Review: The Saboteur

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Ugh, yet another World War II game. That was the sentiment a lot of people had when The Saboteur first made its way into our gaming consciousness.

“That’s what we thought when we first sat down to talk about it,” said Tom French, the game’s lead developer. “Do we REALLY want another World War II game?”

It’s not that killin’ Nazis got old — it’s that we kept essentially killing them the same way. Storm the beaches. Blow up a bunker. Disable enemy armor. Pause for dramatic music that makes you think of Saving Private Ryan. All in first-person.

Even the attempts to infuse WWII with traces of the occult or scientific fantasy (like Wolfenstein) generally boiled down to picking up weapons and shooting a lot of Nazis (some demonic, some not) through the eyes of the hero. Like any good soldier, you were asked to steadily march forward, engage the enemy and persevere.

Enter The Saboteur, a sandbox of historical fantasy that functions as the fun and slightly cantankerous antithesis of any other WWII game I’ve run into. Featuring pieces of some Assassin’s Creed and the wildly diverse nature of the GTA games, we finally got a different way to tell a war story.

Nazi-occupied France serves as the artsy hub of the game’s plot, a revenge tale centered around the exploits of Sean Devlin, a Irish race car driver who turns to a life of blowing up all things Reich-related when his best friend dies at the hands of an sadistic Nazi officer (as opposed to a benevolent one) named Kurt Dierker. Devlin, I’m told, is based off of a real war saboteur.

Other than RPG characters, I place high importance on the depth, personality and general presence of protagonists in sandbox games. They exist in a body of work that asks for a lot of your time, so they need to be worth sticking with. Niko Bellic and the combination of special characters around him made GTA IV multifaceted and compelling, even in the face of seemingly random side missions that could have added tedium to the experience.

The cast of The Saboteur didn’t quite entice me as much as the GTA IV crew, but I appreciated the classic feel of all their personalities, which reminded me of old movies where the actors would put a little extra mustard on their accents to emphasize who they were.

For example, Sean Devlin’s not just Irish … he’s really Irish, spouting curses at the Nazis he kills and showing little regard for the fine art of delicate conversation. Dierker’s a blond, blue-eyed Reich poster child, conjuring up imagery of every WWII movie when terrified people talk about “ze Germans!!!” You’ll also run into the British, who come across as both sexy (the saucy Skylar) and shadowy (Bishop, who heads up Britain’s intel ops in France).

However, it is the French who recruit Sean as their gaijin handyman of death. In a way, they also serve as Sean’s emotional anchors, since his best friend Jules and his sister Veronique are both French, with the latter serving as the inevitable love interest. Caught in the middle of the fight is Luc, the leader of the French Resistance and the man who supplies Sean with his first action.

Sean has a vast playground in where he can do his damage, but it’s also an artistically intriguing place to play. While most open-world environments are designed to carry an amount of organic detail and visual life, The Saboteur makes its mark on your eyes by emphasizing a lackof life. A black-and-white film noir look dominates the streets of France. The only way color returns to the landscape is through Sean’s explosive cleansing of Nazi influence from the region. It’s sort of “Pleasantville” in a way, but it’s a style that did an outstanding job conveying the transition from morose, hopeless depression into inspired, empowering resistance from the people. Eventually, there are spots on the GPS-style map where Sean can band together wish members of the French rebels and fight off Nazis pursuing him.

Ze Germans have plenty of reasons to hate Sean. As you can guess, he handles his business with a variety of weapons and explosives ranging from simple dynamite to charges that can detonated from a distance. There’s also a nearly endless supply of things to blow up, and the diverse litany of story and side missions give Sean plenty of chances to show off his action-hero chops. You’ll destroy booming war cannons at the top of buildings. You’ll raid a revamped auto plant that houses Nazi weapons. You’ll blow up train bridges. You hitch rides on flying zeppelins. You’ll steal cars and use them to flee Nazi strongholds. You’ll trigger massive prison breaks. The entire game generally emits an aura that’s more Indy, less Inglorious Basterds. That’s not to say the missions aren’t without some twists — one side mission, given to you by a defrocked French priest, calls upon Sean to wipe out a Nazi officer and his buddies during a wedding ceremony.

The gameplay will remind people a lot of inFAMOUS the aforementioned AC, where Sean can climb up practically anything. This opens up the player to determine the best way to approach targets. You can certainly go in guns blazing, even going so far as to rig your ride with a device to explode upon impact. Or, you can climb around and find another way in, slipping by the multitude of armed guards. You can also take a page out of the Hitman playbook by donning a disguise and walking into various Nazi dens. This is the kind of open-endedness one expects to see in sandbox titles — unfortunately, the game is also prone to the same kinds of issues.

My main problem dealt with how surrounding people reacted to the things Sean did. Sandbox games usually have funky dynamics when it comes to crowds. For Prototype, people never seemed to get out of the way of tanks or other vehicles, as they were content to simply be mowed down like grass. Others crowds could simply be oblivious to things that happened around them, like exploding vehicles or buildings with tentacles coming out of them. The Saboteur has Nazis who are figuratively chained to glowing circles.

Conceptually, Sean can blow things up to distract the enemy. Anytime you wipe out a target with a charge, you’ll see a little yellow circle appear on your map, which signifies an area of “suspicion.” This area is where Nazis are supposed to be buzzing around and trying to figure out what just blew up. If you’re in the circle, you have a chance to be spotted. If not, you have nothing to worry about.

Unfortunately, this in-the-circle thinking applies to Nazis, who could care less about stuff that doesn’t happen in their immediate area. I once blew up a spotlight in a courtyard, with debris flying everywhere and clanging into the street. There was a group of guards watching over another spotlight across the way. Were they bothered that something exploded? Not really … they were just outside the yellow circle, so they didn’t budge. They did, however, watch a vehicle full of Nazi soldiers race up to the trouble area, empty out, and look for anyone suspicious. As amusing as this might sound, it also took a lot of steam out of the potential to “distract” the enemy.

One thing that might have helped the experience a bit was some kind of “fast travel” mechanism, so that I wouldn’t have to drive across France — through several Nazi checkpoints — every single time the British wanted to meet me for a mission in a remote village. As pretty as the visual representation of France was, I hated having to repeatedly drive the same roads and wait for my papers to get checked all the time. It was time consuming, but even worse, tedious. The game’s ending, which I won’t spoil, also left much to be desired.

That said, I thought The Saboteur was a fun, refreshing take on an period of time that’s been done to death in the gaming space. It shows there are still more tales to be spun from WWII, and more than a few ways to tell them.

The Saboteur
Pandemic Studios
Xbox 360, PS3
Rated M for Mature