Amazing. Ambitious. Avant-garde.
These are reactions that The Saboteur, in concept alone, first inspires. When we heard about the free-roaming 1940s Paris setting, we dared to dream of an open-world epic with class and style in place of the usual crime and sex. When we learned that the storyline would revolve around the French underground resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II, we hoped for a deep moral narrative with real historical significance. When we witnessed the unique visuals, which paint terrorized parts of the city in depressing grayscale and liberated sections in bright, eye-dazzling color, we immediately thought of cinematic classics like Schindler’s List.
Could The Saboteur be our gaming equivalent? Could this end up a serious, substantive masterpiece with themes of life, death, freedom and war?
Above: The main menu
Above: The opening shot of the opening cutscene
Spielberg, meet Tarantino
Right. So clearly, The Saboteur is aiming a bit lower than our lofty-minded expectations. This is still a videogame, with a videogame mentality – babes, guns, cars, explosions, macho men and salty swear words are still the number one priority. Schindler’s List loses out to Inglourious Basterds. Once you’ve accepted this fact, however, you can have a helluva lot of fun wallowing into that exploitative gratuitousness.
For example, would a “serious masterpiece” start you off in a nightclub / brothel / safehouse, surrounded by half-naked women and drunken Nazis?
Or make blasting Titanic-sized zeppelins out of the sky with a rocket launcher one of your most common pastimes?
Or give you a garage full of free, infinite-supply, nitro-fueled racecars less than halfway through the adventure?
Or faithfully recreate the Eiffel Tower simply so you can climb to the top and base jump for an Achievement / Trophy?
The Saboteur’s gameplay is over-the-top to be sure, but in a really satisfying, really entertaining way. And while the story, characters and setting never reach that transcendent level we first imagined, they do get surprisingly close when you consider all the silliness that surrounds them.
A city worth fighting for
Take the game’s version of Paris, for example. It doesn’t feel anywhere near as deep, detailed and layered as GTA IV’s Liberty City, but what it does feel is very much alive. Old men walk down cobbled hills with canes and hats. Couples kiss passionately on street corners. Merchants wave newspapers while artists paint miniature landscapes. Soothing, era-appropriate (if not era-recorded) jazz music streams gently out of every car radio. Birds fly. Clouds move.
Of course, those are the freed areas. Move into Nazi-controlled neighborhoods and the shift in atmosphere is stunning. Rain inevitably begins to pour, streaming down statues and pooling on the ground. Barb wire, spotlights, sniper towers and artillery turrets surround you… smother you. Germans are absolutely everywhere, often rounding up innocent citizens for impromptu executions (which you can stop if you’re quick enough). Most obvious is the selective draining of color, which reduces the world to stark blacks, whites and greys, but leaves some thematic elements – like the warm yellow of an apartment window, the searing red of a Third Reich flag or the life-affirming blue of a Resistance armband – intact.
The dramatic difference between these two sides of Paris is a remarkable motivator. Even if The Saboteur had no story, you’d desperately want to fight just to see the city restored. You’d want to protect the people, too, who gratefully gossip about your exploits, politely look the other way when you snap a Nazi’s neck and earnestly shout “Merci!” when you come to their rescue. We experienced honest-to-goodness guilt whenever we accidentally ran one over with our car, which is a new – and welcome – feeling for an open-world game.
Heroes who are actually heroic
Another nice change to the open-world formula is The Saboteur’s cast of characters. For once in this genre, you’re not playing an up-and-coming gangster with a slippery sense of morality and a social network of lowlife friends, crooked cops and greedy businessmen. Instead, you’re Sean Devlin, a rough-spoken yet soft-hearted Irishman whose only goals in the game are to execute / explode Nazis and to defend his loved ones’ safety at any cost. He doesn’t work for money or power, and though he begins the story motivated solely by revenge and personal loss, he ends as a selfless freedom fighter.
Above: See? They go to church and everything
Just because Sean and his allies are noble, however, doesn’t mean their missions are boring. When an elderly woman asks you to halt a German book burning underneath the Arc de Triomphe, she doesn’t send you with a bucket of water; she demands that you bury a bullet in the supervising general’s head. When a revolutionary sends you to rescue a political prisoner, the plan involves hijacking a zeppelin, brawling across the rooftops of Notre Dame Cathedral and blasting the Führer’s finest off their sidecar motorcycles as you escape in the back of a stolen, gun-mounted truck. Indiana Jones would be proud.
Unfortunately, we must end this section of our review with a major, all-caps WARNING. If you’re the type of gamer who notices – and is bothered by – bad foreign accents, The Saboteur might very well drive you insane. We were impressed by the acting and the dialogue overall, but listening to a mostly British cast struggle to emulate Irish, French, German and Spanish will definitely prove too grating for some.
“Jack of all trades… master of none”
The phrase above borders on cliche. The phrase above has been leveled at GTA and GTA clones for nearly a decade now. Yet the phrase above so perfectly summarizes The Saboteur’s gameplay – both good and bad – that we can think of no other way to begin discussing it.
Here’s a list of everything Sean Devlin can do:
• Shoot Nazis with the usual arsenal of pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers.
• Sneak up behind Nazis, breaking their neck or pounding the back of their head for an instant stealth kill.
• Disguise himself in various Nazi uniforms in order to access restricted areas and avoid confrontation.
• Hide, or blend, into safe spots when the Nazi alarm has been triggered.
• Climb buildings, run across rooftops and zipline between towers.
• Plant timed explosives in order to sabotage Nazi installations spread across the city: tanks, artillery, radar stations, etc.
• Hijack, then use your garage to collect, any car you see on the street, including Nazi jeeps and motorcycles.
• Race competitively through Paris and the surrounding French countryside.
So that’s Grand Theft Auto, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Hitman and maybe even a little Red Faction: Guerrilla… all rolled into one game. In theory? Awesome. In reality? Where a single design team can only do so much with so much money and so much time? Well… still pretty cool, but not as awesome as you’re probably imagining.
The Saboteur’s biggest flaw is that it tries to do too much and, as a result, ends up doing too little. The game borrows the best ideas from the best competitors, but then fails to execute them as masterfully. The shooting is not as fun as GTA’s… Sean can’t lock on to his targets, or easily aim for specific body parts, while the blood is cartoony and the weapons lack oomph. The stealth is not as effective as Splinter Cell’s… once in disguise, you literally just hold down the “walk like a Nazi” button and move carefully around annoyingly sensitive alert radiuses. The climbing is not as intuitive as Assassin’s Creed’s… you have to hit the same button over and over again to move upwards, and Sean’s jumping animation is laughable. Finally, the explosives are not as satisfying as something like Red Faction’s… you can destroy specific targets on the map, but the environment as a whole is not destructible in any way.
Perhaps these comparisons are unfair, but when a game like this is so clearly inspired by others, they’re hard not to make while playing. Each of the described activities is certainly implemented well enough to be entertaining enough; we just wish the design team had limited their ambition and focused on perfecting a few less.
Stealthy vs Shooty
Something The Saboteur does better than the majority of its competition, though, is provide you with choice. Games are constantly promising that players can tackle missions from any angle, and in any manner, but here is one that actually delivers. Of course, you may only discover this truth by dying in frustration so many times that you try a completely different strategy out of sheer desperation… but it’s a truth nonetheless.
Above: That’s one option…
Remember that book-burning general, for example? He’s surrounded by security, but otherwise out in the open. The first time we completed the mission, we stole a Nazi uniform , crept carefully past every guard, planted a bomb on the general’s tank and then triggered the explosion once we’d snuck back out. The second time, we simply sniped his head off from the street. Later, when the game asked us to destroy a base full of radar stations, we originally – and secretly – planted sabotage bombs on every building, running away and returning when things got too hot. It took an hour. Then we reloaded and hijacked a nearby artillery gun instead; it reduced the base to rubble in mere seconds.
Above: Here’s another
The Saboteur isn’t always clear with mission instructions, which can be frustrating, but this is why. You make up your own instructions.
The completionist’s dream (and nightmare)
Like any open-world game, The Saboteur also gives you plenty of side stuff to tackle between story missions. There’s a perk system that rewards you for hitting certain milestones (like running over 20 Nazis with a vehicle) or encourages you to attempt new daredevilry (like assassinating 5 Nazi generals while in disguise). Succeed and you’ll receive extra cars, extra weapons, extra gadgets and extra skills. Our favorite is the “touch of death.”
There are also bonus “freeplay” objectives – enemy installations that can be destroyed at any time – scattered everywhere across the map. Driving to your safehouse and notice a propaganda speaker? Jump out, plant a bomb and drive away. Snatching a sniper’s uniform in the middle of a larger, more important mission? Set a charge on his tower’s ladder on the way down and – bam – you’ve taken care of another one.
Blowing these things up is addictive as hell… at least until you realize the sheer, overwhelming, ridiculously stupid number of them.
Above: Yup, all of those white dots are “freeplay” objectives. And that’s not even the whole map!
What might have been
In spite of the game’s many obvious shortcomings, we couldn’t help loving – or at least really, really liking – The Saboteur. The story is well-told and well-paced enough to make up for its predictability. The characters are admirable and lovable enough to forgive their awful accents. The style and setting are beautiful enough to hide the lack of depth. The gameplay is diverse and exciting enough to hide the lack of polish.
Still, you can’t finish The Saboteur without wondering if this is what developer Pandemic really intended their finished product to be. Throughout the game, we noticed sloppy glitches such as Sean’s head popping through a car roof, or a Nazi general randomly exploding after we walked by him. Seemingly important characters are introduced, then abandoned by the main story. The protagonist’s mysterious background is repeatedly mentioned, but never fully explored. The Achievement / Trophy for beating the game is called “The Legend Begins.” Heartbreaking.
If Pandemic hadn’t been closed by EA last month, would they have been given more time to transform The Saboteur into something amazing? Or given the chance to make an amazing sequel? We’ll never know. As far as swan songs go, though, The Saboteur is a high note.
The Midnight Show
Okay, we can’t end the review without touching on this already infamous DLC. If you buy The Saboteur new, you’ll find a code inside that unlocks topless women and a secret underground club filled with more topless women, as well as burlesque shows, a knife-throwing minigame, the chance to win a bonus car and the even greater chance to see Sean get drunk and pass out.
If you buy the game used or borrow from a friend, however, you’ll have to pay an additional $3 on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network to unlock the Midnight Show content. Are one car, one minigame and some extra breasts worth three bucks? We can’t decide that for you, but we can provide a video of the underground club to show exactly what you’ll be downloading / missing.
Above: Like this, only with actual nudity
Is it better than…
GTA IV? No. We did enjoy playing an unequivocally good guy in an open-world game for once, and murdering stereotypically evil Nazis is much more satisfying than slaughtering random, stereotypically ethnic gangsters. Liberty City dwarfs The Saboteur’s Paris in size, depth and detail, however, and GTA IV is – without a doubt – the more refined and fully realized game.
Assassin’s Creed II? No. Both games recreate a past time and a specific place, but the developers of Assassin’s Creed II obviously did a ton more research. Their virtual Italy feels like a real place, starring real historical figures and supported by real historical footnotes. The Saboteur opts for a fun, yet super silly, fantasy version of WWII France instead. Plus, the climbing isn’t nearly as intuitive.
Mercenaries 2? Yes. Pandemic Studios developed this sandbox game, too, and the play style is noticeably similar as a result. We preferred The Saboteur’s bright urban landscape and innovative visual style to Mercenaries 2’s sprawling wilderness and gritty “xtreme”ness, but then again, the latter’s got boats and helicopters. Oh, and lots of bugs. Yeah, we’ll go with The Saboteur... it may not be polished enough, but it’s definitely more polished than its predecessor.
Just for you, Metacritic!
The Saboteur is a charming mess. Yes, the unpolished gameplay can be frustrating and, yes, the storytelling can be silly. But as soon as we drove through the gorgeously stylized Paris – then jumped out of our nitro-fueled racecar to snap a unsuspecting Nazi’s neck – we didn’t care anymore. For us, the good overwhelmed the bad.
Dec 8, 2009