The Saboteur Review
Although The Saboteur impressed many at E3 last summer with its super-cool race car driver hero and stylish black and white art direction, the inevitable naysayers labeled it nothing more than a GTA clone. (Though at this point, why does anyone bother to say that anymore?) Made by the now-defunct Pandemic Studios—makers of Mercenaries I and II—The Saboteur leverages the mechanics of the Mercs titles in a stylish re-examination of Nazi-occupied World War II Paris. In The Saboteur, you play Irish race car driver, Sean Devlin, an employee of Italian master mechanic, Vittore. The two of you are wowing the European racing circuit with Vittore's masterwork, a superfast race car called the Aurora, when you get cheated out of a win by arrogant Nazi, Kurt Dierker. Swearing revenge, you soon find yourself caught up in a city-wide conflict as the Nazis stage a direct assault on Paris.
Now, world war is a very serious thing but the first thing you'll see when you open up The Saboteur is an invitation to the “Midnight Show”. This contains a code to unlock some scandalous DLC, full of illicit rewards, gambling and (ack!) naked breasts. Who can resist that? So everyone--get out your code, fire up the game and download the Midnight Show so we can watch the strippers in the opening cinematic sans pasties. All together now--“Yay boobies!” OK, now we can move on to more important things.
At game start, Sean's drinking away his sorrows at a cabaret called “La Belle du Nuit” when he's approached at the bar by famous author and French Resistance leader, Luc Gaudin. Luc, along with Sean's old flame (and British agent) Skylar, guilts him into joining their cause and sends him on a slew of spy-like missions involving rescuing hostages and delivering exploding packages. Things in Paris are grim, as indicated by everything being rendered in stark black and white—except for the Nazi symbols which are blood red. To restore color to the world, Sean—you—must “inspire” the public by weakening Nazi control. You do this by completing the main story missions which involve one of two things: getting revenge on that cheater Dierker, or kidnapping a German scientist named Dr. Kessler so the Nazis can't use his knowledge to build a super weapon. Whenever you finish one of these main story missions, the area you're in is “washed” with color as the locals' Will to Fight rises.
As you can imagine, no matter how inspiring it might be, attacking the Nazi army head-on isn't such a great idea. You'll have to be crafty, cagey and er...climby to get the better of those goose-stepping bastards. You'll find yourself climbing a lot of buildings and running on a lot of rooftops as you observe Nazi movements and perform tasks for the Resistance. Unfortunately, The Saboteur's platforming mechanic follows that of Assassin's Creed II, and it suffers from the comparison. It's definitely fun to zipline between buildings and it's good that ledges flicker to let you know you can grab them, but too often you'll find yourself jumping to your death when trying to grab a zipline and you're likely to find climbing a slow and sluggish business.
While climbing here might be more realistic thatn it is in ACII, it's just not as much fun. The Saboteur also makes use of ACII's hiding place mechanic but once again, fails to do as well. Rooftop hiding places are often hard to spot since they're usually trapdoors found in sunken niches and street level hiding places are generally impossible to use because you have to first break line of sight in the Nazi-saturated streets in order to use them. Of course if you can't hide, you can always run, and if you can master the awkward left thumbstick double-click, The Saboteur does allow you to sprint endlessly.
During your Resistance escapades, you'll use all manner of black market guns, as well as grenades and dynamite, which you buy from the Black Market. Ranged combat is intuitive and satisfying and you can automatically take or break cover by approaching or moving away from walls or barriers. You can only carry two weapons at a time, not counting demolitions equipment, but everything can be easily switched using the directional pad. (Oddly, you can collect a range of different ammo which will be completely useless to you if it's not for the guns you're carrying.) For those of you who prefer more intimate kills, you can sneak up behind enemies, kill them and disguise yourself in their uniforms. If you screw up and they see you, you best take them down quickly before they have the chance to sound the alarm. Unfortunately, that means remembering to let up on the LB button to exit Sneak mode and remembering to hold down the LT button before pressing A, X and B to enter Brawl mode. This takes a while to get used to and fumbling between these modes often results in being thrown to your death off a sniper tower.
Like other semi-stealth games, you have to work not to alert enemies of your presence. If you're just walking along the street, keeping your distance, you'll have no problem. The second you start running or come too close to a Nazi checkpoint however, you're asking for trouble. Enemy alert level is indicated with a yellow meter that fills up the more attention you draw to yourself. Sometimes you can drain the meter by walking slowly away, but depending on where you've been seen, setting off alarms may be unavoidable. The more visible you become, the higher an alarm level you'll reach (up to 5) and the more ridiculous the Nazi pursuit becomes. Heck, those loonies will even send armed zeppelins out after you! The only way to turn these alarms off is to hide, disguise yourself or drive like a bat out of hell.
The Saboteur isn't an RPG so there's no such thing as leveling, but you can earn “Perks” that boost your stats in things like brawling, racing, evasion, demolitions and the like. Think of them as achievements but with an actual benefit, like being able to summon a group of Resistance fighters to help you or a car to escape in. In addition to finishing main story missions and earning perks, there are lots of side missions to perform and free play targets to hit. For the first half of the game you'll deal with the leaders of other branches of the Resistance in an effort to unify them. They'll have you stopping book burnings, rescuing spies and assassinating informants. You can also do jobs for Santos, the slimy Black Market dealer or just roam around the countryside blowing up anything with a swastika on it. If that gets old, you can focus on collecting contraband. You get things like wine, art and gold by killing Nazis or kicking in crates and these items can be traded for Black Market weapons and upgrades. You can also collect cars for the fun of it by bringing them to Resistance garages, then use them to engage in racing missions. If none of that floats your boat, you can head out to the country to play some “Bird Blast”, a minigame that lets you practice your aim by flushing pigeons out of the brush and pulverizing them with a shotgun.
Every open world action game is going to suffer the inevitable GTA comparisons and The Saboteur is no different. There are of course, obvious similarities between it and the GTA series. There's a large, open world with non-linear objectives, plenty of cars to hijack, gunplay, prostitutes, etc. This conceptual similarity might be seen as a strike against The Saboteur but should probably more be seen as a format logically embraced by it. Despite its adoption of a proven format though, the game does have a few issues. For instance, sometimes no matter what you do, no matter how far away you get from the Nazis, the alarm just won't go off. That means either you run madly all over the countryside while Nazis magically intercept you at every road, or you allow yourself to die just to reset things. The AI too can be a problem, most noticeably during escort missions. Many times you're forced to protect someone who insists on standing right in front of a guy with a flamethrower or just refuses to get in the car. On top of that, you'll occasionally see Nazi soldiers running around in circles. That's the bad news about the game. The good news is, there's more good news than bad.
The missions, both main and side, are satisfying to complete and there's an interesting range of them. If you die, missions let you continue where you left off so you're not penalized too badly, which comes in useful on those destroy missions with twenty different targets. The game as a whole presents a good challenge but you can change difficulty (from Casual, Normal, Hard and Feckin' Hard) at any time to suit your skill level. Sean, the main character is a likable badass who's a lot of fun to play and it's cool to see the World War II/Nazi theme examined for once, with no American angle whatsoever. By far though, the best news about The Saboteur is the look of it. Perhaps it is just a stylistic lacquer on top of a Mercenaries/GTA framework but hey, what style.
First of all, the UI is cool. The bloodstain motif echoes the one used in Dragon Age and incorporates scroll-like designs that hint at a Parisian aesthetic. Then there's the environment; Paris and the surrounding countryside really evoke a specific place and time. So much so, it's great just to drive around sight-seeing. The dev team takes us on an interesting tour of some interesting locales by creating Resistance HQ's within them (a country church, a slaughterhouse and the famous catacombs to name a few) and treats us to some bird's eye views of the city during an impromptu zeppelin ride. The art team was obviously proud of their accomplishments and keen to show them off, as evidenced by the use of yet another Assassin's Creed mechanic—the one where you can climb to the top of very tall buildings for a 360 cinematic view of the land. Sadly, The Saboteur's draw distance isn't up to the challenge and so most things in the distance end up looking sort of blurry and melted.
The characters in The Saboteur are just as well done as the environments, in fact, better since they don't suffer from the draw distance issue. The main characters' facial features are all unique and real and their bodies manage to avoid that weird, puffy “shoulder pad” look so many 3D models exhibit. Above characters and environments though, the best aspect of the game's art style is the way color returns to the land as you work to restore the morale of the people of Paris. The game is stunning both in color and black and white, and call me an eye-candy junkie—one of the coolest things about it is driving through the different districts and watching the color come and go. Sound in The Saboteur is a strong point as well, if not as strong as the graphics. Voice acting in general is great in spite of the inevitable cheesy French accents. The actor playing Sean in particular, is extremely convincing and likable. The music, though mostly not of the era, strikes just the right chord, the only downside being that there's not enough of it.
The Saboteur was the last title released by the ill-fated Pandemic Studios, and as such, serves as an admirable swan song. The game offers up the kind of open-world gameplay fans of the GTA series enjoy while presenting a fresh take on the overused World War II theme. Despite a few issues with reluctant AI and somewhat clunky platforming, The Saboteur stylishly proves that the genre of open world action-adventure is considerably bigger than GTA.