'Oh my god, titties!' I exclaimed to my girlfriend as The Saboteur started its opening cutscene. EA's new strategy for combating second-hand games sales saw players walk around with a Golem in Dragon Age: Origins - in The Saboteur it shows you nipples instead. It's not really my cup of tea - I'm not sure how a game could open with a cutscene panning out of a nipple and still take itself seriously - but it's at least something to add value to the
game (close-minded as it is to its female audience).
As the entirely forgettable Sean Devlin you'll begin The Saboteur in a whorehouse - with the free code packaged alongside the game removing the tops of the ****** within. A man approaches you while you drown your sorrows within - he has a job for you, and your career as a terrorist resistance fighter begins.
Irishman Devlin lives in Nazi-occupied France, where the impact the jack-boots have on the country has caused a literal gloom to sit over the city of Paris. As Devlin you're challenged to cavort about Paris in various vehicles blowing crap up - Sniper outposts, Radar positions and even Zeppelins go up in flames when you're around. The gloom is represented by stylised black-and-white texturing (with only the nazi logo and the city's lights standing out in vivid colouring) - as you liberate the citizens of Paris the gloom will evaporate, returning colour to the city of lights.
The gloom is definitely a great idea, and it adds oodles to the atmosphere of the game, but its execution isn't as solid as we'd like. Certain areas become all but invisible when shrouded in the gloom of occupation, making it extremely difficult to navigate. The more you play through the game, the less you find yourself wanting to visit these areas - even if visiting them promises more gunfighting than what you might find elsewhere.
The draw of gunfighting is strong however, as Sean is a decent gunslinger. Armed with a silenced pistol and a sniper rifle, Devlin can take out whole platoons of nazis - all while dancing across rooftops. The gunfighting mechanics are typically solid - there's very little snap-to aim assisting occurring (a pro by my standards, but others may feel different). You'll find you have a better time when the only person aware of the killing going on is Devlin though - as a stealthy assassin your Irishman could give Agent 47 a run for his money. It's a breeze to walk up to a Nazi, snap his neck and steal his uniform before anyone is any wiser.
With a Nazi uniform on you'll find other Germans pay no mind to the dishevelled, unshaven 'Wermacht' soldier wandering in their midst - unless they're Gestapo (only the secret police think it's weird for a grunt to be rolling around Paris with a five o'clock shadow... but I'm just nitpicking.) Using disguises allows you access to all kinds of areas you'd normally be shot (almost) on sight for entering. The game uses a suspicion gauge to demonstrate how aware the Nazis are of your presence - a full gauge triggers an alarm (which calls more nazis to your area).
This brings me to the Perks system. To keep things interesting, accomplishing certain goals will earn you 'Perks', mini-achievements which unlock new items within the game world. Ranked like PlayStation Network trophies, they vary in difficulty not just between the various levels (bronze, silver and gold) but also between perks. A decent player will find the Sniper perks very simple - headshots and double kills are the order of the day - but most will struggle just to earn a 5 alarm rating to earn the Mayhem perk (I spent 20 minutes shooting down Zeppelin after Zeppelin and never earned more than four).
The influence from the Mercenaries series is immediately obvious to
anyone familiar with Pandemic's previous projects - The Saboteur is a game about blowing stuff up (as it should be) and it is damned good at it. Further than this though, is the influence of Ubisoft Montreal's great Assassin's Creed series. While Mercs 2 was set in a sparsely populated banana republic, The Saboteur takes place in the heart of Paris, and Pandemic have given Sean free running capabilities to maintain freedom in the open world environment.
Rope burn is not a concept familiar to Devlin as he glides between buildings on telegraph wires or slides down 90 metre ladders. In an effort to differentiate TS with AC2, the way Devlin climbs walls requires constant interactivity from the player - tapping A to encourage Sean to reach for the next ledge constantly. Those who wanted more input when sending Ezio around the rooftops of Italy should be careful what they wish for - the climbing mechanic treads the line between interesting and tedious the entire time, missing the free-running flow of Ezio's world.
The driving sequences in the game appear to actually be the focus - though for a Grand Prix champion turned domestic terrorist you do relatively little actual racing. When you do find yourself trackside, the focus is (thankfully) more on moving the story forward than it is on recreating a 1940 version of Gran Turismo - the game is heavy on the catch-up logic if you're a bad driver. Outside of races cars are responsive - if a little 'slidey' for vehicles which aren't as fast as their modern day counterparts. The roads of Paris are great for speeding through, and going off-road isn't as daunting as you might think.
The story of The Saboteur isn't amazing, and it's not helped at all by the altogether forgettable characters. The Saboteur fails to avoid the pitfalls so many free form action adventure games find themselves in - forgettable characters lead to forgettable stories. The reasons behind creating an Irish liberator for Nazi-Occupied France eludes me completely - the members of the French Resistance featured many great people, regardless of the relative ease at which the nation was conquered in 1940.
Devlin's supporting cast aren't a lot better - the writer turned freedom fighter, the shady British special agent (who Devlin has a problem with because the Irish and British don't get along, as the game constantly reminds you) and the "Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List" Nazi Villain - none are portrayed with much enthusiasm (with the exception of the saucy Skylar, your British fling). The basic plot is one of revenge - Dierker (the Amon Göth character) kills your best friend, driving you to drink before you're eventually coaxed into doing something about all the Nazis hanging out in France - it really feels like it's only there to tick a box (the "game has a story" box).
The Saboteur is more than the sum of its parts really. It definitely falters along the way - when it was borrowing vehicle elements from the GTA series it would have done well to leave the ludicrously spaced checkpoints alone, and it shouldn't have messed with AC2's free-running mechanic, no matter what gamers think they want when climbing walls - but the whole title is actually engaging and fun to play. I genuinely enjoyed playing it despite it's shortcomings, and I find myself going back to it when I have free time. Players who want to cavort about a highly stylised Paris with a shell of a character will definitely enjoy The Saboteur - those who want substance in their period games might be better off considering 15th century Italy.