Black and White and Red All Over
HIGH Blowing an entire Nazi base sky-high in the space of a few seconds.
LOW Any time you try to escape an alarm in a car.
WTF They can blow up heavily armored tanks, so why don't my explosives damage buildings?
Last year saw a number of games that used the standard open-world design to explore new eras and new kinds of transgressive behavior. The personal and political violence of Assassin's Creed II and Red Faction: Guerrilla were a welcome shift from the increasingly humdrum modern crime stories that have dominated the genre. At the end of the year, recently-deceased Pandemic completed the trifecta with The Saboteur, a tale of the French Resistance against the Nazis and the Vichy regime. The successful combination of the sneaky wall-climbing of the Assassin's Creed games with Red Faction's explosive approach and political spirit makes The Saboteur compelling entertainment.
Lighting the fuse in this hybrid adventure is Irish racecar driver Sean Devlin, who despite his heavy build, has much of Ezio Auditore's climbing ability and all of his womanizing ways. Drawn into the conflict by a competition with a German driver and Nazi commander that escalated from unfriendly pranks to murder, Sean hooks up with the French Resistance and British SOE to deliver a healthy dose of mayhem and revenge to history's goose-stepping villains. Fortunately, Sean turns out to be a jack-of-all-trades, as handy with a gun or stick of dynamite as he is with his racecar, and he needs all of these skills to complete his tasks.
The Saboteur's missions often end with a boom, but they typically begin in silence. Although Sean can cause some serious damage to the Nazis, he never really has the weapons to go toe-to-toe with the Wehrmacht. Most missions require him to sneak into Nazi facilities, avoiding the guards or stealing a uniform for a limited disguise. Once in, he may need to kill guards to facilitate a jailbreak, or set explosives to destroy their vital supplies. Dead bodies and loud noises attract attention and weaken Sean's disguise, so escaping the resulting "zone of suspicion" without drawing attention in other ways can be a tense affair. If Sean gets spotted in one of these areas or identified as an impostor by other means, the alarm will sound, attracting plenty of soldiers who will be happy to take him out.
Sean can escape by stealing another disguise (out of view) or fleeing the alarm zone. Killing his way out is rarely an option, as further Nazi deaths cause the alarm to escalate, so that infantry and zeppelins get replaced by tanks and strafing fighter planes. The escapes can be exhilarating, but only if Sean chooses his way out wisely. Evacuating the alarm zone in a car yields mixed results because the driving never feels quite right and enemy vehicles spawn in at too short a distance. Running on foot, especially across the rooftops of this greatly-compressed Paris, is more likely to succeed and offers the option to escape via hiding places.
Early on, however, the upper levels are occupied by observation towers and sniper nests. Between missions, Sean can take these out, simplifying future escapes and earning himself "contraband" that can be spent on weapons and ammo at black-market weapons dealers. There seem to be almost a thousand of these and other "freeplay" targets scattered across Paris and the surrounding countryside, often arranged in small bases that generate their own emergent missions. The number of story tasks in The Saboteur may be limited, but the freeplay opportunities vastly expand the game without ever feeling like just so much extra padding.
When the game begins, most of the Parisian gameworld is black and white, with few color accents other than the red of Nazi iconography. As the workmanlike story progresses and the the battle against the occupation ebbs and flows, Sean's successes return color to the city in a style reminiscent of Ōkami. Although the desaturated textures can get confusing when it comes time to climb, the black-and-white looks very stylish and does an excellent job of visually conveying the oppressed feeling of the French, as well as evoking the look of period movies. As he frees various neighborhoods of occupation influence, Sean can also retreat to areas where Resistance soldiers will help him drive off his pursuers. Although blowing up an entire base without anyone being a bit the wiser feels great, blowing your cover and then driving the Nazis back from a rallying point also feels like an accomplishment.
Not much of an accomplishment, though, because the AI in this game is dumb, dumb, dumb. Pedestrians seem to have no ability to recognize oncoming cars and will actually jump in front of your vehicle if you aren't traveling in a perfectly straight line. Cars and trucks chug around the streets as if they're being driven by a bunch of 10-year-olds on quaaludes: they're very slow, turn incredibly poorly, and often end up on the wrong side of the street. The Nazi forces were particularly disappointing, showing no tendency to properly use cover or suppressing fire. In fact, they didn't seem to have any unit behaviors at all. Video games tend to romanticize the hardware, but the early Nazi triumph was also a product of cohesive and disciplined fighting units, and I got no sense of that here. Had the real Nazis been this disorganized, the French could have beaten them back from the streets of Paris with baguettes and brie.
In this take on World War II, Sean and the Resistance eventually shake loose much of the Nazi control over France, their story progressing in workmanlike fashion through the high points of pop-culture perceptions of the Third Reich. The game never really comes to grips with its subject, however, because in comparison to Red Faction, the world of The Saboteur has strictly limited destructibility. Nazi installations and vehicles can be destroyed, but native French architecture is immune to Sean's dynamite. Allowing the player to blow up classic Paris landmarks might be problematic, but no more so than the fact that artillery shells impact harmlessly against chimneys and telegraph poles even as they shatter tanks and planes. The invulnerability of French structures oversimplifies the gameplay and the ethical import of Sean's actions in a way I found distracting, especially in view of Sean's occasionally moralizing dialogue. Had I played it last January, I would be impressed with the interactivity and responsiveness of The Saboteur's world, but this gameplay just can't hold up to Volition's Martian adventure.
The fact that it's not ideal doesn't keep The Saboteur from being compelling, however. The game's missions are generally well thought out, and the extra freeplay activities available substantially extend its lifetime without getting stale. What The Saboteur lacks in innovation it makes up for with solid design and implementation. Nobody could mistake this for a serious contemplation of the French Resistance, but as a rousing open-world romp it is a great success. This final game from Pandemic is not a headstone, but a capstone: an excellent game that shows what a great team EA destroyed.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 46 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, and strong language. Nearly every woman in the game, even if powerful or important, is a sex object in one way or another. Sean can visit a brothel or kiss a stranger (without consent) as a way to escape some alarms. Downloadable content that comes free with a new game increases the nudity. Some scenes contain alcohol use/abuse, and like many people of the 1940s, Sean smokes like a factory.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Not a problem for this game. No sound cues are essential to the gameplay and all dialogue has subtitles.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
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