PC, PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
December 4th, 2009
What do you get if you mash de Blob
and Grand Theft Auto together? A big shitty mess of a game where blobs of paint cruise around a rainbow-hued city popping caps in motherfuckers. Thankfully, Pandemic were a little more selective.
The Saboteur is a free-roaming mayhem 'em up set in German-occupied Paris in WWII. You play as Oirish McStereotype, a hard-drinking fiery-tempered foul-mouthed mechanic turned racing car driver (based on William Grover-Williams
, but the British had nothing to do with WWII), unlucky enough to be taking part in a Grand Prix right around the time ze Germans invade. In short order, you become involved in La Résistance, and set about blowing up bicycles with the best of them. The game is basically an excuse to cause havoc, and as soon as you start playing, you can start murdering the Hun. The game world encapsulates Gay Paree, the surrounding farmland and nearby coast, and a bit of Germany (guess which dev studio nicked off Geography). Thanks to 1940s innocence, carjacking is easy, with cars slowing down if you so much as look at them. The environment is varied, transportation is easy to acquire, and there is weaponry aplenty to take from crates SOE have airdropped (best excuse for crates in a game yet), or from Jerries you have inhumed.
"I'll fuckin 'terrorist' yer, yer Jerry fuckin fuckers!"
But it's not all smiles and sunshine in Paris. The Germans are occupying the city, and like jackbooted Burger King employees, they're having it their way. Being the embodiment of evil, the Nazis have sucked the colour out of the city, leaving it black and white, which fits quite nicely into the 1940s setting, reminding one of the war films of yesteryear. The only splashes of colour are the red of the Swastika flags and banners, the faint yellow of lamps, and the pale blue of allied forces insignia. With the overbearing Germans goosestepping around, it feels like Orwell's 1984 by way of Sin City's visual style, grim, depressing, and militaristic. Until you start blowing things up, that is.
Once you've weakened the accursed grip of the Bosche in an area, there is cheering and celebrating and fucking in the streets, and colour is restored. But killing Germans simply isn't enough, as my grandfather told me. In 1988. Brunhilde and Ingrid will simply squeeze out more sprogs for the Fatherland. Oirish needs to make a bigger dent. You see, Kurt Dierker cheated Oirish of victory during the Grand Prix, but Dierker isn't just a racing car driver, he's a prominent Nazi, and when Oirish and his friend Jules get caught destroying Dierker's car, Jules gets shot, and Jules' sister Veronique gets involved with La Résistance to avenge her brother's death, and then it turns out that...look, it's all bollocks
. It's an excuse for story missions, taking out installations and officers, and there are some nice set pieces, but the characters are all cliches and silliness strained through a net of national stereotypes. The dialogue certainly isn't brilliant, and while Oirish's swearing is slightly amusing, it isn't varied enough to remain so. Once you've heard him scream the same profanity for the hundredth time, you want him to shut up or at least change his accent.
Once you get sick of the story (15-20 minutes) there are hundreds of Freeplay targets scattered all over the map; checkpoints, sniper's nests, radar sites, AA guns, searchlights, tanks, propaganda speakers, and V2 rockets that need dynamite-enabled disassembly. Additionally, there are scenic spots to climb to, items to find, and jumps to drive an unlikely succession of vehicles over. These Freeplay objectives can be completed at any time, and there are loads of them everywhere you go. So if you get tired of blowing things up in the city, go for a nice drive in the country. And blow things up. Or perhaps just snipe some Gestapo agents or Wehrmacht generals?
"Top o' the world, ma, yer fuckin auld hooer ye."
The game is instantly familiar to anyone who's played GTA IV, with a minimal HUD, the minimap in the same place, and it works in the same way. The alarm radius is also the same, get spotted and you have to escape a circle within which all troops are looking for you ("the Pie of Danger"). The more havoc you wreak, the bigger the Pie, the further you have to run. Inside the Pie, hiding from view is no good, you have to escape it, or use designated hiding spots and techniques, like brothels and kissing girls. Once you've escaped the Pie, it disappears in seconds, and everyone forgets all about you. The Germans do react to suspicious activities and alarms well enough, responding quickly and aggressively. Vehicles roll up and disgorge troops, who will open fire with gusto, and only escalate in the face of resistance.
You'll spend a lot of time travelling fast, into and out of danger, so it's a good thing Oirish is nippy on his toes. He's also a dab hand at climbing, and can scale the exterior of a building faster than most comically fat German sergeants can use the stairs. Although not as fluid as it should be, the faux-parkour adds a new dimension to traversing the city, and is genuinely enjoyable in its own right. If you see a building, you can climb it, usually by many different routes, as Oirish can grab onto window ledges, door frames, balconies, guttering, piping, basically any protruding bit of architecture. The rooftops of Paris form an undulating world of their own, blocks separated by roads juuust wide enough to jump, and connected by cables you can slide down or swarm up. There are plenty of targets on the rooftops, and being high up does help when sniping a distant target or chucking grenades down onto passing German troops. While surprisingly athletic, Oirish doesn't have the speed or agility of other gaming heroes, and even if this area of the game does evoke memories of Spider-Man 2, Crackdown, et al, direct comparison would be unfair because Oirish is just a serial pisshead, not a superhero.
"Listen pal, I'll dance with yer in a minute, alroight?"
Driving the vehicles is quite enjoyable too. They have a definite sense of weight and momentum, and throwing them into screaming handbrake turns never gets old. It being the 1940s, the range is rather limited, but you can nick German vehicles, and with some of those you can do massive damage. Because causing havoc and fleeing are both enjoyable, The Saboteur soon becomes the video game version of that childhood classic, Knock On Doors And Run Away Laughing. You plant some dynamite on a tank, scarper round the corner, scale a building, leap across a road and barely reach a balcony, haul yourself up and across another roof, spray some rounds into a cluster of explosive barrels (groan) stacked too close to a refuelling station, blowing up a German troop truck, then death slide (using your hands
no less) along a cable to the next block, before sliding down a drainpipe by a parked car, climbing in and roaring off. There are so many bits of the German war machine about, it's hard to resist temptation, and quite often the game evolves into one long chase, as you blow a few things up and, with the Germans hot on your tail, you come across another AA gun with its guards peering furiously in the opposite direction. Just one more can't hurt, surely? Just stealth kill the guards, and plant some dynamite, and you can be away...
The weaponry is a small but varied range, with a good selection available right from the start. Combat, whether melee or ranged, is a fun but slightly clumsy affair, the controls aren't really up to taking on multiple targets in multiple directions, often at different heights, but Oirish can take a lot of damage, and while ze Germans might be good marksmen, they are also moronically stupid. Their patrol patterns are obvious, and even when alerted their situational awareness is somewhat lacking, as they tend to peer determinedly in one direction. The AI has some inconsistencies, such as the Germans get their lederhosen in a twist if you start climbing walls or buildings, but are perfectly happy to let you run around the rooftops or climb their ladders. It also has the memory of a goldfish, letting you sneak into an off-limits area, blow something up and escape, then immediately sneak back in and repeat the process one the alarm has gone. Guards never go "Hang on, aren't you that schweinhund who was in here fifteen seconds ago putting bloody dynamite on my fucking petrol stores? Up against the wall with you!" You can steal German uniforms if you don't mess them up during the killing of said Germans, and this lets you stroll around areas verboten to civilians, but make sure you don't loiter too near any guards, or they might wonder why that uniform doesn't fit very well (and then forget about you ten seconds later).
An Irishman with a gun? Shooting soldiers? Preposterous.
Reactions of the general populace are somewhat more believable, and even people several streets away will run from a bomb blast. Civilians will also get caught up in gunfights on the streets, and it's best to avoid mowing too many of them down, otherwise La Résistance might just turn on you. Often you can see German troops holding civilians at gunpoint, who will be either shot out of hand or arrested and driven away. I found it difficult not to intercede, even when I was disadvantaged, because the consequences were repugnant. I suspect it was designed to be difficult to walk away from. One of the first situations I intervened in was two Germans holding up a nun. I moved to one side, took out my shotgun, and got them both with one blast. "Take zat yoo fucking baztards!" yelled the nun as she scampered away. Brilliant!
All this risk isn't without reward. You get contraband for completing missions, Freeplay objectives, and saving nuns from 7.92mm ventilation. With contraband, you can buy weaponry, ammo, and explosives, and improve your carrying capacity. As you progress, you'll gain support from La Résistance, including that of armed backup. More skills come from the Perks system, which present challenges and offer incentives, slightly undermined by the fact that you can buy perks (I spy the pernicious hand of EA). It's unfortunate that only story missions alleviate the Nazi Monochrome, as the Freeplay objectives make a refreshing change. Yet too much time blowing up Freeplay objectives sends you back into the story for a little while, if only for a sense of purpose and direction, so the two are a good combination.
Visually, The Saboteur is at its aesthetic best early on, when the city is a monochrome metropolis marked by blood red slashes of Nazi insignia. When its raining, with a zeppelin looming overhead, and the only colour is that of the enemy, The Saboteur has a unique look and atmosphere, which is something very few games have ever achieved. As colour returns, so does mediocrity, with little to distinguish the game from others. Technically, the game looks good, apart from a few minor glitches, and the tearing. Oh, the tearing
. The Saboteur tears more than any game I've ever seen. It tears when walking, running, driving, climbing, in cut scenes...it just tears everywhere. There's even tearing on the map screen. After a few hours, I stopped seeing it, mostly. But every now and again, I'd notice it and begin the acclimatisation process once more.
"All because the fuckin lady loves fuckin Milk Tray, the cunt."
The audio is actually rather good. The music when sneaking, and when an alarm has been set off, is tense, atmospheric stuff, and all in a (roughly) period style. Although vaguely reminiscent of some of Williams' work on the Indiana Jones films, it's more a shared sense of excitement and tension than anything thematic. There's some nice jazz and blues sounds on the radio, courtesy of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. The sound effects are good, and some of them are superb, special attention appears to have been paid to vehicles and the results enhance the pleasure of driving. The voice acting is at least enthusiastic, if hampered by comedy accents. Explosions are top-notch, very loud and sudden, and causing them never gets old.
Overall, The Saboteur is a bit technically wonky. Graphics, sound, physics, everything that makes up the game has a handful of small flaws, but because they're very minor, they actually add to the charm. The tearing is the biggest graphical defect, and a glaring one it is too, but even that can't detract from a game that is this much fun. It's one big knockabout ride of a game, and ultimately the highest praise I can deliver is that The Saboteur is not just a GTA clone. There's no multiplayer, and little replay value, but The Saboteur is loads of fun, lasts a respectable amount of time, and provides OCD levels of stat tracking for you, on your road to destroying every bit of German materiel.
Of course, no good deed must go unpunished, and as a reward for making such a fun-filled game, EA liquidated Pandemic, while at the same time hoping to make more money
from it. Bravo, EA. In the meantime, enjoy Pandemic's swan song, a game where the fun definitely outweighs the flaws.