I have been an enthusiastic gamer ever since I can remember. From cutting my teeth playing Mutant Monty on an old Amstrad CPC464, leaving my Mega Drive on overnight as Sonic 2 didn't have a save feature and spending hours trying to get off that damned pirate ship in Simon the Sorcerer 2, right up to modern PC and console outings, I've loved everything that gaming has to offer.
Let me set the scene, youíre knelt high up on the soaked stone ledge of a Parisian cathedral, heavy rain pours down from the night sky crackling in your ears, masking the noir city scape in front of you. Paris is a black and white photograph, its dark gloomy buildings offset against the white light pouring from windows, headlamps and snaps of lightening overhead. The only colour in the scene is the vivid red glow of flags emblazoned with a Swastika and the tail lights of vintage cars passing by. You are perched motionless staring down the scope of a sniper rifle that bobs slowly as you breathe, waiting for the signal. Below you a de-frocked priest blesses his former congregation, forgiving the sins of those who approach his pulpit. Two men take their turn, advancing towards the priest but one moves away as he redeems them, he signals you with a change of his sermon. ďI hope he read you your last rights f*ck faceĒ growls your on screen alter ego, then with a squeeze of your trigger the gun cracks out a shot and a spray of bright red blood shoots from a Nazi informants head. Before the guards can respond you are gone, zip wiring down the telephone line behind you.
That scene taken from a simple side mission is The Saboteur. The wonderful set piece, the eye popping art style, the unique world you become part of and the colourful use of bad language.
You play as Sean Devlin, a character loosely based on the real life war hero William Grover-Williams. Sean is a heavy drinking, womanising, Irish racing driver caught up in the Nazi occupation of France. And when I say caught up I mean it literally, during one of the early missions and another brilliant example of set pieces in the game, you escape a German interrogation facility, hop into a car and drive back over the French boarder as the Nazis invade. This quickly sees the action move to Paris where the majority of the game is played out. Other stunning sequences see you destroy a zeppelin from within and ride its burning shell down to earth, fight your way into the catacombs of a cathedral in search of a mysterious artefact, shag a seductive British secret agent, drive a race car off a cliff and ogle topless burlesque dancers in the strip joint you now call home. And thatís all before the end of Act 1.
The Saboteur is Pandemics swan song, their final game before being shut down by EA. But far from being a reason to shut the studio down the game is somewhat of a last hurrah. Set up to be a kind of Grand Theft Auto in the 1940s, Pandemic have managed to craft an open world that is full of things to do and crammed with side missions. The game play area is huge, the Paris map encompasses the main city, the surrounding countryside and the towns of Le Harve, Saarbruken and Doppelsieg all of which can be accessed by car with no load times. Unfortunately the game loads when you enter or exit a building but given the interior detail of these areas this can be forgiven.
One of my favourite things about open world games is the ability to just get into a car tooled up with guns and bombs and go and cause chaos. Thankfully the Saboteur rewards you for doing this giving you hundreds (if not thousands) of free play targets and selling you dynamite and grenades for next to nothing. As you go out across the city there are sniper towers, fuel depots, tanks, armoured cars, Nazi Generals, loud speakers and a bevy of other targets just asking to by blown to bits or shot to hell. This rewards you with Contraband, the games currency which really starts pouring in when you start wreaking havoc. One of my major gripes with GTA IV were all the distractions from the action with tedious relationship development and social sections. The Saboteur avoids these lulls in the action remaining fun and action packed throughout, while presenting you with a great cast of funny, if not slightly stereotypical characters.
Another problem affecting open world games more and more is the obsession with realism, realistic car physics, realistic settings, stories and characters. Often this is lauded by critics but comes at the expense of fun, which is the primary reason I buy games. Again the Saboteur manages to break from its realistic setting at all the right moments. I doubt I would have found the game half as satisfying if the cars had been realistic to their 1940s designs, but they fly along at speeds unobtainable during the war, cornering wonderfully and spinning into handbrake turns which make the racing missions in the game great fun to play. When you raise an alarm you are perused by machine gun toting motorbikes, speedy armoured cars and even Gestapo cruisers with James Bond esque head-lamp machine guns. Overhead Zeppelins aim searchlights at you as you flee and staff cars play chicken with you as you tear down cobbled streets. Itís all frightfully unrealistic but incredibly good fun.
The gunplay is standard third person fare, with a pretty unexciting arsenal of weapons, however they are all satisfying to use and useful in different game areas. You are limited to carrying two guns at a time, plus a stash of dynamite and grenades. One nice aspect of the game is its upgrade path, unlocking perks which improve aspects of the game play and your handling of weapons when you achieve certain goals. You can also buy weapon improvements enhancing the physical aspects of your weapons from black market dealers. The cover system, now commonplace amongst third person shooters is also useful during fire fights and well implemented but can sometimes become annoying as you lock onto cover too easily when youíre running through a tight area.
The game also allows you to don a Nazi uniform if you cleanly kill a soldier and walk around in a stealth mode giving you access to restricted areas of the game without raising the alarm. Though this feature is certainly useful do not for a moment think you will be going through the game like Solid Snake or Sam Fisher as itís a very limited Stealth mechanic. In most missions involving stealth you can sneak through up to a point where you will be forced to break your cover to get past groups of troops surrounding your target who will detect you immediately if you get to close or if youíre sneaking without wearing a uniform. The troops are smart enough to not all go running over to a diversion you set and no matter how much you try a couple of men will remain guarding your target. The AI in the game is pretty smart, at no point did I feel friendly AI was a burden and the enemy used a combination of decent AI and huge numbers to present a real challenge.
The game play falters slightly during the platforming sections which are thankfully largely optional. Sean can climb buildings and run over roof tops however this mechanic is in no way as fluid or as well polished as in games such as inFamous or Assassins Creed. You simply mash the x button to carry on climbing or hit o to descend. There were times during my play through that I fell from great heights as hitting o simply made Sean fall off a building. He also sometimes failed to grasp onto ledges that looked easily climbable and there were more than a few moments when the game did not register me pressing jump resulting in a nasty fall for Sean.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Saboteur is the graphical style. Paris starts out as a black and white film noir city punctuated with glimpses of colour, the red of a Nazi flag or a car tail light or the blue of a revolutionaries arm band. In this black and white mode the graphics are simply stunning and driving to the country to look out over the city provides you with a frankly breath-taking sight. Bombers fly overhead as the silhouette of the city dotted with lights stretches out in front of you, the Eiffel Tower dominates the skyline lit up like a bleak Christmas tree as little black cars move through the winding streets. Sean lights up a cigarette and looks out over the city along with you. As you complete missions and free play objectives you inspire revolutionaries in different regions of the city to start rising up against their Nazi oppressors and colour is restored to that area giving you a few bonuses in that region. Itís a nice idea but unfortunately the graphics, though perfectly serviceable when in colour donít look anywhere near as attractive as when they are black and white. Itís not that the graphics are bad especially on the PS3 version with some fancy AA effects applied itís just that the black and white mode looks so good.
Ultimately what clinched it for me was the atmosphere presented by Pandemic. The audio is well done with contemporary music playing on car radios, a voice cast of funny, likeable stereotypes and a great comic book bad guy to top it all off. The game is also littered with neat little references to other games and movies, even in the first act an Indiana Jones like scene with a treasure chest ends with Pulp Fiction like golden light emanating from the chest. The graphical style is unique and stunning when in black and white and most importantly the game is fun from start to end. There are a few issues with platforming and stealth that would have undoubtedly been polished if the studio had not been closed but none of those issues are game breaking, they are more mildly annoying. The major problem with the game for me was the simple fact it probably wonít be getting a sequel. The Saboteur is the most fun Iíve had in an open world game since GTA Vice City and though you may have had your fill of World War II games an open world, noir comic book WWII game is something a bit different and definitely well worth a look.