Va va voom.
World War II games have saturated the market for many years now. They’ve focused on the front lines of war from the view of various Allied forces and an aim to recapturing those jaw dropping ‘Saving Private Ryan’ moments with patriotism and historic relevance. Pandemic’s swansong title, The Saboteur, throws all of that out the window, using World War II as a backdrop - rather than a focus - for an open-world story of revenge in Nazi occupied France.
You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish race car driver with a stereotypical lust for drinking, swearing and saying “Top ‘o the morning to ye”. Needless to say he’s not the most thought-out character in the world, though he is a fairly likeable lead when all is said and done. At the beginning of the game - on the eve of the Nazi invasion of France, no less - his driving and mischievous antics get him caught up with Dierker, a blonde haired, blue eyed, driver/Nazi torturer who performs some particularly despicable acts in the name of being an evil Nazi bad guy. This fuels Devlin’s story of revenge as he heads to the majestic city of Paris for more than just sightseeing and the local cuisine.
It doesn’t take long for Devlin to get caught up in the French Resistance within the city. While it may not be his cause, he’s willing to help if it means getting to Dierker and extracting his revenge. It’s certainly an interesting concept using Nazis and World War II as a backdrop for a story like this, but the narrative never really gets going. New characters are consistently introduced all the time, but as you can tell from the two characters already described it’s quite a mix of stereotypical Frenchmen, Brits, Germans and everything in-between. The voicework is a mixed bag but the majority of it is fairly poor with some of the laughable, over-the-top French accents exemplifying the general quality on offer. The story does enough to hold interest to the end, but it struggles to find a tone or make you care much about anyone other than Devlin.
It’s a shame really because the stunning, black and white visual style would have benefited greatly from a film noir-style tale. Areas within Paris under the oppressive rule of the Nazis are plunged into darkness with overcast skies and constant rainfall dampening the faith of the people. Animosity and dread fills the air as only the striking, blood red colour of the Nazis pops to life amongst the gloomy black and white spread across each rooftop, pebbled street and back alley in the city. It’s a fantastically unique visual style that harkens back to that era and the way the Parisians must have felt under threatening rule of this evil empire. In simple game terms it’s your duty to restore colour back to the world, and inspire the people of Paris to fight back against history’s favourite enemy. The restoration of colour is an effect used in both Prince of Persia and Okami so it’s not as stunning as it could be here; however it provides good motivation, and works well as a gameplay mechanic, with more and more Resistance fighters helping you fight in these restored areas.
It’s relatively basic but The Saboteur features a neat perks system to improve Devlin’s skills and abilities. For instance, get 15 headshots with a sniper rifle and recoil will be reduced on all snipers for more accurate shooting. You can even have some fancy sports cars delivered to the games various garages if you win a few races, or some extra powerful explosives for destroying enough Nazi structures. It’s a fun way to get the most out of Devlin’s various anti-Nazi skills.
Not that Devlin really needs the help. He’s quite the handyman with a typical array of abilities. Hand-to-hand combat comes first but the omission of any kind of lock-on makes it a clumsy and ineffectual combat strategy that won’t be used much past the first few missions. Firearms are introduced soon enough, and while the controls are fairly loose, headshots are easy to pull off and each hit has a satisfying feel to it. There’s not a lot of variety to weapons, although you can buy new, more powerful weaponry from black market dealers throughout the city to spruce things up a bit.
It should come as no surprise that Devlin is fairly capable behind the wheels of a car. The driving isn’t great with some stiff controls but it’s serviceable enough and the myriad vehicles look great. What you may be surprised to hear is that Devlin isn’t too shabby when it comes to climbing buildings either. Any appropriate surface is scalable and it’s as easy as pressing A to jump between ledges, pipes and so on. It’s simple to do but not all that fun with some clunky animations that damage the flow. Once you’re atop the rooftops of Paris more problems begin to arise as Devlin’s character movement is twitchy and unpredictable. Using ladders, zip lines and even dropping down always brings with it an heir of uncertainty that’s evidently justified when you stumble to your death for the umpteenth time. If the controls were more refined this could have been a fun aspect of the experience, but with recent games like Assassin’s Creed 2 mastering fluid and exhilarating rooftop action, The Saboteur feels dated and clumsy in comparison.
The same could be said for the stealth as well. While not as weak as the platforming the stealth gameplay isn’t as fun as it could have been had it been more fleshed-out. Providing no one sees you, you can knock out and steal a Nazi’s uniform, using it to infiltrate restricted areas. All this essentially amounts to is looking at circles within circles on your circular mini-map to avoid being recognised. In most cases your cover will be blown anyway so it’s easy enough to go in guns blazing from the start. It’s nice to have the option to tackle missions in multiple ways, but I found it more fun looking for different routes in rather than being generally stealthy.
And most of the missions revolve around blowing up a whole lot of Nazi equipment so it’s never going to be quiet anyway. The best moments in The Saboteur come when you blast your way through an enemy stronghold before planting dynamite and seeing it all go up in flames. The majority of missions utilize this winning formula, with a few big set-pieces thrown in for good measure. Even when you’re just cruising around the city there’s a plethora of free-play targets to destroy. There’s something wholly satisfying about planting explosives on a Nazi tank before walking away nonchalantly as it explodes over your shoulder.
So it’s a shame that some of the best moments in the game – big explosions, lots of Nazis dying – is spoiled, somewhat, by unstable framerate and plenty of glitches. Maybe it’s because Pandemic were put out of business, but The Saboteur reeks of a game that’s unfinished. You’ll see objects and people floating, cars fall out of the sky; at one points a giant hole was blown in the side of a building yet the game was still treating it as a solid surface – I could take cover against it, climb it, but not run through it like I was supposed to. It may not sound like much but the amount of glitches and visual imperfections do disrupt the experience and impressive presentation.
In the end The Saboteur is a solid swansong for a struggling developer. It vastly improves over Mercenaries 2 with a lot of enjoyable, explosive combat and a fantastic visual style. The characters and story leave a lot to be desired but it’s a fun ride and a cool take on the World War II genre. It has its problems with control issues and glitches, but the biggest crime of all is that this solid concept isn’t fully realised.