The Saboteur Review

Pandemic Studios may have fallen victim to Electronic Arts’ improved “cost structure” back in November, but before drifting loudly away on the late autumn wind, the Mercenaries and Star Wars: Battlefront series developer had one final message for Nazi Germany in its swan song title, The Saboteur. This visually striking open-world action title’s atypical and interesting World War II story is offset by dated gameplay mechanics and slow development, making it easy to have mixed feelings for it. This is exactly how I felt while playing, but revitalizing Paris in the face of Nazi occupation grew on me throughout my time with the game.

In The Saboteur, players step into the role of Sean Devlin, a tough, bar-dwelling, Irish race car driver, who is persuaded to join the French resistance against Nazi Germany during the occupation of the early 1940s. He’s in it principally for revenge, but this more noble cause is what finally gets him wound up enough to spring into action. This is one of the best WWII stories in gaming, told from a very different perspective than what we’ve seen in the past, and is far more appealing than the typical beach-storming, infantry-inundated military tale we’ve played through time and time again. The characters are interesting because they’re flawed and human, but I found their individual personalties, superficial relationships, and sophomoric dialogue to be generally unlikable. This feeling was enough to make it difficult to relate to or become emotionally invested in them outside of the fact that they were fighting off the Nazi occupation… and blowing things up.

The Saboteur

Blowing things up is indeed one of The Saboteur‘s main appeals amid gameplay mechanics whose roots lie squarely in the realm of earlier 3D Grand Theft Auto games. It’s a familiar mission-based open-world structure, where various non-player characters pinpointed on the main map set objectives for Sean, either to drive the story forward or offer up some side-questing action. The missions seem to cover a wider spectrum than one would find in a GTA game, expanding upon the typical car theft, chases, shootouts, and sniping with stealth and disguise elements, climbing mechanics, and freeplay targets, which are specific Nazi structures throughout the game world that can be demolished at any time during gameplay. There is no obvious or immediate reward (aside from feeling like a champ) for setting off the fireworks on the freeplay targets, but doing so will have subtle effects on the game, reducing Nazi presence in the area and making Sean’s life a little bit easier in the future. While the combat, driving, and climbing controls all feel clumsy and substandard when compared to contemporary titles in the genre, those moments where you jump out of your car and plant a bundle of dynamite on a fueling station or sniper tower and slowly walk away from the explosion are immensely satisfying and play out without the game engine trying to stop you from enjoying them.

The Saboteur‘s other calling card is its “will to fight” feature. In the beginning, the entire (and quite large) game world is a black-and-white, film-noir-reminiscent, depressing, and oppressive place, the visual style heavily impacting the player and reinforcing what is essentially the collective emotional state of the citizens of France under Nazi control. As missions are completed and specific Nazi strongholds and control points are retaken and/or depopulated courtesy of Sean’s trigger and lighter fingers, color is restored and hope returns to the people in the face of adversity, a little at a time. As the will to fight increases, the dark, dingy, and spectrally desaturated neighborhoods formerly characterized by packs of roving Nazi guards and persistent rain turn to welcoming city streets bathed in warm lamppost light for strolling French citizens, and where the will to fight is low, only the bright Nazi flags, muzzle flashes, blood, fire, and other select elements stand out in vibrant color. Throughout the game, this extreme visual contrast has a powerful effect, and the Okami-esque revitalization of France is motivational and rewarding.

The Saboteur

Unfortunately, The Saboteur at the same time suffers from many technical issues that detract from its superb aesthetics and unique style. Frame rate drops are frequent, as is shadow pop-in and a fair amount of clipping. Other glitches, such as enemies and NPCs spawning in ridiculous places or failing to carry out their prescribed mission-dependant routines, happen less frequently, but they still adversely affect the gameplay experience, at times preventing the player from completing missions without restarting. Enemy AI leaves much to be desired, as guards can detect, pursue, and raise the alarm on Sean from what seems to be a mile away during stealth sections, but in the midst of firefights they do little to save their own hides from incoming bullets, often standing in the open, just begging to be shot. When Sean has to run instead of fight, The Saboteur‘s simple, yet silly system of escaping Nazis comes into play. To escape, players must simply get outside of a red circle indicated on the radar, at which point they are instantly liberated from the alert. Taking a page out of the Assassin’s Creed book, there are also hiding spots scattered throughout the city that will clear the alert status. Because of the frequency with which the alarm is sounded in this game, it all seems to balance out, but I feel a better system would have been less frequent, more intense hunts.

The Saboteur isn’t a great game, nor is it a terrible one, although its constituent parts can be characterized using such descriptors. Great visuals, a unique approach to WWII-era storytelling, the “will to fight” system, and explode-and-run fun made me love what I was taking part in, but the actual nuts and bolts of the gameplay — shooting, driving, climbing, stealth — made me want to choke myself instead. Over time, though, I became acclimated to the sub-par mechanics and did enjoy my time with The Saboteur, and I think many players with the free time and cash can do the same. Unfortunately, the game had the potential to do great things with the foundation provided by its unique features and style, but it ends up feeling dated among a sea of competitors that all handle the gameplay end of things far better.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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