If Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series had a baby during World War II, it might be The Saboteur, but not every child inherits all of his parents' best traits. Borrowing bits and pieces from both approaches to citywide mayhem and chaos, The Saboteur is one of the most unique approaches taken with the WW II sub-genre in years, and it's also a bittersweet curtain call for Pandemic Studios.
The Saboteur is less concerned about being true to history and more so about providing enough destructible Third Reich real estate for a WWII Rambo to tear apart. It also seems as if it's trying to compress the entire occupation into a few explosive days. Pandemic had clearly approached the period with the same eye as the no-holds barred, popcorn-crunching action found in Nazi-smashing cinema such as "The Dirty Dozen," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and, more recently, "Inglourious Basterds."
Weapons from different wartime years appear at the same time, and apparently every member of the Wehrmacht wears NSDAP armbands (not true). However, by providing a sandbox where flying zeppelins hover menacingly over Paris and goose-stepping thugs terrorize people, The Saboteur gleefully advertises opportunities for you to run roughshod over these caricatures, stick them from behind or turn them into pulverized lunchmeat with a well-placed stick of dynamite.
Starting only months before Nazi Germany's invasion of France, the hard-drinking, fist-fighting and auto-racing Irishman, Sean Devlin, is stung by defeat on the racetrack when Aryan Übermensch, Kurt Dierker, shoots out his tire to take the lead and the trophy. Sean and best buddy, Jules Rousseau, head out for a little revenge only to get in over their heads when Dierker turns out to be more than a blond-haired, blue-eyed race car driver.
With missions such as "Set Us Up the Bomb" or "The Bavarian Candidate" and characters such as psychological warfare specialist Dr. Kwong, the story has its moments of welcome brevity. When Sean asked a German why he does what he does to help the Resistance and he replies, "… the blood in my veins is a death sentence," it challenges the player with its meaning, but the story never goes any further to explore some of the darker themes behind such statements.
This is one of the problems with the story: The game is obviously a knuckle-cracking, bust-'em-up gallery with bullets, but when it throws in something that wants to be taken seriously at the same time, it can occasionally come off as a somewhat awkward fit. Sean is a great character and it's obvious that a lot of effort was spent on crafting him, but the game also has a knack for having him randomly deliver attitude at the wrong moment. After knifing someone in the back, you might hear Sean yell if the guy wants to fight, which makes me wonder if he had too much coffee that morning. Do it enough times in the game, and it just hurts the character.
German, French and English are all spoken here, with subtitles providing enough translations for the player to understand some of the conversations, but in the same way that GSC's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had left its fireside chats in Russian, the melting pot of languages provides the game with a rich ambiance — as long as you can overlook its boilerplate approach to accents.
Melancholy rhythms and hard-hitting action pieces sung in French, English or with instruments alone made it exciting to race down the Champs-Élysées to escape a flock of Nazi motorcycles and Kübelwagens. Although it's not as varied as GTA's extensive selection, the audio is appropriate for the era.
Paris is violated by the reds and blacks of Nazi Germany, with the swastika glaring down at you from nearly every street. Making no apologies as to where you are, the blood-red flags are one of the consistent reminders of evil in both monochrome and color. Pandemic's artists have done a brilliant job in envisioning Paris as a city under occupation.
The bold, artistic decision to visually represent occupied France in black and white with splashes of occasional color easily conveys the people's sense of malaise within each occupied area. When you've done enough in a section to inspire the inhabitants, color returns to the region and breaks the storm clouds overhead. Even the dialogue changes among the NPCs to reflect the growing mood of rebellion, but soldiers still walk the streets, and it's just as hard to get away from them when things go wrong. On the other hand, they won't point rifles at the inspired populace as often.
Soldiers in oppressed areas randomly harass civilians by arresting them, lining them up against a wall to be shot, or forcing them into a bullet dance before putting one in his back. At the same time, there's nothing to really stop you from "accidentally" running over that Nazi officer who had punched a nun, either.
Grateful citizens reward Sean with contraband that can be used to buy weapons and supplies, but if a soldier sees you fillet his buddy, he won't hesitate to whistle for help. This is the Third Reich, so they're not going to come after you with a two-bit police cruiser … or take prisoners.
Sean will also be doing a lot of running, as he can clamber up the sides of buildings and famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower, without fear. The climbing controls aren't as graceful as those found in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed or Eidos' Tomb Raider: Underworld. It's a little too easy to walk off the edge of a building when Sean fails to automatically grasp the edge, which makes me more than a little leery of using it. Successfully climbing anywhere felt more dependent on chance than skill.
The action makes it difficult to not think of this title as GTA IV in WWII. Shooting is handled in third-person view, and Sean can aim down iron sights to get an even better look at his enemies. He can only carry two weapons at a time, but size doesn't matter, so he can Panzerschreck launcher in his coat as easily as a Luger pistol.
Enemies often drop weapons, and regenerating health keeps the pacing as consistent as the action. There's even a cover system in place that's a little rough around the edges, but it works well enough to make it invaluable when the lead starts flying. Of course, as a former race car driver, Sean can collect anything with wheels and store them at a friendly garage. If you're a fan of Rockstar's sandbox games, The Saboteur's change of venue delivers as many thrills.
Sean also has perks that he can unlock by performing special tasks, such as blowing up a series of bridges or quickly running a race. Each perk level has its own requirements, but they are extremely useful. For example, unlocking additional levels in brawling allowed me to take out Nazi scum with a sucker punch from the front, as opposed to sneaking up from behind with a knife.
Working to unlock these is just as fun as the random ruin that you can visit on the hundreds of targets set around France, easily adding hours upon hours of exploration to the game outside of the story. Far more entertaining than collecting a hundred pigeons (ahem, GTA IV), it's difficult to not want to take out Nazi propaganda speakers, armored cars, generals and guard towers on the way to your next objective.
Sean's ability to sneak around has also opened doors on how you approach certain targets. Although a disguise doesn't confer the benefits of rank, it can allow him to enter restricted areas without suspicion, as long as he doesn't run around like a nut or get too close to real soldiers or the ever-watchful Gestapo.
When the Third Reich comes calling, five levels of alarm are raised, depending on how stubborn you are in dying. They'll eventually send tanks, APCs that unload squads of soldiers who are wielding anything from machine guns to flamethrowers; you'll even see strafing runs from planes and zeppelins. A pursuit circle appears around Sean whenever he's sighted, and the game loves to spawn more motorcycles and enemy cars to keep him in sight.
It's not meant to be easy, and at the highest level, the options for escaping become that much more difficult. If Sean can get out of sight at the lower alarm levels, he can duck into a friendly brothel, a pissoir or a trapdoor on the roof. At the higher levels, he can lead his pursuers into an ambush arranged by the Resistance and fight alongside them to aid his escape.
The Saboteur also feels unfinished, and with Pandemic's closure, it's hard to not think that a little more development time could have fixed some of these issues. As much variety as there is to see in Paris and the countryside, the draw distances aren't as good, despite the illusion of seeing far-off buildings. In extreme cases, cars drop into streets as they're spawned, but it can be annoying when you try to knock out faraway targets, like watchtowers, with a cannon and they remain standing. Glitches — such as when a car sank below the street (although Sean was able to get in and out of it), clipping issues such as flags waving into walls, and the rough graphics, with splotchy colors and textures that fade in — eventually grate on the eyes after a while.
Using the map is a mixed blessing. For one thing, you can't place your own markers, and there's also no quick travel, which means that you'll be doing a lot of running or driving to get anywhere, and that can get repetitive over the course of the game. At one point, I found myself stuck in the countryside and didn't want to drive to the other side of the map, so it was faster to simply save and load the game, which spawned me at the nearest hideout.
The single-minded AI usually wins through its overwhelming number of soldiers because it certainly isn't because of good tactics. It can sometimes become confused, run over its own people or get itself stuck behind corners. At one point, armed with the right weapons and taking cover at an appropriate choke point, I was able to wipe out nearly 200 of the goose-stepping robots before moving on. It's strange to cause that much havoc and not need to smooth things over by bribing an official or changing records; you simply have to "disappear" from view.
Ultimately, The Saboteur is a refreshing change from the usual WWII hodgepodge because it finally brings open-ended sandbox gameplay to such a historic era. The Saboteur embellishes the established formula and tells a solid story wrapped up in Michael Bay-sized servings of fiery explosions and a body count that can embarrass Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Commando." However, it's also disappointing to see the title stumble as often as it does, with graphical glitches, unreliable climbing controls and lackluster enemy AI.
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