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.