• Review: The Saboteur

    Posted by Sean Taylor on December 10th, 2009 View Comments

    le_saboteurThe Saboteur comes to us from Pandemic Studios, who had a long history in developing sandbox videogames like the Mercenaries franchise, Destroy All Humans! and other acclaimed titles like Full Spectrum Warrior and Star Wars: Battlefront. I say had, because EA gobbled them up in 2007 (along with Bioware) and then shut down the studio only weeks before the studio’s final release (bah humbug), in a huge cost-cutting move that sent 1500 people to the unemployment line. Is Pandemic’s swan song everything that we could want from the guys who gave us the first Mercenaries title? Or does it leave us wanting more? We want more, but only because the game feels stripped down and in need of a couple more months in the shop. But that doesn’t seem too likely these days, does it?

    The Story

    Our protagonist is Sean Devlin, an Irishman living in the French countryside trying to make a living as a wheelman in 1940. When I say wheelman, that is to say that he’s trying to become a pro race driver after working for years as an auto mechanic for his ‘adopted’ family, with an Italian father and 2 French adult siblings in their 20’s. We pick up the story as Sean is about to attempt his first pro circuit against Europe’s finest racers, including one nefarious German driver. Events build to a crescendo with Germany’s invasion of France played out as a backdrop to what is happening to our hero. Sean has no love for Nazi scum, so months after the Germans have entrenched themselves in French society, he decides it’s time for a career change.

    There definitely needs to more games starring a 'Sean'

    There definitely needs to be more games starring a 'Sean'

    The story plays out well through scripted mission checkpoints that you choose to play at your own pace, as it is with most sandbox games. There is heavy drama, light intrigue, new Resistance members to meet and new places to visit. Sean’s motives for revenge are sound… and everybody knows that a pissed off Irishman can create a lot of trouble for everybody (including himself). Missions connect to the storyline believably (‘Our man’s been taken prisoner, go break him out!’ kinda stuff), but don’t really advance the story at all outside of cutscenes. Mission briefing, action, mission over is the recipe ‘du jour’ here and there aren’t any real surprises. The voice acting is well done, although hearing every Irish stereotype mentioned at least once a cutscene tends to reduce it from drama to caricature.

    I wouldn’t have minded playing through the game purely as a member of the French Resistance; maybe the fact that I just finished watching Inglorious Basterds (Jews Vs. Nazis) inspired my recent rebellion against authority. Then again, maybe it’s for the best that it’s an Irishman in the lead as I don’t know how sympathetic I could be for any cause that forced me to listen to hours of broken-French-English dialogue. The Nazis themselves aren’t vilified in this game; there’s no atrocities or wanton killing or destruction to make you really hate them. I guess Pandemic took global hatred of Nazis as read-material, as you probably can’t find a person over the age of 6 who doesn’t know that Nazis are evil incarnate.

    Sneaky Nazis sneaking up on France, eh? I'll show you!

    Sneaky Nazis sneaking up on France, eh? I'll show you!

    The Gameplay

    Since you’re the Saboteur, your job is to disrupt all Nazi activities in France every chance that’s given to you. Sean can sneak, run, sprint, drive and climb pretty much anywhere on the map to accomplish this goal. And that’s good, because there are Nazis everywhere. You can’t spit without hitting a patrol, gun emplacement, propaganda loudspeaker or sniper tower. The landscape is littered with targets of opportunity to distract you from the main story. Actually, over the course of opening up each area surrounding Paris, there are easily over a thousand different Freeplay Events. Freeplay Events are also known 95 percent of the time as ‘things to bomb’. Luckily our Saboteur is handy with dynamite and a Zippo. He also comes equipped with 2 other guns of your choosing at a time (plus grenades).

    Most of your time will be spent outside of the main missions earning Contraband (Saboteur’s currency) to pay for ammunition by eliminating Nazi forces and taking down enemy installations. Perks are also permanently added to your character by fulfilling certain conditions (ex: Stealth kill 5 Generals equals quick stealth kills) and are the only kind of additional advancements you can make to your character (outside of upgrading weapons) throughout the course of the game. Additionally, you can collect any of the 38 vehicles found in the game at your safehouses to be called upon whenever you need a ride. One cool perk allows you to call out some Resistance members to come and fight along with you or create a distraction long enough for you to get away from Nazis when spotted. And you’ll get spotted doing bad things all the time.

    Big bangs look great against the black and white color palette

    Big bangs look great against the black and white color palette

    Assuming an enemy disguise will get you far, but you will still spend a ton of time with your running shoes on. Once your cover is blown and you’re hip-deep into an enemy basecamp, there are rare times that you will be equipped with the kind of firepower to deal with never ending waves of Nazi reinforcements. So what’s a saboteur to do? Run for the hills and pray that nobody can see you hiding behind that bush. It’s all completely unrealistic and a little goofy that you can put an entire base on a level 3 alert, run away for 20 seconds and then come right back and pick up where you left off, but it wouldn’t be a very fun game without this mechanic. It lets you try out (and ultimately learn) different approaches while you whittle away at the Nazi defences.

    The Graphics

    One of the big draws of The Saboteur is the black and white aesthetic applied to occupied France. The idea behind it is that all zones of Paris occupied by the Germans are in black and white with some colors standing out (every Nazi flag and armband are a bright and vibrant red) and tries to reinforce that you are under an oppressive force that is draining the life from the world. The only way to re-introduce color into the world is to complete story missions and ‘inspire’ resistance in the citizens of Paris. Sure, it’s a gimmick… but it looks cool. Driving through one ‘liberated’ area, into one that isn’t is a neat, eye-catching trick. Plus, it lets you know where the bad guys are pretty easily.

    The right wheels for the job makes all the difference

    The right wheels for the job makes all the difference

    Just like most games these days, it looks fantastic on a large high-def TV while those still playing on smaller, older models will suffer trying to locate tiny waypoints on the minimap or even while reading text. As an aside, it’s nice to see a recent action game utilize color the way that The Saboteur does. If the Resident Evils and Gears Of Wars out there have something to learn, it’s that you don’t have to cover the lens of the camera in mud and tone down the colors to be a good action game.

    Nazis get what's coming to them... grenades and dynamite make France a better place

    Grenades and dynamite make France a better place

    The Audio

    The hairs on the back of my neck still stick up whenever I hear a German yelling at me (thanks a lot Medal Of Honor), and it’s no different here. Period music, both French and English, plays in your car and at the gentlemen’s club. Some variety would have been nice, because it seems like it’s the same 6 or 7 songs in rotation for the most part. I would have liked French citizens to actually tear me a new one when I run them over in my car en Francais instead of Frenglish, but that’s just me. All in all, a decent dynamic audio package that won’t overwhelm your 5.1 setup, but good enough that nothing sounds out of place.

    The Overall Package

    Completionists will find plenty, and I mean plenty, of stuff to do in this game. Besides the main missions, the endless hotspots around the maps will keep you busy detonating Nazis well into next year. It doesn’t have the discovery of a game like Fallout 3 where you will find a new area every time you play it, but it does keep the more explosive/obsessive of us out there happy. I had enough money to buy almost everything I had opened up in the shop by 65 percent of the way into the game and almost all the perks upgraded by 17 hours played, and that was playing pretty close to the mission structure and not going too crazy with the freeplay Nazi hunting.

    There’s DLC right out of the box (if EA’s servers are up and working properly yet) called The Midnight Show that downloads a VIP room beneath the club, with a gambling room, some minigames, additional hiding spots around the large map… and a nude code for the dancers in the club. While this is a godsend for all of us out there who still have Penthouse magazines stashed away in our treehouses, the actual effect isn’t as ‘titillating’ as you might think. The dancers in the club are pretty much nude as it is, and show as much as you would get just by walking in the door to a Vegas strip joint. The code swaps out pasties for nipples, which gives all of us out there without a high-def television another thing to add to the Christmas list. If this is a new way to sneak in content that isn’t rated by the ESRB, we fully applaud this tactic, as it’s something that you have to consciously choose to download. As always, parents should do their homework and know what their children are playing.

    New copies get The Midnight Show code... if you buy a dirty copy (read: used) you'll have to dish up cash for nudity... just like real life!

    New copies get The Midnight Show code... buy a used copy and you'll have to dish up cash for nudity... just like real life!

    As for any additional DLC, the Pandemic team has been whittled down from over 200 people to a skeleton staff of around 35 (probably mostly marketing folks), so I wouldn’t expect to be spending Microsoft points on extra content anytime soon.

    The Downsides

    You’ll be doing a lot of scaling rooftops and climbing buildings in The Saboteur, and this is one aspect of the game’s mechanics which needed more time in the oven. Detection of structures to climb isn’t perfect; there have been plenty of times that I was on the run with a Nazi brigade chasing me, only to be done in by a poorly placed, waist-high barricade or an unclimbable wall. When games like inFamous and Assassin’s Creed are elevating the go-anywhere genre to new heights (zing!), repeatedly having to mash the climb button to scale buildings seems like a step backward. It’s slow, clunky and not the preferred mode of travel.

    Stealth. For the saboteur, it’s the bread and butter. But in The Saboteur, this stealth has got a case of full-body tourettes.  The circle of awareness that surrounds you while disguised is twitchy, resulting in too many times being spotted by the enemy for simply walking down a set of stairs at the wrong angle. It’s no surprise that there is an achievement for completing a mission while still disguised; you will be discovered at some point in almost any mission, no matter how much care you take. Some may say this adds to the depth of knowledge required… I say bollocks. You’re halfway through a mission and you’re unveiled as a spy? You’ve got two choices: if you brought a high-powered machinegun, you could try to plow through enemies until you get to the end of the mission. If you brought a silenced weapon and sniper rifle you’re better off running for the hills and starting over again. You’ll be demonstrating to the Nazis your good time management skills by not even trying to win a losing fight before it starts.

    No Nazi story is complete without escaping a burning Zeppelin

    No Nazi-revenge story is complete without a burning Zeppelin

    One other thing bugged me as well. Further into the game, you acquire RDX bombs which allow you to plant multiple bombs that activate with one trigger pull. But, if you do anything like climb a ladder, punch out a bad guy or anything that changes the on-screen trigger mechanism, you lose the ability to detonate all those eggs at once. Very frustrating for someone who likes to set up everything and then watch the whole she-bang go up all at the same time. Something about best laid plans… something, something.

    The Bottom Line

    For all its quirks, The Saboteur is a pretty fun open-world game. You might think that blowing up the same gun/tower/base over and over again would get a little dull, but somehow, even with the broken stealth mechanic (not broken… just needs tweaking), each passing Nazi patrol is begging to march over one of your remotely-detonated bombs. You just can’t not blow them up. Tactics like surveilling the area, finding the right route in (and the right one to get out) are fun in themselves to any gamer who takes a little pride in his explosive handiwork. Getting stuck climbing the building to nowhere and being spotted for the 8th time trying to sneak into off-limits areas are mind-numbingly frustrating, but sometimes the journey that is paved with bumps just means that arriving at your destination feels that much better. Vive le Saboteur… we just wish he didn’t trip on his shoelaces as much.

    The Good

    Big (but not too big) open-world gameplay
    Over the top, explosive action (Sean Devlin is a bullet-sponge which helps)
    Graphics really pop
    Nazi hunting AND full-frontal nudity in one game!

    The Bad

    Climbing buildings is like going to the dentist
    Stealth aspect is clunky and frustrating
    Not much variety in mission/freeplay elements
    Disappearing elements (characters) can ruin entire missions and force a restart

    Score: 7.5 / 10

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