Goin’ Down Swingin’
Pandemic Studios was simply too expensive for EA to maintain. At least that’s the corporate line. Speculation persists that the recent closure of the development house was because they couldn’t deliver a true AAA blockbuster despite being given ample budgets and timeframes. Whichever side of the argument you feel is correct, one thing’s for sure, The Saboteur is a high note to close on. Taking the tired WWII setting and making it totally fresh was always going to be difficult, but Pandemic managed to make their game world both interesting and gorgeous. Combine the unique visual scheme with an expansive open-world and gamers can look forward to hours of quality gaming despite its utterly conventional gameplay.
Unfortunately, the timing of the closure of Pandemic Studios seems to have tarnished the release of The Saboteur. This is evidenced by the lack of buzz amongst gamers and the less than ideal reviews springing up across the Internet. While The Saboteur certainly doesn’t have as sophisticated gameplay as is expected from a top title, it is still quite fun and will undoubtedly garner a rabid following; this is one game that will certainly be rated higher by consumers than by journalists. Rather than getting bogged down by its missteps and unpolished minutia, know that there’s a quality gaming experience to be found here. The Saboteur is a fun, mature experience you’ll likely enjoy in spite of its flaws.
The Saboteur has players don the tweed cap of Sean Devlin, a hard-drinking Irish race car driver caught unexpectedly in the midst of the Nazi invasion of France during WWII. Hiding out in the seedy side of Paris, Sean secretly longs to exact revenge upon the occupying force that tortured and killed his best friend and turned his simple existence as a mechanic-turned-race car driver upside down. Joining the Parisian resistance, Sean uses his unique talents – fighting, shooting, demolitions, racing, climbing, and blending in – to become the city’s (and later the frontline’s) most prolific saboteur. Throughout the game, you’ll take on missions to destroy petrol depots, save citizens from death squads, disrupt Nazi communications, derail trains, steal contraband, and take out key targets. An extensive black market and resistance network will aid you with loads of era-specific weaponry, explosives, safe houses, and intelligence briefings. The story spun along the way isn’t particularly convincing, but it certainly provides for a lot of entertaining objectives to accomplish.
As you complete these goals, the heavy police presence is greatly diminished. This essentially liberates the zone, giving the citizens hope and the urge to resist the invaders. This is a designed game mechanic known as the “Will to Fight”. The game features a Film Noir-like filter that makes occupied zones dour in black and white. Once you succeed in liberating the area, this section of the city pops with brilliant colors. The stylized visual approach not only makes things easy for you to see the progress you’ve made, giving you a deeper sense of accomplishment, it also gives you’re character and the resistance a stronger foothold; citizens will begin to fight back, evading Nazis becomes easier, and the resistance movement begins to spread.
Gameplay in The Saboteur, for the most part, is utterly conventional, lacking any semblance of creativity. Jacking cars, climbing buildings, third-person gun fights, and running from one objective to the next with the aid of an unerring mini-map are gaming mechanics we’ve encountered time and time again. Disappointingly, The Saboteur doesn’t do anything substantial to make these tired tropes fresh or even standout. This open-world action title obviously models itself after GTA and Assassin’s Creed (in addition to the copycat gameplay, mechanics such as zones of suspicion and alarm levels are simply mildly-tweaked versions of recognition and wanted levels found in Assassin’s Creed and GTA, respectively), but the game can’t hold a candle to either of them. Despite the formulaic nature, The Saboteur was competently made, and there’s something about open-world, third-person action titles that draws gamers in regardless of the genre’s overused nature. I just wish more care was taken to make the gameplay feel refined and unique rather than routine and mundane.
Controls in The Saboteur should have been a lot better. The only aspect that I felt was really good was the sticky cover. As long as you have a weapon out, the game will automatically get you into good positions. If you’re unarmed (like while sneaking), you can tap the shoulder button and snap to cover all the same. Outside of cover, everything else is little more than sufficient. First of all, the driving controls, of which you’ll be using constantly, are identical to those found in GTA IV, but you’ll be driving one-ton hoop-dees from the 30s and 40s. Needless to say, driving is excruciatingly sluggish. The third-person shooting, outside of cover control, is wonky at best. If you’ve been playing Modern Warfare 2 lately, you’ll think this game’s broken.
Finally, climbing up buildings is slow and cumbersome. Instead of holding a modifier button to engage the climb mode, you’ll have to repetitively tap a face button. This gets annoying and tiresome quickly – I did everything I could to avoid climbing, but the game is rife with missions dependent upon the lousy parkour controls. It’s by no means impossible to play The Saboteur, but the devs sure didn’t make it easy.
Thankfully, the production values and overall presentation fare much better. Visuals, in particular, are absolutely outstanding. The black and white filter, later overtaken by a vibrant color palette, does a great job of communicating the desired mood. The expansive environments are wonderfully rendered and detailed, as are the character models and animations. In fact, some of the best female nudity in video gaming is on display here. However, my favorite bit of visual magic found in the game was that of explosions – the stark contrast between the drab backgrounds and the rolling, roiled, fiery clouds are magnificent to behold.
Sound isn’t quite as amazing, but it still superior to most other games out there. The period ballads and instrumentals that accompany the game allow for a high level of immersion, and the dialogue is often hilarious and laced with risqué double entendre. Voice over work is hit or miss, though. While I enjoyed the Irish quips from protagonist Sean Devlin, a number of characters stand out as being quite poorly voiced. This is especially the case when listening to the French characters – it is obvious that Yank actors were putting on a Froggy accent that rarely comes off as genuine.
The only thing more played out more than WWII is perhaps open-world action. Nevertheless, both conventions are overused for a reason: they have great video game potential. In the case of The Saboteur, they combine to provide for a compelling if uninventive experience. Working in concert, this game’s tired, uninspired mechanics still manage to get the job done; the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, this game isn’t for you. However, if you love WWII or open-world action games, The Saboteur is a gorgeous title that somehow manages to remain fun from beginning to end.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.8 Graphics
The environments, unique color palette, and female nudity are exquisitely done. Sometimes facial expressions look artificial and jenky. 3.0 Control
They’re good enough to get the job done, but a lot more attention should have been paid to their implementation. 3.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music selection is great and sets the mood. Sean Devlin is a cool cat, but the onslaught of poorly delivered French accents can be grating. 4.0 Play Value
There’s an awful lot to do in this open-world action title, but most of it you’ve done before and it eventually gets very repetitive. Still, it’s somehow manages to be fun from start to finish – assuming you aren’t a completionist zealot. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.