Velvet Assassin makes heavy use of darkness to bring to light the events of World War II. As an espionage agent fighting behind enemy lines, you slip in and out of shadows, silently stalking through dimly lit streets and grimy prisons as you attempt to sabotage the Nazi war effort. But the darkness in Velvet Assassin is more than just a cover for satisfying stealth play. The grim realities of war are also present, giving added weight to your objectives and a moral backbone to your killings. As you slink through burning Parisian villages and witness innocent civilians being executed for no reason, the chilling brutality of war becomes clear. The unsettling atmosphere drives you ever deeper into this ravaged land, but a few gameplay problems hinder the suspension of disbelief. Sluggish gunplay and nonexistent enemy intelligence make your actions feel artificial at times, lessening the impact of these atrocities. However, Velvet Assassin is largely able to rise above these issues and present a powerful, unnerving look at one of history's darkest periods.
You assume the role of Violette Summer, a British assassin sent alone to slow down the German war machine. When the game begins, you see yourself from above, lying in a hospital bed after a mission gone terribly wrong. There are morphine syringes scattered across your bed, and the influx of drugs in your system creates a series of dreams that let you recount your past missions. As your efforts in the war play out, Violet begins to question the events around her, making her character empathetic and believable. Interspersed with these flashbacks are quick looks at the present, in which two Allied soldiers stand above your hospital bed, trying to decide your fate. The story is told in brief snippets, which makes it initially difficult to follow what's going on. But as the plot becomes clearer, the moral decision looming overhead becomes more powerful, casting all of your actions in a new light.
The 12 missions have you fighting single-handedly against the German forces, assassinating a war criminal, destroying a fuel depot, and other objectives typical for the setting. For the most part, you must rely on stealth to meet your goals. The levels are blanketed in darkness, providing ample cover for you to weave through the disturbing setting. Troops patrol all around you, and if you can silently sneak behind them, you trigger a brief execution scene. The absolute patience needed to stalk through these missions is tense and rewarding, mixing the fear of being spotted with the relief of creeping through a particularly dangerous situation unseen. The levels are often linear, providing only the odd alternate route that leads to a hidden supply of weapons or armor, but there is still plenty of creativity needed to achieve success. Figuring out how to reach your goal in the most efficient way is hugely satisfying because no two situations play out in the exact same way.
In addition to stealth attacks, there are a few other ways to kill your enemies. You can release toxic gas from a barrel to suffocate them, pull the pin off of the grenade of an oblivious soldier, and send a current of electricity surging through a puddle of water on the floor. These different attack abilities add a layer of depth and cunning to your adventure, which makes you carefully plan the best way to kill the German forces. The strangest way to dispatch your foes is by using morphine. You can use the drug to enter a dreamlike, invulnerable state in which you can easily take out one enemy before you snap back to reality. The amount of morphine available in a level is extremely limited, so you can't rely on this supermove as a crutch, but it still clashes with the ultrarealistic setting.
You can also kill your foes using a traditional firearm. Like the morphine, ammunition is limited, so you can't rely on your guns too often. However, the aiming controls are too sluggish to provide satisfying deaths. It's easy enough to line up a headshot when you aren't moving, given that you have the element of surprise on your side, but when troops have spotted you and are moving in fast, the gun is too erratic to be effective. For the majority of the game, the lousy gunplay won't hamper your enjoyment. The levels are designed for stealth kills, and using the gun as a last resort serves as an adequate line of defense. But there are a few poorly designed instances in the game in which you must shoot down a number of fast-approaching troops, and the sloppy mechanics are simply not up to the task. It's frustrating and unrewarding, and you'll rely more on luck than skill when you finally shoot down the last soldier.
The solid though unspectacular stealth action gives rise to thrilling moments, but it is the chilling atmosphere that makes Velvet Assassin so engrossing. The lighting is particularly impressive. From the orange hues of a level that plays out during sunset to a blue cloud enveloping a dock at night, the levels are all unique and realistic. But it's the feeling that these levels call forth that is even more startling. In one, you slink through a Gestapo prison that is punctuated by cries for help followed by nerve-rattling gunshot blasts. In another, you creep through a burning Parisian village. As you crouch down behind walls, you will be face to face with slaughtered civilians. The levels are grim and disturbing, continually thrusting unsettling imagery to the forefront, never letting you forget what is happening all around you. The music sets the mood perfectly, using pounding beats to make you anxious and unnerved. The atmosphere creates a feeling of claustrophobia, as if there is no way out, surrounded by violent forces everywhere you look.
Unfortunately, just like the wonky gunplay's tendency to partially undermine the combat, the artificial intelligence often breaks the feeling that you are in a desolate war zone. The enemies are extremely robotic, walking determinately along a preset path; outside stimuli rarely distracts them from their orders. Soldiers will often not react to shadows being cast on the wall or fuse boxes being blown. The inhuman dedication to marching feels out of place in the realistic setting, taking away the surprise that a more adaptable AI would have injected. Although the German troops are predictable to a fault, it doesn't completely destroy the immersion. Sections play out like a methodical puzzle game, making you carefully plan your route lest you be found by a foe. The game is able to stay tense throughout because the penalty for being spotted is high, but it's impossible to overlook the stupidity of your enemies.
Even though your enemies are as dumb as wood, they still create a feeling of empathy not present in many war games. As you sneak around bases, you can eavesdrop on conversations that give your attackers personality. For instance, in one level, two soldiers quarrel over a stolen bar of chocolate, and in another, they reminisce about the women and wine they enjoyed in France. But these conversations are not merely superfluous looks at the yearnings of a soldier. Sometimes they reveal their darker side, which makes it more rewarding to kill them off. In one level, a soldier explains in meticulous detail how best to burn bodies that have been dumped in a ditch. In the prison level, a soldier proposes a game of rabbit hunt: a disgusting activity that involves shooting prisoners as they try to run free. There are also letters scattered throughout the levels that show the desperation that some of these troops felt. One soldier writes a heartfelt letter to his wife, telling her how miserable and suffocating military life is. These emotional moments paint the soldiers as real people and add a lot of weight to your actions.
The desolate atmosphere and empathetic look at your enemies make Velvet Assassin a powerful war game. It's bleak and grim, making the horrors of war come to life in disturbing fashion. The lousy gunplay and moronic AI dilute some of the intense realism on display here, but the game is able to stand out despite these problems. Creeping slowly through the shadows is tense and believable, and pulling off these seemingly impossible objectives is deeply satisfying. Velvet Assassin offers a brutal depiction of war, creating an experience that is horrific but still rewarding.