The Saboteur has a hackneyed story and lousy controls, but the explosions and wild gunfights make it a game worth playing.
Whether you enjoy or dislike The Saboteur, if you’re a fan of Pandemic Studios, chances are you’ll feel a twinge of sadness when you first pop in the game to your disc tray. When the gasmask logo appears on-screen, you may come to the realization that it’s finally over; the streak of games from the once-awesome EA studio has come to an end. The logo may appear on future games, but the studio itself – at least, most of its employees – have been shunted aside and are moving on to other companies.
In a way, The Saboteur is the perfect swan song for the studio, as the game is very representative of Pandemic’s games as a whole. The game may not be the best looking, nor is it the most polished in any sense… but a lot of people will have a blast playing it (as I did), and the game is worth the price of purchase.
The Saboteur is a classic example of a video game story that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it a gritty, dark look on an occupied nation in a time of war, and the heroic saga of their attempts to fight back? Or is it a B-movie, balls-to-the-wall, guilty pleasure action game that has no want or need or a coherent plot? In attempting to be both, The Saboteur accomplishes neither.
There are scenes in the game where freedom fighters, huddled in their underground base, will argue with elevated voices about the right way to fight for the welfare of their people – what risks are necessary, and what violent actions are acceptable. Then … well, then there are the scenes (minor spoilers ahead) where the game’s protagonist, Sean Devlin, is standing in a zeppelin (which is wrong for the period, anyhow) as it explodes, in the air, but somehow ends up on the ground, alive and without a scratch on him. How is this explained? Why, the Luck of the Irish, of course. Cue the groaning. And since it’s a WW2 era game, you have your obligatory Indiana Jones rip-off, as Devlin spends one mission obtaining a mysterious glowing box from a crypt surrounded by Nazis (stop me if you’ve heard this before).
When I think "French Resistance", I think leaping out of flaming zeppelins.
Sean Devlin is a major reason why the game’s story doesn’t work (not the only reason… but a major one, definitely). He’s a rude, crude, former mechanic (and inexplicably also a racecar driver) who drinks a ton and bangs hot French prostitutes… a real man’s man. Yet, he’ll also caters to pretty much everyone’s whim, doing jobs and taking guff from people he has no reason to help, and carrying the torch for a woman who’s shut him down more times than an amateur video game journalist on Ladies’ Night. He’ll also have emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, which are pretty confounding, as the character doesn’t seem to possess emotions other than “angry” and “horny” (sometimes both!). Let’s put it this way… if Devlin’s emotional depth were represented by a swimming pool, you’d probably break your neck trying to dive in.
So why dive in? I recommend you don’t try, and I really wish Pandemic hadn’t tried filling the pool. It’s clear they were leaning more toward the “B-movie” option from Day 1. The game has explosions, booze, hookers, Nazis, more explosions, and lots and lots of OMIGAWSH B00BZ! (assuming you took advantage of the free DLC that came with every new copy of the game). Literally, the first image displayed after the New Game loading screen is a pair of beautifully pre-rendered breasts – it’s clear where this game’s intentions lie after that.
Cover your shame! Young male gamers don't want to see supple, supple breasts!
In short, this game is already some good cheesy fun – I just wish Pandemic had gone all out. Lose all pretenses that anyone cares about the annoying fake-Irish character. Instead, make with the raunchy jokes (as opposed to the widely unfunny ones included in-game), the winks-to-the-camera, and the complete lack of story sincerity, which would have gone well with the over-the-top gunplay, ample explosions and the rampant Nazi killing. But alas… I suppose it is an opportunity missed.
[In the interest of disclosure, I will mention that I’ve yet to complete the main story missions, as it is in the interest of our readers that I get this review done sometime this decade. I have completed the majority of the gameplay, and I feel I can write a complete review of the game with the experience I’ve had. I will, however, be posting on The Cowardly Corner (my blog on GV) a “Final Thoughts” review of the game when I do finally complete it.]
Were you just bored immensely by the previous section? Do you not give a crap about a game’s story – just the gameplay? Well, good luck! The Saboteur is the game for you. Probably.
Truthfully, much of the gameplay in The Saboteur is flat, and the majority of missions have been done before by better action/sandbox games. But somewhat ironically, the most exciting part of the game for me was in the most monotonous task – in (not surprisingly) the actual sabotage.
Until the point where these targets are available in the game (a few hours), this game is dreadfully boring. Many times in this time span, I felt like passing this review onto another writer, as the game failed to capture my interest in the least. This is when many of the game’s story-heavy missions (complete with spotty voice acting … more on that later) took place, and the result is unbearable.
For those able to persevere through this stormy affair, a glorious rainbow is waiting on the other side. From the moment I received the dynamite from Santos (shady arms dealer extraordinaire, I knew the game was about to change. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of strapping explosives to the base of a tower, with an unsuspecting Nazi guard on top, then running like the dickens away from the blast radius. You’d think with the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of targets in this game, this would soon grow annoying; quite the contrary. Perhaps in a call-back to Poké-fever, I felt the need to “catch’em all”.
Little by little, the white dots (signifying the targets) that littered the map would be wiped clean… and the addiction kicks in to get that whole map clean. The euphoria rarely goes away, as with almost every target you attempt to sabotage -- be it a watch tower, propaganda speakers, fuel depot or otherwise – there are plenty of Nazis somewhere nearby, waiting to ruin your day should you be caught.
Sean left the oven on again...
The missions pick up around this point in the game as well. In one memorable mission, you are asked by a priest to “visit” a shotgun wedding ceremony between a pretty, unwilling French bride and her Nazi officer groom. Hiding behind the alter, I sprung out on the unsuspecting wedding party and left lead parting gifts. The Krauts then brought in the reinforcements, and with my exit cut off, I made what I thought was my best chance for survival – I leapt off the tall cliff into the (thankfully deep) river some-300 feet below, bullets whizzing past my falling body. Hot damn… was that awesome.
One of the best parts about The Saboteur’s gameplay is just that – the choices you make on how you want to complete missions. Similar to other action-sandbox games like Red Faction: Guerilla and Crackdown, the decision is more-or-less left up to the player on how he or she wants to tackle a mission. Do you sneak in a Nazi compound with stealth, or go in, guns blazing? Do you get past a well-guarded checkpoint by sniping from the rooftops or driving an explosive-laden truck into the barricade? Maybe you’d rather commandeer a Nazi AA gun station, and turn its barrels toward its owners. Anyway you want to play, The Saboteur generally gives you some leeway. And if you make a decision that was perhaps a little too ballsy, you’re in luck, since the mid-mission checkpoints allow the player to be as creative as possible without being penalized.
Too bad the experience is sullied by one of the worst control schemes I’ve encountered in a long time. In many ways, The Saboteur feels like a game trapped four years in the past, and nowhere is this more evident than in the controls and the physics. For starters… how is there not an auto-lock feature during gunplay? This has been a sandbox staple for many years now, and for good reason, though it’s completely absent in The Saboteur.
I would have also appreciated a more robust system for object/collision recognition, in regards to Devlin and his surrounding environment. For example, if Sean is standing on top of a tall building, and jumps for a wire to climb/slide to the building next door, you better hope he’s right on-target. If you’re even two or three feet away from your intended target, Devlin won’t make any sort of reach for the wire, instead opting to take a one-way trip to Pavement Town.
Sure, he can slide down ropes, but Sam Fisher he's not.
Probably one of the most memorable parts of The Saboteur lies in its graphics scheme … and no, not because of all the breasts. The game starts out with most of Paris covered in black and white, symbolizing the Nazi occupation of the city. There are a few things in color… Red, for both the Nazi’s armbands and banners, as well as the Red Lights for Paris’ many nightclubs featuring “ladies of the evening”. Sean’s hideout, a burlesque house owned by the family of his departed confidant, is also in color. As the game progresses, sections of Paris where La Resistance grows stronger begin turning into full color. It is a novel concept, and works moderately well in practice.
At first, the grayscale scheme is a bit cumbersome, as visibility is low (especially in the countryside, away from the lights); this is especially true for those playing on low-def TVs. However, once sections of Paris start turning to color, the contrast between liberated and non-liberated city sectors is more poignant and adds a great element to the game. The city in color is exceptionally beautiful as well; the texturing isn’t ideal (though it is fairly good for a sandbox game with a large playable area), but the color scheme of the city in day or night makes up for it and then some.
Black and white never looked so good.
Unfortunately, the clunky physics in the game also play into the poor motion-capturing of the characters – particularly Devlin. I literally laughed out loud five minutes the first time I hit the jump button, and watched my on-screen character leap four or five feet into the air, straight up, while hardly bending his knees. Granted, this is a game where the player can climb almost any building in Paris, so the physics aren’t supposed to be realistic, but some halfway realistic motion capturing isn’t an absurd request. [By the way; you may have asked how Devlin is able to climb so well, being a mechanic and all; the game explains this by having Devlin say he’s used to “climbing out of windows” when husbands get home early. Har har har…]
When discussing the audio merits of The Saboteur, the first topic that must be addressed is the voice acting. By which I mean to say, the voice acting is horrible. The Frenchmen, along with the Irish protagonist, sound like they were voiced by someone with no knowledge of the dialect or inflection; instead, the actors must rely on poorly voiced, wildly eccentric stereotypes from 1970s comedies. Even Nolan North, a favorite of ours at GV, falls back on these archetypes in his portrayal of one-handed French officer Le Crochet.
I’m particularly surprised about how poor the voice acting of Sean Devlin is, seeing as how he is voiced by video game VO superstar Robin Atkin Downes (whose provided voice work in over 100 games, including recently in Dragon Age: Origins, Halo 3: ODST, Brütal Legend, Ratchet and Clank, etc.). I’m clueless on how Downes, an Englishman, portrays a better Tibetan in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves than an Irishman in The Saboteur. Though to be fair, I have no idea how Tibetans are supposed to sound. The most Irish-ness that Downes can muster is saying, ad infinitum, that he enjoys whiskey (which seems to be the quality that all Irishmen are judged by). He also gets indignant when being mistaken for an Englishman.
Skylar, our love can never be. You're English, I'm fake-Irish... we're just from two different worlds.
However, I would like to give The Saboteur its due props for a perfectly fitting soundtrack. Similar to how I first felt listening to opera music driving a mafia sedan in GTA 3, it just felt right to listen to 1940s romantic pop hits while hauling ass away from yet another explosion in downtown Paris. The original score is very good as well, which was composed by Golden Globe and Emmy nominated film composer Christopher Young (Spiderman 3).
This is generally not a category for our reviews, but as The Saboteur has no multiplayer option, I felt this would be a welcome addition. There are a few things I wanted to address about this game that didn’t quite fit into the categories above, but fit nicely into this newly created one.
Chiefly, these notes are about how “authentic” the environment feels – whether Paris is alive, or merely just a place where Devlin can blow stuff up. And in truth, you could make the argument for either case.
Pandemic succeeds in recreating the City of Lights due in large part to the lights themselves; the warming glow emanating from apartments and cottages across the city and countryside help to give the environment a genuine sort of aesthetic, as if in each residence, there’s a family stoking the fires within. The streets are detailed right down to each cobblestone, and are both similar enough to feel realistic, though different enough to help you travel across the city using landmarks as reference (as I do).
There are also little touches thrown into the game that help the city feel alive. If you start climbing a building next to a group of Parisians, they’ll talk amongst each other about what the heck it is you’re doing; try that in front of a Nazi, and they’ll get suspicious. If you make the Nazis too suspicious, and need to make a getaway, the mechanics are very similar to GTA IV, in which you escape a radius based on how severe your crimes are, and try to slip out-of-sight (being spotted by the Krauts re-centers the radius around you). If you need a quicker escape, you can try hiding in one of the scattered sheds or attics of members of La Resistance, or throw off the guards by kissing a girl on a street corner. If members of La Resistance need to contact you, messengers will covertly slip you a note and scamper off while you walk around the city. All these things show that Pandemic really tried to put you in Paris, and not just some generic video game setting.
Sean evades guards though the power of amnesia! Perhaps.
More of these touches could have added, though, to really sell the experience. Specifically, I would have liked to see more lines of dialogue from the random NPCs on the street; of the millions of people in Paris, you’d think they’d have more than six things to say. Just how many troubled shopkeepers can that city support, anyhow? And I doubt thousands of people recognize Devlin’s face from the Belle de Nuit (his hideout and burlesque house of choice).
Sean doesn’t help in this regard, either. Dozens of times during the game, he will exclaim (to no one in particular) “lovely little village you have here”; a line that is neither clever, funny nor necessary. “Don’t worry; there’s people fightin’ for ya,” is another popular line. That’s terrific, Sean, but no one ever said anything to the contrary.
Lastly, the Nazi AI can be a bit spotty at times; with enemies like these, it’s no wonder the Allies won the war. Why can’t guards put together that, just because the man isn’t standing next to the recently exploded guard tower any more, there’s a favorable chance he should be questioned about the incident anyway? Also apparently instilled into Nazi boot camp is the art of automobile driving, wherein if a car strikes a tree or pole, the most logical course of action is to continue running into that pole another seven or eight times, just to make sure the way is blocked. There are problems like this aplenty with the enemy AI.
Long, long review short: do I recommend this game? Yes, with conditions. If you can get over the hackneyed story and horrible voice acting, I recommend it. If you are patient enough to survive through the first few boring hours of gameplay until the real fun starts, I recommend it. And if you can fumble around with the sloppy controls until you get used to them, then again, I recommend it.
Make it through those three things, and you’ll find a gem of an action/sandbox game buried under a bunch of other great titles that came out this holiday season. It’s got massive explosions, heart-racing gunfights, boobs, booze and beautiful scenery. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s still pretty darn fun.
Thanks for the great games, Pandemic. You certainly went out with a “bang”.
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