World War II games are a penny a dozen, having earned a reputation as one of the most overused settings in videogame history. Likewise, the open world genre has been exploited so often and so shamelessly that the whole idea of "sandbox" gameplay tends to be met with yawns and sneers from a great many people. Logically, a World War II open world game should be a recipe for extreme boredom.
So why is Pandemic's The Saboteur so bloody good?
It's a World War II game. It's an open world game. It's also one of the biggest surprises of 2009. If you're interested in blowing up Nazis and looking at endless breasts, then you really want to check this out. Read on for our full review of The Saboteur.
The Saboteur (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: December 8, 2009
Claiming to be based on a true story, The Saboteur revolves around Irish race car driver Sean Devlin. After accidentally getting involved in a struggle between the Nazis and the British government, Sean winds up in occupied France with nothing but a love for drink and a bitter hatred of the Third Reich. Naturally, Devlin becomes prime recruitment material for the French Resistance, and starts his career as the saboteur.
The Saboteur's plot is the first big surprise. The opening cutscene seems forced and uninspired, attempting to explain the premise far too quickly and unbelievably. However, the game's narrative swiftly becomes intriguing and finds its groove almost immediately after the first mission, helped along by the extremely likable Sean and his detestable nemesis, Kurt Dierker. While The Saboteur's plot is not exactly high-brow philosophical material, it's wonderfully placed and feels like a classic action movie. It also has an highly memorable and rather brilliant ending that's well worth playing towards.
Sean Devlin's mission is to find and kill Dierker, but he has much work to do in the meantime. Occupied France needs inspiration, and Sean is the man to provide it. As The Saboteur begins, much of Paris has been completely downtrodden by the Nazis, and the oppression has been represented in quite a classy way. Most of the game is in black-and-white, with only red, yellow and blue providing any sort of color. This lends the game a Sin City look that is not only visually striking, but makes for a great way to easily identify Nazi targets and Resistance allies. It also looks very, very cool.
As Sean completes missions, he "inspires" certain sections of the city, and the black-and-white becomes flooded with color. In colorful areas, the French citizens are more likely to fight back against the Nazis and it becomes easier to defend against attacking German forces. While this has no huge bearing on the gameplay, the shift from monochrome to color as Sean drives around Paris is so stylish that the game deserves points for pure visual innovation alone. In a way, I almost wish Pandemic had been bold enough to do away with the color entirely and have the whole game in black-and-white, although I can understand that this might have been a bit too risky.
Fortunately, visual trickery is not the only thing that The Saboteur has going for it. Clearly taking a cue from Grand Theft Auto, there are plenty of missions dotted around Paris that Sean can complete at will, performing sabotage missions for the Resistance. Although the missions generally draw from a limited pool of tasks, they each feel quite different, keeping the game feeling fresh and unique. At any given moment you can be blowing up a chemical factory, assassinating a Nazi general or breaking a rebel leader out of a prison camp. If you enjoyed the "revenge fantasy" aspect of Inglorious Basterds, then The Saboteur will give you plenty of Nazis to project your murderous urges onto.
Sean has a number of skills at his disposal. First of all, he can scale buildings to get better vantage points or hide from pursuing Nazis. The climbing system in The Saboteur is actually quite well crafted. While getting up a building is not as fast as it is in parkour-based games like Assassin's Creed, it's easily the least frustrating and well-crafted climbing system I've ever seen. This is due to the fact that the climbable ledges of a building are subtly highlighted whenever you point the right stick in their direction, and you can highlight different surfaces by rotating it. This allows you to efficiently and methodically chart Sean's course up the side of the building and stops him randomly going where you don't want him to -- something other games simply haven't nailed down yet.
Stealth is also an optional skill. When Sean is being watched a Nazi, an exclamation point appears on the HUD. By avoiding detection, Sean can sneak into restricted territory, allowing him to complete a mission without raising the alarm. He can also stealth kill enemies from behind, as well as commandeer their clothes to disguise himself as a Nazi. When dressed as a Nazi, Sean will have to be careful not to get too close to a Nazi or break character by running and climbing, left the "suspicion meter" raises. When the suspicion meter is full, the Nazis will raise the alarm and Sean will have to escape the red circle on the minimap, find a hiding spot, or acquire a new disguise without being seen.
The climbing and the stealth are nice thoughts, but in practice they simply don't compare to kicking the door in and shooting everything in sight. The climbing is a bit too slow and the stealth seems horribly broken, not helped by the fact that Nazis are literally everywhere, meaning you can rarely break character when disguised without being seen. It can also take a long time to lower the alarm when Nazis are pursuing Sean, since they follow him so doggedly. Shaking the Nazis can often be a frustrating affair, and you can end up miles away from where you want to be before you've effectively slipped their grasp.
Still, the fact there the options are there is a great bonus, and it's great that if you do mess up the stealth or one plan of action fails miserably, you can easily find cover and shoot your way out with a little determination.
There are loads of optional missions as well, the most important being the destruction objectives. Every time Sean destroys an important Nazi installation, he will earn "contraband" which can be spent on guns, abilities and ammo at the black market. Installations are littered all over the city, and include sniper towers, armored cars, search lights, and fuel stations among many more. By sneaking over to each installation, planting some dynamite, and sneaking out, Sean can blow these important places to smithereens and earn cash. It can get quite repetitive, but it's so addictive that it rarely matters. You always needs to be carrying some dynamite, because you never know what tempting explosion fodder you will pass on your daily activities.
Sean can hijack and store cars in the garage. Each new car stored in the garage can be spawned from any garage in town, and you can get all sorts of neat vehicles like Gestapo cruisers or Sturmwagons. There is also a "Perk" system in the game that gives Sean new abilities and skills, such as the option to summon help from Resistance soldiers, or stealth kill enemies from the front. None of the Perks are especially game-changing, but they're still a cool addition.
Although The Saboteur is packed full of great content, there are definitely some problems holding it back. For one, the control is incredibly stiff in the game and Sean can be difficult to move around. You eventually get used to it, but the first hour is spent with Sean feeling incredibly unwieldy. This isn't helped by the fact that the camera moves too slow while weapon aiming moves too fast. It's as if Pandemic somehow got them the wrong way round.
The game's automatic cover system is also rather loose and could do with some work, since Sean seems willing to stick to cover only when he feels like it. The game can be very frustrating combat-wise, with Germans more than happy to surround you from all sides, even on the lowest alarm level. By the time you've gotten the alarm up to level five, with zeppelin, gestapo and Luftwaffe chasing you, you may as well bite the bullet and die.
Nevertheless, despite the game's multiple issues, nothing is game breaking enough to take away from what is a great and unique experience. Pandemic has done an amazing thing by taking two tired old videogame standbys -- WWII and sandbox gameplay -- and combining them to create something fresh, with its own character and charm. The Saboteur manages to copy nearly all its mechanics and systems from other games, yet never feels derivative. It is both a paradox and a rare, rare treat.
The Saboteur is not just one of 2009's biggest surprises -- it's THE big surprise of 2009. Despite its humble promotion, the lament that it was sent out to die, and the death of developer Pandemic, The Saboteur is a terrific experience deserving of more accolades and attention that it will ever receive. It looks terrific, it has a fun story with a wonderful main character, and addictive gameplay that allows you to explode Nazis again and again and again. As if that wasn't enough, there are plenty of sexy ladies to keep things ticking as well.
If The Saboteur is to be Pandemic's final game, then it's safe to say that Pandemic ended on a very high note indeed.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
reviewed by Jim Sterling