E3 2008: Hands On With Velvet Assassin
Velvet Assassin ranks up there with one of the many happy surprises I had at E3. To be honest, I was a little hesitant about meeting up with Gamecock’s group, since they still linger in my mind as those guys who dress up in capes and chicken masks. As it turned out though, their setup was one of the most low-key at this year’s E3; it was just a discreet area in the Figueroa Hotel. And so I met up with Replay Studios to see their upcoming World War II stealth-action game, since it sounded the most interesting to me. I wasn’t really expecting much, but almost half an hour later, the developers practically had to rip the controller out of my hand to make room for another appointment. However, the whole time the producer and PR director were showing me the game, one word kept crossing my mind: “ballsy.”
Let me explain: the game takes place in Europe during World War II and is being made by a German developer. That’s gutsy enough, but they didn’t stop there. Velvet Assassin is one of the few video games — in fact, the only one I can think of right now — that actually depicts the Holocaust. The level I played through involved you infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jews were sequestered after the Nazis invaded Poland, in order to assassinate a Nazi official. The producer was even telling me how he remembered stories his grandfather had told him about when all that happened, which helped him infuse the game with some realism. The more I saw of the game, the more I realized this was not your typical guts-and-glory World War II game.
What amazed me the most though was the subtlety the developers gave to the area. The buildings look dilapidated and such, but the real “something is very wrong here” feeling doesn’t quite hit home until you stumble upon various bodies and signs of executions. Later on, I entered an area where the streets were covered with broken down furniture that I had to sneak through like a maze, all while hearing gunshots echoing from the buildings. The producer explained to me that this signified a time when the Nazis ransacked Jewish homes for any valuables and then chucked furniture out the windows in case there was anyone hiding inside. This didn’t seem evident in the portion I played, but the developers said part of what they wanted to do with this game was show that not all Germans at that time were mindless killers who supported the war.
The story follows the tale of Violette Summer, who is based on a real-life spy named “Violette Szabo.” She becomes an agent for Great Britain’s MI6 after her husband dies in the war and is sent behind German lines to sabotage the German war machine. The game itself though actually begins with her comatose in the hospital with the full story of her past unfolding through her dreams. These of course take the form of different missions; some created specifically for the game, others based on the real Violette’s actual missions.
As for the gameplay, well, it’s pretty much as if Sam Fisher was stripped of his fancy gadgets and dumped into the 1940s. You sneak around in the shadows trying to avoid being seen, which is helped by the fact that your body is outlined in purple if you’re in complete darkness. Your main weapon is a knife, which you can use to sneak up on soldiers and silently take them out with a flashy kill sequence (the developers told me the final game will have dozens of different kill animations). Later you find some WWII-era guns and grenades, but you’re encouraged to only use these when absolutely necessary. Ammo is scarce for one thing, plus, unless you’re playing in easy mode, you have none of the usual aim assists present in most shooters. All this makes you time your shots for that perfect kill, rather than just unloading bullets at your leisure. About the only major difference from other stealth games is the presence of “morphine,” which slows down the world around you so you can take out enemies more easily. It’s kind of a “get out of trouble” button. This is actually worked into part of the story, since this is supposed to represent the nurses trying to calm her down (she even reverts to hospital clothing in this state).
Overall, Velvet Assassin is definitely on the ever-growing list of games that will be lightening my wallet later on this year. The stealth gameplay would be enough to entice me, but after the demo I played, I’m anxious to see Replay Studios’ take on the World War II setting. It’s wasy to write this one off as “just another WWII game,” but the unique viewpoint definitely makes this one stand out.