While I wasn't particularly impressed with The Saboteur, I had a lot of fun both playing and reviewing it. Here's what I thought -- originally published on Hooked Gamers.
Prancing along the rooftops of Nazi-occupied Paris, I spotted a German general flanked by two bodyguards loitering on the street below. Given that killing Nazi generals grants me extra contraband, I set my Scoped Steiner in line with the general's head and fired a shot. Before the general hit the ground, I ran to another set of rooftops and hid among the jagged peaks. As the two bodyguards came to attention, a Sturmwagen drove by and deposited three more vigilant and glowing Nazis directly in the middle of traffic.
The Nazis stood perfectly still in an "alert" state with their weapons pointed in all directions, ready for any sign of the assassin. They were completely immersed in their hunt, so much so that when a German transport truck came barreling down the street towards them, they didn't flinch. Not wanting to harm any soldiers, the truck driver swerved to avoid two of the Nazis… and ran over the third, instantly killing him.
In their constant vigilance, the remaining two soldiers continued to stay perfectly still, not noticing or caring that their comrade had just been murdered. The truck driver maintained a similar attitude - his delivery was just too important to stop and check on the Nazi he had just crushed.
Pandemic Studios' swansong, The Saboteur, is a massive open-world game full of such conflicting moments. It attempts to maintain an immersive experience by integrating elements of plot, gameplay and artistic design, which it accomplishes most of the time, but a few poor design decisions and bad implementations often break any sense of immersion.
In The Saboteur, you play Sean Devlin, an Irish mechanic turned professional racecar driver turned French resistance fighter in 1940s Paris. He's a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing asshole with vengeance in mind.
Before Germany invaded France, Sean's impending victory in his first official race was sabotaged by Doppelsieg's top driver, Kurt Dierker, who went on to claim victory. That sabotage, along with Sean's recklessness, sparked a series of tragic events that resulted in Sean hiding out in Paris while biding his time before killing Dierker.
The plot can be somewhat hokey. Ridiculous plot devices - the main antagonist is a champion racecar driver who moonlights as a professional torturer for the Nazis - derail all attempts at poignancy, like Sean's mentor, Vittore, imploring him to stop seeking vengeance. Even so, the one-dimensional yet diverse cast of characters and the resulting secrets, reluctant partnerships and betrayals, manage to keep the narrative slightly interesting. The banter between Sean's two love-interests is very amusing, and even ancillary characters existing only to provide extra missions are unique, if not well developed. While other French resistance fighters are focused on general sabotage, Margot calls upon Devlin to stop the Nazi war on culture and Dr. Kwong brings a new age of psychological warfare tactics.
While The Saboteur provides a small number of repeating mission types, the game's plot also ensures that missions similar in structure don't feel overly repetitive.
How to Take Down a Nazi
The open-world action adventure contains five self-explanatory and recurring mission structures: Tailing an enemy, rescuing allies, chauffeuring allies, sniping targets, and the most general of mission types, blow stuff up.
Pandemic Studios keeps each mission interesting by varying the underlying motivations and corresponding characters. The first chauffeur mission requires Sean to drive his best friend's sister, Veronique, around the city, while unbeknownst to him, she picks up and deposits a bomb to assassinate a high-value German target. Another chauffeur mission, assigned by Dr. Kwong, requires Sean to drive a brainwashed Nazi around the city, as the soldier willingly delivers a bomb to his commander. The first mission carries an air of tension, given the relationship between Sean and Veronique, whereas the second is quite humorous: when Sean attempts a conversation with the brainwashed German, he receives a prerecorded and repeating script.
The Saboteur also occasionally breaks from its defining mission structures to provide more story-driven experiences. Sean's chase of Kurt Dierker through an exploding zeppelin and a rescue mission conducted on a moving train are two particularly memorable moments in the game. Unfortunately, there are few comparable moments throughout the game.
Walk Softly but Carry a Big Gun
To accomplish all of these missions, Sean has the option of running in with heavy weapons, creating massive amounts of death and destruction, or stealthy infiltration, going unnoticed by any Nazis. In the first case, Sean has a large arsenal of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, rifles and explosives at his disposal, though very few of the weapons are actually worth carrying. After finding a decent machinegun and sniper rifle early on, there's no real reason for Sean to use anything else, at least until he meets the Nazi Terror Squad.
In choosing to be stealthy, Sean has the ability to sneak behind enemies and perform quick stealth kills, and disguise himself in Nazi uniforms that grant him free and unhindered access to Nazi bases. Once inside a Nazi uniform and base, Sean can complete the necessary mission without disruption as long as he stays outside of dynamic areas of suspicion.
The stealth method is almost always much easier than the guns-blazing method thanks to the absurdly stupid enemy AI. As long as Sean remains outside the areas of suspicion, he can continuously plant explosives on objects of interest unhindered. An entire base may be engulfed in flames with explosions continuously going off, but Nazi soldiers will completely ignore it all as long as Sean doesn't jump out of his disguise.
While this stealth formula is maintained throughout most of the game, it is broken by the aforementioned Nazi Terror Squad. These superhuman behemoths carry futuristic weapons - their shotguns fire as quickly as machine guns and their machine guns fire as quickly gatling guns - and they're immune to stealth kills. In some cases, half a dozen headshots are necessary to taking one down.
What results is the removal of any semblance of believability that the game tries to build through its characters and well-designed world. The Saboteur, like any good open-world game, is heavily built on providing players with choice. But the Terror Squad completely removes choice, contradicting everything else that Pandemic Studios created in the game.
Sound the Alarm
If a Nazi does notice Sean performing illicit activities, the Nazi can sound a general alarm and, as is typical at the end of most missions, Sean must flee the area before further German forces arrive and the alarm level increases. To escape alarms, Sean has a number of options including leaving the alarm area, which is particularly difficult at higher alarm levels, and running into a designated hiding spot, such as brothels and hatches on roofs.
In a nice addition to open-world games, Sean also has the option to fight back during high-level alarms. At designated "fight back" areas, Nazis will retreat and unsound the alarm once Sean and his allies have killed a certain number of pursuers in what amounts to all out warfare on the streets.
Outside of the provided missions, Sean has the option of destroying Nazi targets - guard towers, search lights, AA guns and propaganda speakers - that litter Paris and the outlying countryside. While very repetitive, doing so is necessary in order to gain contraband, currency of Nazi-occupied Paris.
Sean can spend contraband to purchase explosives, weapons and ammunition from dealers. He can also use contraband at garages to purchase vehicle upgrades and body repairs.
However, The Saboteur's economic system is fairly light, considering it boils down to a formula of complete task then receive rewards. As opposed to a fully fleshed out trading system, Sean can't sell back or return items he doesn't have a use for.
The Saboteur also includes an interesting perk system that mimics the achievements all videogames incorporate. Performing specific actions a certain number of times unlocks weapons, vehicles and new abilities for Sean that are very useful. The game's best sniper rifle, racecar and stealth kills are all obtainable exclusively through the perk system.
Black and White
As alluded to, the majority of the game is set in Paris, which Pandemic Studios rendered beautifully - adding landmarks such as The Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel and Notre Dame - and managed to capture a lived-in old world feel. But Sean must also travel to the French countryside and shore, which can take a good deal of time. Like any road trip, however, the drives also act as a respite from tense circumstances.
Tying all the environments together is The Saboteur's highly touted color-scheme. At the beginning of the game, Sean meets a French freedom fighter named Luc. In an attempt to recruit Sean, Luc enters into an inspirational diatribe, "We will push back the darkness, free the city from fear, house by house and street by street."
While Luc is speaking figuratively, Pandemic Studios considered that statement more literally. Areas under heavy Nazi occupation appear in black and white, with small accents of color, reminiscent of Schindler's List. After Sean completes certain high-profile missions, Nazi influence decreases and the game reveals a full color palette for the area in an inspirational moment.
Seeing an area in color, after spending hours in its black and white counterpart, is like seeing it for the first time. The effect is quite stunning. In addition, viewing the seams, particularly those places where a dark chaotic sky meets its fully colored neighbor, acts as a reminder - there's still more work to be done.
Innovative vs. Fun
With perhaps the exception of its artistic design, The Saboteur doesn't do anything new. It takes all of its design elements from innovative games, like those in the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed series, but implements them in a much less flattering manner. However, that's not to say the game isn't fun.
The game possesses eye-rolling situations, overpowered enemies, terribly dumb AI and other look-at-the-camera moments, but these breaks of immersion add to an enjoyable experience instead of detracting from it. Watching that German transport truck run over the Nazi soldier was so unexpected and so contradictory to the situation, I burst out in laughter. It only made me want to play more.