What seemed great on paper — a World War II game like nothing else, with sophisticated artistry to boot — had to be turned into a video game. But then some things, not necessarily too many things, went wrong.
The Saboteur is the final game developed by Pandemic Studios out of the EA-owned label's former offices, the last hurrah of the studio that brought gamers new takes on combat through Full Spectrum Warrior, Star Wars Battlefront, and Mercenaries. And their last standalone effort may have been their boldest, a World War II open-world game set in and around Paris, starring an Irish race car driver on a vendetta against the Nazi occupiers of France's beautiful city.
The game has received headlines for its inclusion of optional nudity and near-nudity, and it's likely turned the head of anyone who has seen screenshots or video featuring its terrific mixture of black-and-white graphics and color. But what makes it worth playing is its attempt to offer a mix of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed and thankfully some of its own style, situated in a time and place of history no other major game has explored, letting its players be the hero in a battle they can't truly win, sneakily killing Nazis and brashly blowing up zeppelins along the way.
Winning Theme: Setting a game amid the resistance movement against Nazi-occupied France is fresh and original. This isn't a game of storming beaches but hiding in brothels, not (often) of driving a tank but of slipping into an enemy uniform and poisoning the rival army from within. You don't play many games in which you can walk around without the Nazis shooting at you until you raid their bases. Better, though, is sneaking behind them to blow up their parked cars, sucker-punching them while they're harassing people on the street, or walking calmly away after you've set a ticking stack of dynamite at the foot of their sniper tower. Basically, this is the ultimate game of griefing Nazis, which is a lot of fun and feels morally sound. That this is all draped in one of the most unusual color schemes in gaming history is a bonus. Nazi-dominated areas of Paris and the surrounding towns and countryside are rendered in black-and-white, save for the colors of flames and red Nazi arm bands and banners. The game colorizes sections after the completion of certain missions, generating a sense that some vitality has been returned to the locale thanks to your actions.
A New Tale: I'm a sucker for a novel plot. This one doesn't have you fighting Nazis because you were drafted. It has you fighting them because your character, Irish race car driver Sean Devlin lost a race against crooked Nazis, tried to prank them and wound up stumbling across a scheme that got someone close to him killed. He's in it for revenge in the middle of a war, the French resistance a convenient cause to assist rather than one he was dedicated to serve. It's a nice touch that you play in the pair of races that are both key to the story, adding the historical nuance of the Nazis' attempt to demonstrate Aryan superiority in sporting events.
Beyond Paris: The game hits its stride best, for better or worse, outside Paris, where the player is most empowered to feel like a saboteur. Climbing rooftops and battling some control and design issues in the big city can hurt the fun, but on the vast outskirts, a player can speed down dirt roads, quick-stop next to a Nazi gas station, plant a bomb and peel out. The biggest delight comes from the explosions you hear and don't see, the sounds of the chain of blasts you managed to trigger from beneath those Nazi noses. All your sneaking and planning is rewarded as they scramble or die while you drive off to your next place to cause more mayhem.
A Man Of Many Talents: An open-world game is often improved by an wide array of character abilities. Our hero, Sean Devlin, can do the stealthy chaos-causing things described above, or he can toss grenades and fire machine guns into a nest of Germans, turning the tactical subtlety that feels most distinct to Saboteur into moments of gun-facing, man vs. army action. In other words, it begins to feel like Mercenaries, a playground, as they said in the commercials, of destruction. Other options, some not commonly seen elsewhere, include arming a bomb in a car you've stolen and then bailing from the vehicle just before it speeds into a Nazi base. Or you can call in resistance fighters to help you out, sometimes with drawbacks (see below).
Dynamic Intent: Almost a "Hated" instead of a "Loved," but something I ultimately cannot knock Pandemic for is its pockmarking of its map with several hundred "freeplay targets." These dots represent Nazi guard towers, trucks, supply drops and other things worth detonating. The winning concept behind them is to empower the gamer of this open-world game to gradually influence the dynamics of his terrain. Destroying a sniper tower while wandering through Paris removes that tower from the map, making a story-advancing mission the player might take right near the sniper tower easier. The game falters in inundating the player with so many freeplay target options while making it very unclear what the incentive is for taking out most of them. Sure, knocking over a guard tower makes a mission easier and earns Devlin some cash for buying better weapons. But does the elimination of propaganda speakers make the pedestrians more willing to resist? It'd be nice if the game made that more clear.
For The People: The most original missions in The Saboteur branch from the game's main story. A lady asks Devlin to stop a Nazi book-burning. A priest requests the murder of the Nazi half of a wedding party. Most of the game's main missions feel like they could have been generated for other action games, but those that engage with the manifold struggles of one society to survive the pervasive menace of another are the most refreshing. They show the scope of The Saboteur's potential.
Very Bad Timing: In Paris, Sean Devlin needs to climb, But he is no Altair or Ezio, and this game suffers in its proximity to the release of Assasin's Creed II. Sean's climbing is slow and stymied in odd ways by seemingly surmountable out-croppings. Worse, he has a hard time lowering himself down a roof in controlled ways. That the designers named Devlin's race car the Altair or that they included summit points that spin the camera around when he reaches them does the game no favors in avoiding the comparisons. These are Assassin's Creed 1 mechanics in a world that is enjoying Assassin's Creed II. And that makes much of the emergent action in Paris — the escaping from Nazi patrols by taking to the rooftops — or climbing walls to reach ziplines to reach bomb-able targets, less fun that it would have been a year ago.
Very Bad Timing Part 2: Sean Devlin is less the Irish rogue and more the jerk. He's gruff to the point of unpleasantness, the lead in a cast of characters who seem to hate each other except when they are sleeping with each other. Uncharted 2 just showed us how very likable an overmatched, cocky hero can be and how a game with romantically-linked leads can be sexy without being sophomoric. In this game, a stressed Devlin is asked how he feels after a rough battle. He says: "I could eat a nun's arse through a convent gate."
Glitches: The game is glitchy in an absurdly amusing way at least once per hour you're playing it. I approached a Nazi to snap his neck. He animated properly, dropping to his death. But so did the Nazi standing next to him, in synchronicity. I went into a base camp to talk to a resistance leader and wondered why he had a mannequin on his office. That was no mannequin. That was another character, accidentally spawned atop his phonograph. I called in a car-load of resistance fighters while I was taking fire in an intersection. They drove over, some got out of their car, and then their driver ran over one of them. I had to escape a mission on the back of a truck and kept failing because a character not involved in my mission — but who happened to be standing on the road we passed — kept dying, for reasons I can't explain. I'd just get a notification that he was dead. Etc. Once an hour with things like these. Not gamebreakers, but certainly mood-killers.
Truncated: Why Devlin brushes off an aerial crash he survives — right after the scene that was about him not having a parachute — I can't explain. Nor can I explain why the game's main adventure ends before we've again fought the Nazi henchwoman who is set up in earlier missions or why it ends with an enchanting but incredibly easy last mission. This game's story feels like it was cut off, though The Saboteur does offer enough terrain and optional missions to keep players busy past that early end.
The Saboteur has enough originality and enough of a capacity for the player to have fun at almost all times that it's a hard game not to recommend. It's a game for the curious, for gamers seeking something different. But as with so many original games, it is a game that has rough edges.
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.
The Saboteur was developed by Pandemic Studios and published by EA for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on December 8. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the campaign to its narrative conclusion, which was, for me, 88% mission progress in about 19 and a half hours. Liberated five chocolate bars and nine cans of caviar.
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