Velvet Assassin Hands-On
In this World War II game, spy work and stealth kills replace rocket launchers and tanks.
Replay Studios may be a relatively small operation, but it has a few big challenges lying ahead of it. Beside the potential for uneasiness that goes along with being a German developer creating a World War II game, this Hamburg-based studio has set out to do something unique with a timeline that's been dominated by first-person shooters. Velvet Assassin, Replay's forthcoming attempt at WWII stealth action, is a game that's more Splinter Cell than Call of Duty. Rather than plowing through Nazis like a one-man tank, you'll be assuming the role of female spy Violet Summers as you sneak through the shadows and take out soldiers with swift but deadly stealth kills. We recently had the opportunity to spend some hands-on time with Velvet Assassin, fighting that eternal battle between catlike patience and an itchy trigger finger.
Velvet Assassin plays fast and loose with historical events, but not in the way that you might necessarily expect. In terms of story, Violet Summers' character is loosely based on Violet Szabo, an Allied spy who embarked on a pair of missions behind enemy lines until she was executed just months before the end of the war. But the game takes a slightly different approach: Violet is lying in a hospital bed in a coma, and it's in her unconscious dream sequences that the game's 12 missions play out. These memories are malleable, so there may be differing outcomes based on the paths that you take in each one.
The first such dream sequence that we encountered was a mission called The Lost. In this scenario, Violet's goal is one of sabotage, given that she's been ordered to infiltrate and destroy a German fuel depot. The mission begins outdoors, giving you a quick and startling introduction to the game's unique art design. Each level has its own distinctly monochromatic color scheme, in this case an overwhelmingly warm orange hue to all of the trees, plants, and sunset lighting peeking through the leaves. However, there are still shadows for Violet to sneak through, and that's where she'll need to spend most of her time to avoid being caught.
Early on in the mission, the only weapon that Violet has is a knife, so you need to take it easy as you creep up behind a German soldier and give him a quick shanking. We're told that there are more than 50 stealth-kill maneuvers in the game, depending on the weapons you have at the time. Knife kills range from a stab to the lower back to one on the back of the neck, and a rather savage attack on an unsuspecting soldier's nether regions. However, stealth kills often require more cunning depending on the circumstances. If a soldier is carrying a grenade, you can silently pull the pin, scurry away, and then whistle to attract a handful of guards his way. If you time it right, you'll have killed several birds with one particularly explosive stone.
Lighting and shadows play a significant role in your efforts to remain unseen. In a later level, you'll need to sneak through a corridor dotted with floodlights on the ground. The contrast between dark shadows and stark lighting on the walls creates myriad shadow effects that might alert a guard all the way down the hall who wouldn't notice you were it not for the giant silhouette plastered on the wall. These situations require a good deal of patience to figure out the guards' routes so you know when to sneak by and when to just gun it out.
The latter option isn't always the safest bet, considering the scant amount of ammo lying around, but your chances are helped considerably when you find a syringe of morphine. When you've got one of these in your inventory, it triggers an effect in Violet's current, coma-stricken state in which she'll take the morphine and temporarily grow more powerful in her dreams. However, if you're more interested in long-term upgrades, there's a minor skill-building system that lets you gain experience points and use them to upgrade strength, skill, and the effects of morphine.
Given that you'll be spending so much time behind enemy lines, you'll be witness to a lot of the darker aspects of the Nazi regime that often aren't portrayed in World War II games. There's a level that takes place in a Warsaw ghetto, and after you spend some time walking through run-down shanty houses made of corrugated metal, you'll eventually stumble upon a firing wall whose most recent victims are still lying on the ground. At other moments, you'll be creeping through German bunkers only to see a body hanging from a water pipe running along the ceiling. It's a grisly portrayal of World War II that's made all the more startling when you place it alongside the vibrant art design mentioned earlier.
It's apparent that Replay Studios is taking a few risks with what's otherwise considered a very safe time setting. How well will those risks pay off? You'll have your answer when the game is released in early 2009.
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