The Saboteur

   04/12/2009 at 12:44       Phil May       10 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - EA, Pandemic Studios, The Saboteur, World War 2, Paris
It's raining again, every surface is slick and running with water.

A man emerges from the hubbub and smoke of a sleazy burlesque bar and surveys the horizon, the penetrating beams of searchlights lancing through the night, a dazzling backdrop to the rooftops of Paris.

For a moment the man is caught up in a daydream. The cityscape erupts with pockets of bright orange explosions, walls of noise.The spasmodic, frantic activity generated by chaos rips through the silence as sirens begin to blare, and whistles sound the alarm.

A wry smile crosses his lips. He takes a long lung-filler of a drag from a contraband cigarette and slips quietly into the shadows.

Drawn into the war under tragic circumstances, Sean Devlin was a man slowly being eaten away by a sense of guilt, an impotent thirst for revenge with no outlet for his rage until a chance meeting with a member of the French Resistance changed everything.

Now Devlin is a man with a purpose. That purpose is to eradicate the Nazi menace wherever its Hydra-like head appears.

Pandemic Studios' latest and final game (EA have pulled the rug out from under the team, scattering them to the four winds) is more atmospheric and subtle than their previous efforts. Gone are the destruction-fuelled overblown set pieces of the Mercenaries series. Instead, The Saboteur is quiet and understated and players are urged to take a more measured approach rather than wading in all guns blazing.

Pandemic's trademarks are all there. A gigantic sandbox version of Paris is where the majority of the action takes place. Sean Devlin, the "Oirishman" thrown into the thick of the action, is an ex-mechanic and racing driver and there's plenty of opportunity to get behind the wheel of the game's curious mix of 1940s-era vehicles (which all handle exactly like you'd expect them to).

He's also fairly athletic, and can clamber up the side of Parisian buildings like a talented gibbon. Of course, it goes without saying that he's handy with his fists, and a skilled marksman adept at using any weapons he can lay his hands on.

Pandemic's vision of an alternate-reality WWII Nazi-occupied Paris is a dark foreboding place. The game purposely uses a reduced colour palette at first, but once you find yourself drawn into the efforts of the French Resistance, you'll find the landscape changes, colour returns to signify your impact on the city as the Nazi scourge is slowly eradicated.

Along with the atmospheric visuals, sound is used to good effect with background music ranging from soaring orchestral stuff to smooth era-specific jazz. Comedy accents can grate a little, making the whole thing feel like an episode of 'Allo 'Allo rather than Inglourious Basterds, but spot effects are well done and compliment the action nicely.
The test of any sandbox game is how many other toys the developers give you to play with when you're meandering off the main mission structure. At first, The Saboteur feels distinctly empty compared to recent games like Assassin's Creed 2. As you spend more time on it, more and more extra missions, perk challenges and of course achievement goals are slowly revealed. That said, many players may find the slow burn a little too slow, and may long for the instant gratification offered by previous games from Pandemic.

Sticking with it though, the more you uncover of Devlin's past, and the more you undermine the German war machine, the more rewarding the game gets.

As with Mercenaries 2, messing around in vehicles is a lot of fun in The Saboteur - though Parisians seem to have a death wish and on the narrow streets it's almost impossible not to mow down innocent pedestrians as they hurl themselves under your wheels (read: "as you mount yet another curb and carelessly squish some poor French socialite who was only out for an evening's jollies at the Folies").

The storyline may well feel like it was lifted from "The Ladybird Book of Cliched WWII Revenge Tales" but characters on both sides of the conflict are likeable enough, and shooting Nazis never really gets tired. At times the game makes you feel like an errant child pouring lighter fluid over an ant's nest just to see the ensuing chaos, and surreptitious assaults on Nazi installations prove to be some of the game's most dazzling set-pieces.

Though it's all largely promising stuff, more work could've gone into making sure you're well and truly hooked into the action at the start of the game. There's a feeling of clunkiness about the controls, particularly if you've come straight to the game from Assassin's Creed 2, and have become a little too used to Ezio De Auditore's fleet footed free-running skills.

It's also definitely a game where you'll be thankful for timely checkpointing and instant retries, because certain missions rely heavily on stealth and subversion, rewarding you with instant death and overwhelming odds if you decide to "bring the noise" and just have at the Nazi scum with whatever weapons come to hand. The game's "alert" mechanic can be triggered by anything from you shinning up a drainpipe in full view of the general populace, from walking funny while wearing a stolen Nazi uniform. If you're not a fan of subtlety you'd probably be better off picking up an ultra-cheap copy of Mercenaries 2: World in Flames instead.

All that aside, The Saboteur is stunning looking in places, with the reduced palette setting the scene superbly well. Pandemic may well have had the rug pulled out from under them by EA, and may well see all their precious IPs turned into soulless iPhone or Social Networking games by development teams that don't care a toss, but they can at least rest assured that their final game for EA is a breath of fresh air amongst the overstuffed WWII game market, and that there's plenty for players to get their teeth into.
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