Nick's Gaming Blog

The Saboteur Review

The Irish (at least according to mainstream culture and prominent stereotypes) are known for several things.  They’re known to have a predilection for drinking as well as fisticuffs, though that’s not to say that this is always a “cause/effect” relationship.  They tend to not get along with “the Motherland,” yet they’ve more than proven that they struggle to get along with one another (the past couple decades can certainly attest to this).  Finally,  their country apparently harbors undersized individuals who fiercely guard cauldrons filled to the brim with gold coins…perhaps at this juncture it’s relevant to return to the “heavy drinking” point above-mentioned.

Unalterable rules of life as we know it: Shit happens, Let the Wookie win, and never interrupt an Irishman to discuss the true meaning of "freedom" when he's drinking.

But, the Irish, they aren’t exactly renown for their ability to scale Parisian apartments.  That’s the general sort of task best reserved for select protagonists of a pair of Ubisoft franchises.  However, Pandemic Studios decided it would be in their best interest to develop a title in which an Irish race car driver named Sean Devlin, amongst a large amount of alcohol and nicotine consumption, pilots fast moving vehicles, kills Nah-zees (100 scalps apiece, plz) and, yes, exhibits an uncanny ability to vertically navigate the high-up dwellings of Paris.

Yes, we’ve all seen (at least, I’d like to think) practically every single WWII combat scenario played out thanks to the Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and Brothers in Arms franchises, along with a few extraneous other titles.  A cursory glance at The Saboteur naturally leads one to this line of related questioning: Haven’t we said all that needs to be said about WWII?  What’s an Irishman doing in Paris anyway?  Isn’t this just a modern Assassin’s Creed? Allow me to answer these questions in the order they were respectively posed before moving on to the review: Apparently not…that’s a major plot point…and yes, in some ways it resembles Assassin’s Creed…though no more than any modern “hack and slash” bears semblance to the God of War franchise.

(clears throat, looks up at lengthy intro, straightens tie, and noticing that the word count is already clear into the mid 300s, attempts to begin this review)

Okay, so pretty much all of the paragraphs up to this point are an attempt to wittily get at the fact that Sean Devlin is essentially Altair/Ezzio with a satchel and a brogue, when it comes to climbing ability, that’s all.  Now let’s get down to business.

Someone would be wise to plug Sean into that weird-ass DNA reading machine (I think it's the ANIMUS, but I hated the first Assassin's Creed so much I don't feel like looking it up) because I'm pretty damn sure he and Altair are related.

The Saboteur is a late 2009 release from Pandemic Studios (Star Wars Battlefront, Mercenaries) and also happens to be their last title before Electronic Arts effectively dissolved the studio outright.  The story involves an Irishman named Sean Devlin, who happens to be a mechanic-turned-race car driver for Vittore Morini, in the months leading up to the Nazis takeover of France.

*SPOILERS* IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW JUST WHY YOU’RE THE SABOTEUR, STOP READING NOW

Sean ends up in a Grand Prix race meant to showcase the supposed superiority of the Third Reich and is well on his way to victory, when a German driver named Dierker shoots out Sean’s tire just as they go around the last turn.  Of course, being the temperamental Irishman that he is, Sean isn’t about to put up with this, and decides that he and his co-worker/best friend Jules (Vittore’s son) will opt for the “eye for an eye” approach…aka, wreck Dierker’s car.

Problem is, seconds after launching the car off of a bluff, the Nazis (being unusually clever) discover your shenanigans, capture you, and subject the two of you to archaic and cruel interrogation processes, convinced that the two of you are working for Britain’s Special Operations Executive branch.  Turns out Dierker is Nazi brass, and after Jules attempts to honestly plead that he’s not an agent, Dierker has him killed.

Ah, Dierker. Pretty certain this is his Facebook profile pic...being a huge dick and all.

*END SPOILERS*  It sounds like a fairly simple narrative lead-in, but it creatively doubles as a tutorial, instead of subjecting the player to a instruction-laden and plot-free level before they can get around to the actual “meat” of the game.  Emotionally, it’s quite compelling as well…you were the one that encouraged Jules to join you in your attempt to “get even” with the Reich’s racing division, and all the honesty in the world couldn’t stop the Nazis from murdering him in front of you.  Furthermore, it was your very presence that gave Dierker the notion that the two of you might be working for SOE.

This is not a game about a noble, heroic and selfless patriot, giving his all to preserve the (mostly) helpless French.

It’s about a guilt-fueled and vice-driven Irishman attempting to keep his promise to murder Kurt Dierker.  Despite all of the varied causes and ideals Sean is encouraged to aspire to, his attention remains undivided from the goal to “rain shells” on the man who killed Jules.

Too many games these days attempt to provide us with a haughty and convoluted socio-political justification for massive destruction, as if tearing Paris apart in the name of one man is seemingly irresponsible.  Yet, we all have our personal reasons behind our social (collective) actions, and Pandemic understands this perfectly.  Now, it must be said that the plot development following this introductory sequence (and the very linear ending of the game) isn’t as strong, but it’s still competent enough to drive the title along.

The Saboteur’s gameplay centers around the frighteningly-accurate backdrop of Paris during the Nazi occupation.  Paris (and the surrounding locales) offer up primary and secondary missions, which further the plot and liberate Paris, respectively.  Both, of course, also provide the player with contraband, the black market currency necessary to acquire new weapons and explosives, repair cars, and purchase weapon upgrades, amongst other things.  The emphasis on completing secondary missions isn’t spelled out well by the game, but they accomplish two main goals: they pay well, and they assist in what Pandemic Studios has labeled as “ambient freeplay” aka, the sandbox portion of the game.

...one mission is basically The Polar Express...with Nazis. And by that...I mean it involves a train. So basically, it's Uncharted 2. Just kidding. Kinda.

Specifically, clearing out the Nazi occupation isn’t just about running through Parisian buildings of interest, cutting down every goose-stepping bastard as you go (though this is certainly true of a couple missions).  It involves exploding propaganda speakers, observation towers, sniper nests, fueling stations, AA turrets, spotlights, and much, much more.  In the vein of Freedom Fighters (LOVE THAT GAME) you can choose to ignore the majority of the sorts of Nazi infrastructure listed above, if you really desire.  However, take a few minutes every now and then to clear out a couple of these “freeplay targets” and it’ll make the core missions easier, reducing the amount of opposition you face, as well as ensuring a less-eventful escape route.  See, unless you have magical abilities, you’ll likely have to bust out the hardcore firepower on multiple missions…and this means that the Nazis are more than likely to pull the alarm on you.

Much like in GTA, the more you fight, the higher the alarm level escalates (ranging from 1 to 4), taking things from a Sturmwagen of SS troops to tanks and zeppellin-mounted machine guns.  If you want to drop the alarm level, there are several creative methods (rooftop hiding spots, kissing girls, fightback zones) but these are often contingent on your location, the level of support you have in said area, and many are locked out on higher alarm levels etc…The easiest way is simply to outrun the red area circled on your mini-map, which will grow/move based on if you are spotted again while attempting to escape it.

"It was on that rain-swept evening, the drops splashing violently on the headstones, that Sean decided to teach the Nazis, once and for all, that it was not a purse, but a SATCHEL." Indiana Jones has one.

This, of course, is where removing freeplay targets is huge, take out those fascist observers several stories up, and your escape might just be possible.  The only problem is that most missions don’t really inform in advance just where it’ll be taking place, so you’ll have to agree to take on the mission before you scout out the area.  It’s a minor issue, though.  Freeplay also tends to emphasize more of a stealth approach than actual missions.

As most targets require the liberal application of dynamite, getting up close and personal is a requirement, which usually means stealth kills and/or disguises are too.  Considering that most freeplay targets only net 60-70 contraband apiece, it’s best to approach with one of the above-mentioned methods, light the fuse, and run (or walk, if in Nazi uniform) in the opposite direction, as gunfire and explosions cause the local area to be investigated by the local Nazis a few seconds down the line.  This is represented on your map as a yellow circle known the “suspicion zone”..and you’ll have to exit before Hitler’s best and brightest arrive on the scene.  It’s not worth it (especially in a heavily-occupied area) to be fighting off a level 3 alarm just because you less-than-carefully took down a guard post.

Before addressing the not-so-stealthy tactics, I should briefly say a few more words about the excellently executed disguise system.  To begin with, killing a Nazi is not grounds to instantly play “Pretty Pretty Stormtrooper.”  You can only don the clothes of those you defeat in fisticuffs or stealth-kill (trust me, second option is much better).  Secondly, if you get dressed while still in the line of sight of other Nazis, you’ll lose the disguise.  In addition, because your Irish roots aren’t too difficult to surmise under close inspection, remaining within a Nazi’s inspection range for 5-6 seconds will also have you back in your plainclothes, running from MP40 slugs.  “Why the hell would you ever want to use a disguise then,” you naturally ask.  Well, disguises let you onto Nazi property without instantly having any Nazi run for the alarm, and this allows for the possibility of stealth-kills on Nazi property.  They also allow you to carry a weapon in public without drawing Nazi attention, and also often allows for those oh-so valuable 2-3 seconds of surprise before the Nazi in question figures you must not love der Fuhrer…this is even moreso the case once you unlock more of the stealth weapons.

Note that Sean's black arrow icon in the bottom-left is well within the barbed wire circle and nobody is shooting at him? One of the many reasons (along with enjoying the age-old game "Third Reich Dress-Up") to use disguises.

However, mission-based gameplay has more of a classic third-person “run and gun” emphasis, with light cover elements until the end where you’ll rival Marcus Fenix in your sheer ability to dry-hump concrete.  Mission variety runs the spectrum of working for the SOE to remove the Nazi’s chemical warfare plants, to destroying a supply-fueled zeppelin set to reinforce Rommel’s desert warfare in Africa at the behest of an aged French Foreign Legion soldier, to killing a Nazi informant who has confessed his sins regularly to a priest who views your assassination of his congregant as an action God wholeheartedly permits.

Not only will you take on missions from such different folk as a museum curator who wants you to assist her in saving France’s cultural objects to a Chinese psychiatrist who wants you to play babysitter to his Nazi edition of “The Manchurian Candidate,” but the constant variety of objectives (sniping important leaders, tailing people’s cars, breaking resistance leaders out of prisons, sheer destruction) keeps things exciting.  Skip the secondary missions, and you’ll sadly miss out on a lot of this (as well as a very large amount of contraband).

The firearms offered are historically accurate and the ability to acquire imported weapons (such as America’s Thompson Machine Gun or the British Sten SMG) will often give you a safer (and stronger) alternative to stealing dead men’s guns…though sticking with German guns will still get you to the end of the game without much of a fuss.  Specifically you’ll be allowed to carry grenades, dynamite and two weapons at any time (no class restrictions, thankfully).  Guns cannot be upgraded beyond purchasing them at the store (so you don’t lose them when you die) and a simple ammo upgrade for each class of weapons.  The black market for cars mostly works the exact same way, save for the upgrade correlating to a stronger armor.  The gameplay isn’t really ground-breaking in any aspect, but the controls are well-mapped, the “take cover and heal” mechanic keeps things from feeling downright impossible, and the exhilarating feeling of rapidly gunning down Nazis en route to your getaway car is one you won’t mind repeating over and over again.

In fact, the only semi-sorta-kinda new concepts come in the form of “Perks” and “Strikes.”  The former works like an “in-game” achievement system of sorts, perks are divided into several categories organized around elements of gameplay such as driving, sniping, and sabotage, along with a few others.  Within each one of these categories are a bronze, silver, and gold perk that the player will be rewarded with upon completion of a certain goal.  For example, if you kill 10 Nazis with grenades, you’ll unlock the ability to carry more grenades, as a bronze perk.  Get 15 headshots with a sniper scope and you’ll earn the silver perk “Eagle Eye” which reduces the recoil when using scopes.  It’s something certainly worth looking into, as you have to earn both the bronze and silver perks in each category before unlocking the ability to “go for the gold”…and the golds offer up some pretty amazing weaponry, as well as the ability to plant dynamite disguised w/o guards getting suspicious, no knockdown from explosions…etc.  Strikes aren’t as fun or necessary, but they allow you to summon resistance fighters to assist you or getaway cars.  Neither (due to the surplus of automobiles and the ineptitude of ally AI) are necessary.

I thing I ABSOLUTELY love about the Saboteur...the perk/interface art. Downright stunning, guys. PLEASE click on the image for a closer look

Graphically, The Saboteur is a mixed bag.  The use of the black and white (and Nazi Red) subdued palette in “occupied” areas, which gives way to bright colors upon liberation is a nice touch, even though we’ve seen similar effects in Okami and Prince of Persia.  Here it’s not just aesthetic, though.  A quick glance at just how dreary things look down the road will easily give you an idea if you’ve got a couple stray guards at a remote fueling station or a sector of Paris trembling under the weight of the Nazi jackboot.  In addition, the spots of color to highlight such things as Skylar’s blue scarf (or other things that exemplify the Resistance effort) are a nice alternative to the only three colors in the Nazi crayon set.

The modeling, for the main characters is above average, but the animations often come across as a little too basic or jerky, and you’ll often see recycled animations in in-game cutscenes (Sean’s reaction to near-everything is to cross his arms and half-shake his head) you could swear you just viewed ten minutes before.  The explosions, however, are always a joy to watch, you’ll find yourself panning the camera around, as Sean walks away, to admire the blast.  Cool guys don’t look at explosions, and Sean’s no different.  The frame rate remains steady throughout the entire game, and there’s hardly ever any clipping or other technical issues.  Overall, visually, The Saboteur is above industry standards, but is no Mass Effect 2.

Sound, like the visuals, is equally deserving of praise and scorn.  hearing the jazzy tunes of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, amongst others while driving, is a real treat…and while they start to repeat a little too soon, that only diminishes the enjoyment slightly.  While the original score is equally epic, the voice acting is serviceable at best.  The fact that Sean’s accent comes across as a poor caricature of the Irish brogue…as an Englishman, hoping us idiotic Americans won’t be able discern the difference…really hurts things.  Both Skylar and Veronique’s voice actors do an above average job, and Dierker, for as little as you encounter him, gives us the over-the-top German Nazi accent we were hoping for.  Sound effects are simply the industry standard, though the guns and explosions are exemplary.  Bottom line, if you mute the cutscenes, you’ll be fine.  The banter of the Parisians and Nazi grunts is comical, though, especially when you mow over either with your car.

I have no real reason for posting this image in the context of the surrounding paragraphs. The first one was just too awesome to leave unaccompanied by another.

In the end, The Saboteur blends effective gameplay with a compelling premise, and with the insane amount of freeplay targets, offers up a large amount (albeit of the “rinse-repeat” variety) of replay value.  Yet you never feel like it’s its own game, instead, the cobbled together contents of Assassin’s Creed (climbing and vertical elements), Mercenaries (blow everything up), and your average sandbox title.

In fact, it’s almost as if Pandemic took Mercenaries 2, gave it a plot and set it back in the 1940s with an emphasis on vertical instead of horizontal exploration, amped up the graphics, and gave the game a decent pacing element, instead of the “umm…what random boring activity for which faction should I do now?” of Mercenaries 2. However, as Fable II clearly demonstrated, just because you fix faulty elements and/or deliver on promises for past entries in said series…doesn’t mean you’ll have a downright amazing game on your hands.  Still, The Saboteur is a quality “swan song” on the part of Pandemic Studios…leaving a far less sour taste in our mouths than if Lord of The Rings: Conquest would have ended up as their last title.

Editor’s Note: The concept art in the post is from Imran’s (no last name on Blogger account) portfolio and the thumb on the front page is from Jason Hazelroth’s portfolio, both of which are obviously quite talented individuals, and hopefully have/will acquired work since Pandemic Studios shut down.


2 Comments

    “Too long, did not read.”

    Kidding.

    I really think its interesting the combination of GTA, Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted that they have going on in this game. I still haven’t seen it though so I can’t really form an educated opinion about it.

  • Blur

Leave a Reply