2 June 2009

Velvet Assassin Review

There's been something of a hole in the stealth-based market for a while now, what with Splinter Cell: Double Agent being relatively rubbish, and Conviction now on the horizon and looking good. Metal Gear was off doing it's own thing - becoming some kind of 'conflict simulator' instead of a true-blue stealth game - and somewhere under the radar, in slinks Velvet Assassin.

Taking the Splinter Cell formula and injecting it with that most beloved of historical periods for video games: World War II, Velvet Assassin puts you into the shoes and anachronistically tight jumpsuit of Violette Summer, a British assassin working in Nazi-occupied France and Germany. We're introduced to Violette as she is lying heavily sedated in a hospital bed, and the bulk of the gameplay takes place in her head as she remembers the missions that got her into her predicament.

Velvet Assassin actually makes quite a good impression of for the most part - starting with genuinely engaging story and dialogue direction, synergised with a beautifully stylised graphics engine. A few rare visual glitches and ommisions aside, the game looks absolutely fantastic - shadows are black as hell, lights are sharp and saturating, creating an immersively tense atmosphere. Of particular note are the sunlight effects, with gorgeous sunsets portrayed with suprising amount of work gone into the glow that sunsets invariably imbue objects with.

There's a decent amount of detail elsewhere, both in the visual and sound design - Germans will banter with eachother as the go about their patrols, smoke cigarettes and generally hang about, but there's a real dark edge to the dialogue which paints each individual Nazi as just that - an individual. Whilst character models don't change significantly, personalities do - one Nazi is incredibly sympathetic, stuck on door duty whilst his relief is drunk and asleep; another is a nasty piece of work who suggests letting prisoners loose and shooting at them as they try to get away. It occasionally feels a bit too scripted, but for the most part the flow of the narrative is almost invariably improved by these little details.

A final artistic flourish is found in 'morphine mode' which - with the press of a button - slows down time, and allows you to either run for cover without being shot, or indeed silence that last enemy in the patrol who's about to see you. It's played out in a rather ingenious manner too, being equated to a fragmented memory that is jumbled up when, in the 'present', nurses administer morphine to control her pain. In the flashback, the air sudden fills with falling rose petals, and Violette herself sheds most of her clothes to be dressed in the night-dress she's wearing in the 'present'. It's actually a genuinely impressive mechanic that is both artistically and technically faultless, leading to some wonderfully savage takedowns of enemies

Lamentably, though, it lets itself down in two rather crucial departments - controls and the enemy artificial intelligence.

Let's start with the controls, because I can cut to the chase pretty quick - they're simply not responsive enough, and there's just not enough that you're able to do. Absent is a jump function, and whilst there is the ability to climb over obstacles, this is only available in certain areas and is ludicrously glitchy, with you frequently finding yourself stuck inside the crate which you were trying to climb on, unable to extract yourself. The aiming controls are also far too clunky to be useful, being not capable of sustaining a firefight efficiently beyond the first shot. This would be fine if the gameplay was entirely stealth based, as it'd discourage exposing yourself into a firefight. But once again, a stealth game insists upon an action-heavy section where you're expected to take out loads of oncoming enemies with your firearms - and these are a huge chore when they arrive.

They're incredibly counter-intuitive as well - left bumper for duck? Right/left on the D-pad to reload? Y to merely whistle to attract your enemies attention? What planet are we living on?

Next is the enemy intelligence - it's almost non-existent. Almost being a key word, because 99% of the time, the enemies are ludicrously stupid, following set out routes into shadows to investigate what lies within them, making taking them out more a question of timing than actual stealth. Now, this is an acceptable way of carrying out AI: not exactly state of the art (heck, the original Splinter Cell puts it to shame, and that's - what? - ten years old now?) but functional enough to immerse you in the atmosphere in the game. But what screws the pooch is the fact that every so often, enemies will display intelligent behaviour, tracking you down almost mercilessly, sometimes requiring you to backtrack a good chunk of the level just to get them to stop following you.

The obvious - and, according to Ockhams Razor, correct - explanation is that the developers were attempting to create semi-intelligent AI, but for whatever reason - almost certainly to get it shipped before Splinter Cell: Conviction - they cut some corners when actually implementing it. It's a frustrating break in the immersion so expertly evoked by the graphics and voice acting, as well as being generally frustrating anyway, with it being absolutely impossible to know when the AI will decide to go rogue. Some play throughs of levels will have no instances, whilst others will be absolutely plagued with them.

At the end of the day, Velvet Assassin just about manages to hold an interim place between Splinter Cells. A beautifully told story with fantastic atmosphere and - as a final addendum - well-thought-out achievements make up for the unfinished feel to the AI and controls. If you can look past the foibles, there's certainly a lot to enjoy when playing Velvet Assassin. At least until Conviction comes out...

Overall Score: 72%

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