The Saboteur is Pandemic's swan song. Since the studio was recently dissolved by its parent company, this is the last hurrah from the ambitious development house that brought us Mercenaries and Star Wars Battlefront. Like Mercenaries, The Saboteur is an open-world, sandbox game that benefits from an impressive scope but is noticeably rough around the edges.
The Saboteur has one of the more intriguing setups of any game this year. Players are thrust into Nazi occupied France and given the opportunity to turn the tide of the war one explosion at a time. The setting is both sexy and dangerous, with a colorful cast of characters that border on period-piece stereotypes. You take on the role of Sean Devlin, a hard drinking womanizer with a past who has fled his native Ireland to try his luck at race car driving in Grand Paris. Sean's main competition is an Aryan named Kurt Dierker who cheats his way to victory and provokes Sean to get even off of the race course. What starts as a prank against Dierker quickly escalates to a game of life and death and ensnares players in a blood oath to kill him and remove his Nazi brethren from the country.
The difficulty of presenting an open world game is balancing a player's freedom of choice with a storyline that pushes them towards the main objectives. The Saboteur manages to do both very well. As Sean is introduced to bands of rebels, British agents, and devious black market weapons dealers they are marked on the on-screen mini map with initials. The character or location that must be reached to advance the story is always highlighted in yellow. In this way the objectives are neatly displayed and players always know where the next most important task can be found. But to complete these tasks players will need to purchase weapons, and currency is mostly obtained through the liberation of separate neighborhoods. Paris is filled with Nazi encampments like fuel depots and sniper pits. A well placed explosive will take out these targets and net the player some cash. The option exists to strictly follow the plot or go Nazi hunting across the countryside.
Whether you choose to stick to the plot, or run off to bomb Nazis and collect contraband, the gameplay is relatively similar. Sean is an experienced brawler (he can kill an NPC with a single punch) a marksman, and an explosives expert. This translates to some loose run-and-gun gameplay and the ability to plant dynamite on Nazi equipment. In contrast to the subject matter, the combat is relaxed to the point of being silly. Clearly based on an arcade style shooter, ammo is plentiful and Sean can absorb about 50 shots from a sub-machine gun before death becomes an issue. Even then, health regenerates in a snap. That means players have plenty of time to plant a bomb, even while being shot directly in the back. It also means the thinly designed cover system rarely comes into play. Sean is essentially a one man army, and dealing out punishment to the Germans can be a lot of fun, just don't expect a very deep experience.
If, for some reason you choose to over-think the Saboteur and try to sneak up on your enemies there is a stealth system including disguises and sneaking. But a proper stealth mechanic requires subtlety, and that's one thing The Saboteur avoids completely. There's an indicator to let players know when they've been sighted, or are engaging in suspicious activities. But it fills up so quickly, that the system is almost binary. You're either completely hidden from your enemy, or alarms are blaring and guns are blazing. And if you're spotted in a "restricted area" where most missions take place, the alarms will continue to go off no matter how many guards you kill. Sean can always locate and turn off a base alarm switch, find a marked hiding spot, or escape outside of the base and attempt to leave the red circle on the mini-map. But this is always more trouble than just ignoring the alarms and blasting your way towards the objective.
The map nicely indicates enemy locations, and whether or not they're aware of Sean. Players can disguise themselves as Nazi officers and afford themselves a little more leeway when walking through a base. Special enemy types can see through these disguises and reveal your true identity, which sets off the alarm. There's really no benefit to staying hidden, it just takes longer. It's a shame that the stealth portion of the game is so useless because the ideas behind it are solid. It only takes a couple of missions before you'll realize that sneaking around isn't as fun or as effective as gunning down every Nazi in sight.
There's a fair bit of travelling on the way to and from every mission. Sean can steal any car on the road, or spawn them after bringing them to a garage. The driving mechanics are functional, but always feel a bit stiff, even in the best vehicles. Let's put it this way: escaping from the Nazis in an extended car chase can be entertaining, but driving isn't enjoyable enough to warrant jumping into the optional races or car collection quests.
Sean can also scale buildings, and grapple onto any ledge that glows as he approaches it. The animations are stunted, and occasionally players will struggle to maneuver themselves smoothly up the side of a building. But generally the climbing works, and dashing across the rooftops and looking for the perfect way to breach a Nazi base unseen can be extremely satisfying, even if it's always followed up by a goofy firefight.
A bare bones description of the game mechanics makes The Saboteur seem like an abject disappointment. But it isn't. It feels as though the developers were keenly aware of the game's technical shortcomings and made up for it by focusing on cheap thrills. It's not a bad plan, and I intermittently found myself smiling in glee with the results.
There's no better example of this than the inclusion of the free download that comes with every purchase. It unlocks an addition to the Burlesque Venue where Sean hangs his hat where he can watch topless "dancers" perform their routine. There isn't really a point to this, other than the small minigames also found in this area, but the women are beautiful and the accompanying music is delightful.
Throughout the entirety of The Saboteur the assortment of songs from the period and eclectic accented voicework is top notch. Even when the dialogue sags, it's a joy to listen to Sean toss out ridiculous Irish insults and verbally spar with his sexy British partner.
Like a lot of other open-world games, there's plenty of fun to be had through random acts of violence. Paris is filled with Nazi encampments like sniper nests and fuel depots that beg to be bombed. Every target is catalogued, giving players a huge check list of things to blow-up. Not only is this one of the most successful aspects of The Saboteur, but it also plays into the creative visual presentation.
Every area occupied by the Nazis is covered in rain and gloom, draining all of the color out of Paris and its inhabitants. The yellow glow of a street light, the bright blue of The Resistance, and the blood red of a Nazi arm band are the only colors that shine through the black and white filter. As Sean liberates sections of the city the color returns to Paris and the sun becomes visible. The black and white portions of the game are visually striking and much more interesting to look at than the colorful liberated Paris. Not only do they accentuate the violence by highlighting the bright red splatters of blood, but they help obscure the fact that the visuals of The Saboteur are a bit rough around the edges. While the majority of the characters look great, the environments suffer from some muddy lighting and texture work.
The main quest is meaty and involving, coming in at around 13 hours. There's also a glut of extra content. The side quests involving other characters are somewhat interesting, especially if you intend to liberate the entire map. Then there are cars to collect, races, vantage points, even a duck hunt mini-game that can be found in the countryside. It's all fodder for achievement hunters and completionists but none of it is really worth singling out.
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