The Saboteur is the story of an Irishman living in the back of a burlesque house helping liberate World War II Paris from the Nazis. Nothing could possible go wrong with this scenario.
Pandemic Studios set about making a different sort of World War II game with The Saboteur, and it is decidedly different. Whether than being a small part of a bigger war, you are a force for change, bringing color back into the cheeks of Paris.
How could mixing together elements of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed, and THQ's De Blob with bare breasts not result in a runaway hit? Let's ask the assembled video game critics of the internets.
Total Video Games
Just when you thought comedy Nazis had left videogames forever, EA pulls them back in. We're talking about the sort of Nazis who run around with a flamethrower shouting, "There iz die Saboteur! Ve must get him!" while wearing an unlikely combination of a trench coat and gas mask. Although this archetype is getting a little old now (in fact, pretty much the only time it's been entertaining is in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blackadder, and 'Allo 'Allo!), life would be fairly depressing if you couldn't mock the most evil people in history once in a while, and what better way to do this than with a Celtic protagonist called Sean Devlin?
Though set in World War II—more specifically, the Nazi occupation of Paris—The Saboteur is notable for, if nothing else, foregoing the reverent tone most WWII games assume. This isn't Saving Private Ryan; this is more like The Great Escape by way of Inglorious Basterds. This is a two-fisted tale of revenge about an Irish mechanic-turned-race-car-driver named Sean Devlin whose vendetta against a diabolical Nazi officer—the same man that both cheated him out of his first race victory and murdered his best friend right before his eyes—puts him in league with the Parisian underworld, comely cabaret girls, and the French Resistance. It's got an odd tone to it, and the game sometimes has a hard time juggling the tough-talkin' Devlin's personal angst, his multiple femme fatale love interests, his role within the Resistance, and all of the war-time business that actually propels the story forward. The story doesn't pack as much of a punch as it could have, but it sets an appropriate mood for the improbable craziness Sean gets up to.
The story may not be able to decide if it wants to be goofy or serious, but the intriguing atmosphere definitely adds to the experience. The depression and fear cast on the city by the occupying forces are expressed visually through striking black and white backdrops. The buildings and roads in the Nazi-controlled sections of the city have a bleak, suffocating feel, making your actions to free these areas carry more weight. The most interesting aspect of this art design is the way in which color is carefully placed. During cutscenes, a scarf on the person Sean is speaking to may be drenched in shocking blue, standing out brilliantly against the dire background. Action scenes are even more impressive, using the orange flash of a gunshot or the glowing red of spilled Nazi blood to create a dazzling look. When you finally kick those evil Nazis out of parts of the city, the color comes flooding back, giving you a visual reward for your hard-fought progress. Ironically, the colored sections don't look nearly as impressive as the black and white areas, although the pristine countryside is a pleasure to take a leisurely drive through. Just make sure you don't hit any cows. They explode as if filled with dynamite, which could ruin your mood.
The Saboteur isn't afraid to borrow concepts from its contemporaries. An amalgamation of the open world sandbox of Grand Theft Auto, the chaotic freeplay of Crackdown, the climbing of Assassin's Creed, and the zipline and rooftop traversal of Infamous, the game wears its influences on its sleeve. While these game mechanics work, like the French resistance they seem to have been done on the cheap. The sluggish car controls seemingly turn on an axis in the middle of the vehicle, which takes practice to master. Climbing frustratingly requires you to jam on the A button for each movement up the building. The gunplay has a sketchy auto cover system and the weaponry lacks the punch of more visceral shooters.
The one thing that made The Saboteur feel less smooth than it could have been was the controls. Especially when climbing or hitting an action button, the response wasn't where I would have liked it to be. Part of my problem with the controls might also be due to how cluttered they are. For instance, to activate your various modes of fighting (brawl, sneaking) you have to hit either the left trigger or left button (PS3 controls). Then a combination of the d-pad buttons while still hitting the button/trigger will perform a specific action within that mode. To fire a weapon, you'll have to equip your gun of choice and then use the left button to aim and the right button to fire. Perhaps it's my hastiness when there's a showdown with the Nazis, but mixing up the buttons always blew my cover and had me outrunning the dreadful red zone on my map.
This may be the most un-polished major-label game I've reviewed this year, which is too bad. Because when The Saboteur is being The Saboteur and not being Assassin's Creed or choking on a bug, it's got the spirit and spark of a game that should be played. That is, if you ever wanted to blow up a Zeppelin with a rocket launcher, kiss someone to hide from the people chasing you or knock over a Nazi gas station without them ever knowing you were there.