Velvet Assassin is a stealth game that feels like a relic from the time when stealth games were still new and interesting. I'm talking about the early, unforgiving days of the genre, when it was all about things like incessantly studying and memorizing enemy movement patterns; completely disabling your sense of disbelief as you "hid" in areas of vague shadow; and getting punished mercilessly every time you were detected. It's 2009; does that still sound like fun to you?
Even if you're in the minority of masochists who would answer "yes" to that question, I've got bad news: Velvet Assassin doesn't even execute those stale old mechanics, contrived as they are, with any degree of competency.
It's a shame the gameplay is such a mess, because Velvet Assassin at least finds a way to put a fairly original spin on the World War II setting. You're British secret operative Violette Summer, going behind German lines to sabotage the Nazi war effort by blowing up fuel depots, disabling U-boats, helping out other allied spies, and so forth. Summer is based on real-life WWII operative Violette Szabo, and I initially found her pretty appealing for her relatively realistic proportions and general lack of the hypersexualization that makes a lot of video game heroines hard to take seriously. (OK, she appears in her undergarments when you activate the game's dreamy version of bullet time, but otherwise, she's a heck of a lot more tasteful than Lara Croft.)
At any rate, whatever goodwill I had toward the game evaporated when I started playing it, since the stealth mechanics range from boring to ludicrous to maddeningly frustrating. Like most stealth games, this one considers you "visible" or "not visible" depending on factors like whether you're crouching, and whether you're in the light or in what passes for shadows. A better stealth game would at least let you use cover and shadow to intelligently conceal yourself and react dynamically to enemy movements to slink around and achieve your objectives without being detected.
But Velvet Assassin's stealth is poorly designed and inconsistent to the point of absurdity. Sometimes guards will walk right by you as you dump a body half in and half out of shadow, like nothing's going on. More often, they'll spot you from far away when it seems like you ought to be properly hidden in the shadows. Other stealth games set in modern times give you high-tech doohickeys like radar and night vision to help you get a leg up on the AI, but here you're just expected to develop a sixth sense about who can see you and where you can safely hide. With very little feedback from the interface, environment, and enemies, that's extremely hard to do.
It wouldn't be so bad if escape was easy or even possible, but the game's most damning issue is its utterly unforgiving stance on getting caught. The second any guard sees you, every enemy in the area opens fire on you, and seconds later you're dead, almost every single time. Since the checkpoints are spread pretty far apart and there are so many unpredictable ways to get caught, every mission degenerates into a repetitive series of retries as you try to learn exactly the right way to meticulously pick your way through every section of the level. It's a little like banging your head into a wall over and over till you finally bust through it; not my idea of fun.
There are plenty of other little issues that get in the way. It doesn't help that the game makes clumsy use of lighting and its color palette to communicate safe areas to the player. The only areas where you're truly hidden from the guards are literally almost pitch black on the screen, and since turning on your flashlight immediately draws attention and gets you killed, you often end up fumbling around blindly trying to sneak around or pull off a stealth kill without getting caught. And frankly, the number of completely pitch-black warehouses, offices, prisons, and depots in the Third Reich is sort of ridiculous from a believability standpoint. In this game's version of history, it seems like the Wehrmacht must have lost the war because it couldn't afford enough light bulbs.
Meanwhile, darkened areas that look like they would hide you in a normal stealth game might as well be broad daylight here, so there's nothing really intuitive about the stealth and hiding here. I also had some issues with collision detection, getting shot or spotted through walls and closed doors. Some guards would get hung up on level geometry in some places and then teleport halfway across a room a few seconds later. The list of flaws that make the game a chore to play is a mile long.
But it's not worth harping on all them. Velvet Assassin has a neat premise, but I knew before the second mission was over that I never wanted to play it again. It's just too repetitive, frustrating, and archaically designed to make it recommendable even to diehard stealth fans. The genre has evolved, and Velvet Assassin didn't keep up.