A wise man once told me: if you feel that the videogame you’re reviewing and – in turn – constantly having to play turns out to be a chore, pop in a different game. That way, your opinion on it will marinate a little better, and saturate a little less. Unashamedly, that wise man was me. Strangely enough, despite the 17 hours I’ve ventured in Paris, toting turrets and being the anti-Nazi that I am, The Saboteur never left my Xbox 360 like well-glued dynamites.
Pandemic Studios’ latest and (unfortunately) last title, The Saboteur, is an open-world sandbox title that acts as a copycat from all the other GTA-clones that came before it. You’re placed in the shoes of Irish lad Sean Devlin, a race car driver turned badass-Nazi-killing-saboteur. The Saboteur’s release this month means it’s competing with the likes of Assassins Creed 2 and that Modern first-person shooting game. So how does it exactly stack up with the rest of the big triple-A boys?
Right out of the corroded gates, it must be stressed that The Saboteur looks surprisingly stunning. Knock out any preconceptions you had about the game’s visuals from your head, turn on your HDTV and you’ll see a finely baked visual feast. While GTA and all its clones have emphasized side missions and customisations, The Saboteur excels in its looks. The Nazi-occupied areas of Paris are in black and white, as draped Nazi flags on the buildings showcase an accentuated blood red that command attention.
Not only this, primary colours or significant items are also given colour in the dreary world. Fire-filled barrels spark glowing orange, French Resistance fighters have light blue bands on their arms and the headlights attached to the cars shine a luminous light on a bleak back drop. Think Sin City, as The Saboteur’s art direction rips a page straight from Robert Rodriguez’s comic-film adaption with authenticity and finesse. In fact, if ever there was a hybrid between Inglourious Basterds and Sin City, this is it.
On the flipside, areas you’ve liberated from Nazi scum are injected back with bright, vivid, and intense primary colours to contrast the dauntingly dark Hitler-oppressed areas. It’s a sight to behold, as the seamless transition from tyrannized to unshackled towns really give you a clear indication of where you’ve done your dynamite-dirt.
Apart from its outstanding art direction, The Saboteur’s storyline also paces itself well. Many will disagree, but the over-the-top, all out use-every-stereotype-there-is, and include-every-clichéd-plot-twist-and-love-triangle does a lot more good than it does bad. In fact, the tongue-in-cheek humour that never takes itself too seriously harks back to the good ol’ days of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and San Andreas.
From the main villain, secret SS agent and Arnold Schwarzenegger look-a-like Dierker, your sex buddy and British agent-friend Skylar, to a wealth of French Resistance kooks, it tells a tale that doesn’t try to be overtly serious or complex. Sean’s journey from a selfish goon to a citywide hero is also an adventure worth witnessing. Characterisation is subtle, but unexpectedly prevalent for such a sandbox game.
There are a good amount of things to do in WWII Paris, all of which feel like they aren’t useless diversions. ‘Freeplay’ objectives are scattered all around the City of Light and the surrounding countryside, from destroying AA turrets, racing around the city, shooting birds (yes, you read right) to countless other shenanigans. Side, story-driven objectives are also well varied, from sniping Catholic informants on top of a church to spraying a politician and his body doubles. Aside from the diversions, your quest for revenge will take you to impressive set pieces, one being fighting your way out of a burning zeppelin.
Apart from Rambo’ing your way in a Nazi installation base, Pandemic has given you the choice to also take the quieter route via (half-broken) stealth mechanics. Usually, you’re given objectives that require infiltrating a base; either to steal an artefact, free a prisoner or blow something up from the inside. Given these mission designs, you’d think that stealth is paramount – which it is. But see, the problem is that the stealth component of the game can be too tough to make you actually want to use it. It often involves finding a disguise from a Nazi soldier, by sneaking up on him and breaking his neck. That’s not the problem.
Unfortunately, the problem is that sneaking up on one of these sadistic soldiers isn’t as easy as it sounds, due to bugs that sometimes prevent you from actually sneaking up and killing them. Instead you’ll just be standing there, repeatedly trying to snap his neck but failing to even motion the moves. Once these guards alert the other Nazis, you’ll have to run and escape the alarming radar similar to the one seen in GTA 4. It can become a tedious rinse and repeat affair, with you having to retry mission after mission after being pumped lead from every direction possible due to blowing your cover.
The animations aren’t that great either. For a game that emphasises on sneaking up on unsuspecting soldiers, climbing tall buildings, leaping from roof to roof and doing other weird things race car drivers shouldn’t, Devlin’s animations are limited at best. Climbing is comparable to inFamous in that you have to keep pressing the X (or A) button to jump from ledge to ledge. To make life a little easier, ledges and other railings you can leap on to glow white, so you know where you can jump from your current position. This isn’t the problem.
The problem is that the character animation looks laughable, like Sean is actually meant to be running or racing, not climbing. The climbing mechanic is bearable, but clunky. Therein lies The Saboteur’s main issue, that Devlin isn’t as nimble as Ezio or Altair from Assassins Creed, and that leaping from rooftop to rooftop is actually quite a task for the Celtic race driver.
The single greatest thing about The Saboteur is that while there are niggling drawbacks in the gameplay department, its packaging and overall presentation is of high-enough calibre that it should be deemed triple-A material. The shooting and cover mechanics work well enough, as do the perks, vehicles and weapons shop system. The inclusion of ‘calling for backup’ and ‘delivering a getaway car right to you’ is a move in the right direction and opens up other avenues in taking down baddies, something which the PlayStation 2 Scarface game also implemented.
Silly slapstick mechanics and shenanigans aside, The Saboteur is a capable contender for this year’s fourth quarter brawl. While the climbing is clunky and overall character animations shallow for a half-platformer, Pandemic’s swan song should ultimately be remembered as their magnum opus as well. There are stackloads of sabotaging to submerge yourself in; as the over-the-top storyline, dazzling art direction, and plethora of customisations and perks will indeed make this game a keeper.
It’s too little, too late for Pandemic Studios to regain their reputation after Mercenaries 2, but be rest assured: The Saboteur salvages and redeems ‘what could’ve been’ for the developers if they were still here.
The presentation is just plain incredible; from the art direction to the stark contrast between occupied and liberated areas, this is one of the most beautiful looking sandbox games to date.
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Given more time, Pandemic Studios could've tidied up the stealth and climbing mechanics. But as it is, Sean Devlin's adventure satisfies as an open-world game, but falters where it aims to be ambitious.
While the choices are limited, both the intense orchestral pieces and laid-back jazz numbers add to the already-dense atmosphere of 1940s Paris.
There is a good amount of main missions and side missions to go through, and achieving 100% on all Freeplay missions won't be a walk in Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Yes, that's a park in Paris.
Silly slapstick mechanics and shenanigans aside, The Saboteur is a capable contender for this year’s fourth quarter brawl. Pandemic's last will be a sleeper hit, but hopefully enough will wake up and take notice of an impressive swan song.