers without being noticed, one can easily max out one of these stats within the first couple of stages. To level them all up, however, players would have to complete all the aforementioned objectives. The only problem with that is that when revisiting a stage, all of Violette’s collectibles from that area are lost, which means that one will have to retrace her steps. It would have been nice if there were a function that would “remember” what has already been picked up.
As previously specified within this review, the game starts off with Violette lying in a hospital in France in 1944 during the war. She is badly wounded from her latest mission and dreams about/remembers her assignments in Germany, Poland, and France. To alleviate her pain, the staff injects her with morphine that slows down the time within her dream. If killing a Nazi soldier should become too difficult for the player, the morphine can be activated as basically a freebie. During this morphined state, Violette runs around in a negligee for some reason, mist rises from the ground, and rose petals fall from the sky. She can then straight up run to one enemy and stab him to death. Players should be careful that whichever Nazi soldier they want to stab isn’t accompanied by anyone else, as after he is killed, the game returns to normal, the other enemy soldier will be alerted, and will surely attempt to kill Violette in an instant.
After a morphine syringe has been used up, players will now have to find a new one within the stage before they can use this mode again. By leveling up the morphine stat in the menu, Violette can carry up to three syringes and lengthen the duration of each morphine dosage. Essentially, players will most likely try to not use the morphine if it can be avoided, as they won’t know when they might come across another syringe again or when they might need the one they have right now. Some players found the morphined state to be immersion breaking, but since the syringes are relatively rare, I found it to be a great way to get out of tricky situations and a much needed assistance for newer players to the genre without making it too easy to play through.
Velvet Assassin can be played with both a controller or the typical keyboard/mouse combo as the title originally came out for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows. Unlike some other video games, this one does not automatically detect which input device is being used, so controls are switched in the options menu. For the purposes of this review, I used the regular keyboard and mouse and must say that it is probably the preferred mode of play as the crosshair is difficult to use while playing with a joypad. The game uses a German reticle, which means that the vertical and horizontal lines of the crosshair do not meet in the center making aiming with a controller just a tad more difficult.
Although the controls were smooth and there were no problems per se, there was one thing that kept on happening but never occurred before: While playing I tended to accidentally activate my Pinyin input assistant. Normally, one switches between keyboard layouts on Windows by pressing Alt+Shift; meanwhile, whistling in Velvet Assassin is done by pressing the space key, running is on Ctrl, and sprinting on Shift. I don’t know if I accidentally kept on hitting the Alt key, if it was the game misidentifying a button press, or if the keyboard I used is getting old, but while playing, I occasionally saw the input assistant from time to time popping up trying to turn “WWWWWWWWW” into a Chinese word and the game would never close unless the assistant was shut down through the Windows task manager. If you are a Chinese player, I therefore would like to point out that this peculiarity might occur.
The stages and lighting within the game are just marvelous and really make the entire experience that much more menacing with its long, dynamic shadows and lighting and the areas reaching from romantic promenades to grim sewers to execution grounds. And while the areas look stunning, the only minor gripe one might have is that the few enemy models used for the Nazi soldiers couldn’t quite keep up. There is only a handful of them and they all look alike, but that’s completely negligible. Aside from that minor dent, the developers tried their best to stick true to original weapons and uniform designs of the time, letting Velvet Assassin truly look like a war-era game.
Music and Voiceover
The music in the game is only used when necessary, but will immediately raise your heartbeats per minute with its gripping strings or pounding percussion. The soundtrack alone is definitely worth checking out and completes the dark and gritty atmosphere of the game. The voiceover too is astonishing and sounds very professional. Several of the guards’ conversations or the letters Violette finds are intriguing and give great insight on what it was like in Europe during World War II. Not only that, but while Violette Summer talks with Received Pronunciation and all French characters in French, all German soldiers speak fluent German with one guard in Hamburg even having a Hamburger accent, of course all accompanied by English subtitles. For anyone looking for a comparatively true-to-reality video game the voice acting alone is yet another reason to buy this game.
Getting the Game to Work
Unfortunately, as the game is not jut a tad older, but also came out during a weird period (graphic chip-wise), it requires players with ATI, AMD, or Nvidia graphics cards to download the Nvidia Legacy PhysX Driver and install that. Afterwards, however, the game works great and effortlessly on old toasters and new machines. There are several guides in the Velvet Assassin Steam Community Hub to help one out on where to find the driver and how to install it.
Customization, Motion Blur, and Difficulty
Despite finding the game already very engaging and having the right level of difficulty for me, some players might want to customize certain aspects of it. Regrettably, the game’s options menu is rather bareboned and might leave players with a couple of wishes. For example, those who do not like motion blur in their video games can head to the 《Velvet Assassin》 folder in Windows, then go to the 《FX》 folder and then to 《PostFX》, where they can then erase the 《directional_blur.pfx》 file. The title also has two difficulty settings, Normal and Assassin, in case that these two are not hard enough, players can then feel free to head to the 《aio》 folder within their 《Velvet Assassin》 folder and open the various 《.cfg》 and 《.aio》 (for example: 《difficulty.cfg》) files using the MS Windows Editor or Notepad tool and change the variables to their liking.
The Console version of Velvet Assassins came with various achievements that are absent from the PC release.
Velvet Assassin is a must get for stealth game fans. It is very engaging and brings with it a nice twist to both the stealth as well as the World War II game genre while maintaining to be historically accurate with just enough artistic license to make the game as thrilling as it is. The music, the graphic design, and the voiceover are superb, but the fight against the Dirlewanger Brigade can put a dent into things. Being a small studio’s game, the less sophisticated enemy AI is definitely forgivable and so is the fact that stages are not the same size as in Metal Gear. The options menu is not perfect, but everything that can be customized, is easily accessible in the game’s folders (provided one knows where to look and what to look for). The weird pop ups of the Pinyin input assistant also don’t occur on non-Chinese PCs, which is good, but I don’t know if they occur on other Asian computers. With all that in mind, Velvet Assassin is an outright gritty game that stealth game fans will most certainly enjoy.
Velvet Assassin is an 8 terrycloth towels out of 10 satin negligees
Where to get
Velvet Assassin originally came out for retail on Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows and can be bought as digital release on Steam for $4.99 USD or your local equivalent.
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As with all my other reviews, the gameplay screenshots were all taken by me during my gameplay.