A Fun, Albeit Flawed Ride Through 1940's Paris
Games taking place in World War II are nothing new. We’ve all stormed the beaches of Normandy and pushed into Berlin countless times. But how often do players get the chance to sabotage the Nazi’s plans from within with a few sticks of dynamite and a disguise? The Saboteur from Pandemic Studios attempts to capitalize on this idea with the option to sneak or blast your way through the Nazi regime. The final product ends up offering a fun, though flawed experience.
You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish race car driver and mechanic. Sean and his friends enter a race where their biggest competition is a German hotshot named Dierker. After being cheated out of said race Sean and his friend Jules decide to get some payback. What starts as a simple prank quickly becomes Sean’s worst nightmare as him and Jules are captured. Turns out that Dierker is more than just a race car driver. He also happens to be a high-ranking Nazi officer that enjoys torturing his victims. Sean sees Jules murdered in front of him and promptly escapes to Paris, vowing revenge on Dierker and the Nazi army.
The story is decent with a few twists that are not hard to predict. Throughout the game, Sean will work with various resistance groups and government agencies in Paris, with his main goal continuously being to hunt down Dierker. There are some nice set piece moments, though there are times the story takes itself a bit to seriously, which is somewhat odd given the over the top gameplay surrounding it.
The Saboteur attempts to be part third person shooter, part third person stealth game. It succeeds at one much more than the other. Shooting weapons feels solid and responsive. It can be a real thrill to run through a German base blasting everyone is sight and this thrill is heightened by the large amounts of explosive barrels the Nazis tend to keep around. Planting explosives on key structures is a big part of The Saboteur as well and the way these structures crumble and break apart is really enjoyable.
Unfortunately, many of the stealth elements feel underdeveloped. Sean has the ability to sneak up of guards and perform stealth kills and can even remove their uniform to use as a disguise. It can be really satisfying to take out three or four guards undetected and stroll in the front door of a stronghold. However, these elements also prove to be just as frustrating. To indicate you are attracting suspicion, a meter around your radar will fill up with a yellow line. Once this meter is full, Sean will lose his disguise and be instantly attacked.
The main problem with the stealth mechanics is this meter. It fills up too quickly. Doing things like walking to close to a guard, running, or raising your weapon raises your suspicion. This sounds good on paper, but there are times your suspicion meter will start to increase rapidly with no real indication of what you’re doing to cause it. And if you need to walk by a small cluster of guards, there is almost a guarantee they’ll notice you since multiple guards seeing you at once makes the meter rise more rapidly. A bit more feedback about your actions or a more lenient suspicion meter would be an improvement and make the stealth a more viable option.
Along with all the action, Sean is also quite a nimble fellow. He can climb up and around most structures, as long as there are enough handholds. These abilities are useful when trying to sneak into a facility or get away from pursing German soldiers. However, his movement feels a bit clunky. If you’ve ever played any of the Assassin’s Creed games, you’ll miss the smooth climbing abilities that game showcased. That’s not to say Sean’s climbing controls are bad, but having to hit a button for each and every ledge you want him to jump to just feels sluggish. His animations are also somewhat jerky and unnatural. You can always just hop in a car instead to get from point A to point B and all the cars control as the should for the time. That is to say a bit poorly, but not unbearably so.
When not busy with the story, there are hundreds of Nazi targets placed around Paris to destroy. These range from high-ranking Nazi generals to assassinate, to sniper towers to bring down, to Anti-Aircraft guns to blow up. All of these targets are optional, but they provide something to do outside the main story and provide their own benefits. Not only will you be rewarded with contraband, the currency of Saboteur, but also Nazi resistance will be less in the given area making escape a bit easier.
The Saboteur also has somewhat of a leveling system it refers to as “perks”. By completing specific goals, such as killing five Nazi’s with a single explosive or blowing up a certain number of structures, Sean will be given these special abilities. Some of these include steadier aim with a sniper rifle or being able to plant explosives while disguised without attracting attention. They don’t drastically change the way the game is played, but they are a nice addition that motivate you to think a bit more tactically.
Graphically, the game has some solid visuals. The city of Paris is large and fun to explore, though some textures are a bit dull or unpolished. The characters models are also well done, with Sean being the stand out. Explosions look good and are satisfying to see over and over, and structures you destroy crumble into a heap of rubble. As previously stated, some of Sean's animations, specially while climbing, look odd, but they are never so bad that they distract you from the game. I ran into a few major frame rate drops when my alert status was high and I was constantly being swarmed, but with those few exceptions, the frame rate stays solid.
While the technical aspects of The Saboteur are commendable, it’s the art style that really stands out. Any area of Paris under Nazi control will be represented in black and white. Some colors remain, like the yellow lights inside buildings or red lights on German outposts, and the stark contrast is quite beautiful. Once an area is liberated from Nazi control, that area reverts back to full color. It’s a cool effect that is amplified from high vantage points where you can see the city divided by color. It's not totally original, but it's a nice direction.
There is also some nice sound design. The effects that accompany explosions and gunfire pack a solid punch and make them feel powerful, as they should. Music is appropriate for the time though it is only heard while driving. There are some nice orchestral scores during large set pieces as well. Voice acting is solid with a few odd accents, though the dialogue is occasionally hit or miss. There are very few conversations where you won’t hear Sean and company cracking jokes about him enjoying a drink…you know, because he’s Irish?
In the end, The Saboteur is a fun ride. It has its issues, specifically where its stealth gameplay is concerned, but the action and destruction elements are enjoyable and help carry the game from start to finish. It certainly isn’t the next evolution of open world games or even the World War II genre, but, if you’re a fan of open world destruction or want another excuse to kill as many Nazi’s as you can, The Saboteur is worth a look.