A historical fiction sandbox game where you can fist fight Nazis, race cars, appreciate breathtaking and voluptuous French...architecture, and add a little color to the world while you do it? I'm in. Sign me up.
And so I began my long and sordid history with The Saboteur, the late Pandemic Studios' final efforts to please the gaming community. And in my eyes it worked just fine.
The amount of interest and reverence I hold for World War II knows know limits, and games like The Saboteur sate that interest. Where Assassin's Creed's Italian Renaissance outing was great, The Saboteur's tour through Nazi-occupied Paris is simply better. The subtle details and cues, mixed with some truly choice game play choices, showcase the best of "what to do" with Historical Fiction.
Let's start with Paris. The city is divided into districts at the start of the game and the whole city is overcast, As our hero Sean tackles missions, loosening the Nazi's iron grip, the city gains color and music, coming to life under your feet. Reminiscent of similar scenes in Okami and Prince of Persia, the subtle shifting of Paris is one of the key features of the game. More hiding spaces become available as you do, more safe areas with less Nazis to worry about. The music in the game plays from your car speakers when in occupied territory, and from the heavens themselves when you free the zone. It's a feeling of triumph that brings a beautiful city back to life. Paris circa 1940 was just coming out of a strange time: a mixture of turn of the century bohemian ideals that were still powering a lively creative vibe in the city, and fear of what lie ahead. Hitler was on the move, and in 1940 Paris fell. As a player thrust into the middle of that situation in time, I'm surrounded by tension and conflict...but I can see that special spark of life in the people walking around, in the way the roads and buildings are laid out. The Saboteur's Paris is as real as I'm going to ever get to that Paris...so for a thin, game-centric simulation I think its gets major points for just being a cool place to be.
This is the extra mile that other sandbox and historical games are missing: It's not enough to have functions that seem to fit with the times (there have been lots of horses in history, and lots of swords needed swinging), make the times function with the players. The Nazi checkpoints and papers system helped me feel the weight of the world on my shoulders as I played...but Ezio's weight only comes from guards, combat and narrative. I feel like Ezio can go anywhere and do anything, even if he's not supposed to, and the world will only care enough to let the player know its watching. Even the player penalty for killing a civilian in Assassin's Creed (while fitting the Animus setting), didn't really affect the people in the world much. But in The Saboteur if you wantonly kill civilians the NPCs respond in kind, sending out hit squads of allied resistance fighters to hunt down the menace Sean Devlin and bring him to justice. And it's all supported by a very robust perk system that encourages you to be as much Sean Devlin as you can. Assassin's Creed could learn a lesson: If we are Ezio, make us feel like Ezio and not just an assassin.
Unfortunately there's another edge to the narrative blade: the story of The Saboteur is pretty cut-and-dry. Sean Devlin is so Irish he eats Blarney Stones and craps Guinness, and his personality written from a list of Irish sterotypes. Thankfully the "why" of the narrative is simple: Nazi kills Sean's friend, Sean wants to kill Nazi. There's an undercurrent of racing that lends a bit of fullness to the world, and backs up the pretty well done racing segments, but it leaves me wondering why Sean is so extremely Irish...when the game is set in Paris. I read somewhere (so sorry for not linking, was years ago) that the developers were worried that making Sean a Frenchman wouldn't appeal to American audiences. And while that's probably true, Sean's Irish-ness comes on so strong that it's almost comic. He's a violent drinker, a fast and reckless driver, an ass to all men and a gentleman to all women. The story of the game is decent but unmoving, with an all right twist here and there. The missions are each pretty in depth, and there's plenty to do outside of running missions but the story just...it's not at the top of the list.
Music is higher up the "list of awesome" than the story. A mixture of sweet contemporary jazz numbers and licensed music from the era blend together so well, that the sound of the game is something to pay attention to. Here's the main theme, a haunting tune that got stuck in my head so bad...it was the first step in me ultimately deciding never to give up the game:
A wet city street at night, a dim overhead lamp, a lonely car going by, the smell of cigarettes, two Germans talking about the latest picture show, the still air, the suspicious murmurs from the club you just left, its door still slightly ajar behind you...
Morning in the market district. Shop owners selling wares and fresh bread, people talking about the weather, the smell of the farmer's produce, the warmth of the sun on your skin, a smile from a beautiful mademoiselle, Paris, France... There's romance in this game. Last song, cause I really like the lyrics (the lyrics aren't in the game):
The really cherry on this cake? Smoking. Sean, when the left stick is pressed in, takes out a cig, lights it, and enjoys it. When you start moving, he flicks the cig away, nonchalant-style. This is my favorite feature in the game. It's in Vanquish, it's in The Saboteur, it's in Metal Gear Solid and it always, always stands out. Why smoke? In MGS it had a game play purpose: reveal hidden laser traps, while slowly depleting Snake's health. In Vanquish Sam can smoke to distract enemies attention for a moment. In The Saboteur they have no purpose at all, other than their intrinsic purpose. They're just cigarettes, Sean smokes them. Not for points, and not for penalty. Set a bomb? Light up just as the fireball goes off and enjoy the chaos while you enjoy a drag. Why is something so seemingly insignificant my favorite feature? Because it shows me that the team making this game knew how to design a player character. Sean should smoke, because he would if he was real. Sean should smoke, because he's in Paris in 1940 and there's shit going down. Sean should smoke because right after a big bang (explosives or otherwise) a nice Lucky Strike goes a long way. It's the taunt button in a single player game, the ultimate "No problem, got this covered" expression that only has meaning to one person: me the player. Smoking is what I make it, and smoking for Sean Devlin is everything or nothing, you pick. Thank you, Pandemic, thank you for including a "smoke cigarette" button in your game.
Aside from the above...the game play is pretty solid. If a little glitch at times but not unplayable, and by no means bad. The graphics are good, the driving segments are fun and challenging. The Saboteur is a sandbox action game that could never hope to compete with Grand Theft Auto in terms of features, multi-player and expansion (no Pandemic means the Downloads page of The Saboteur just has the Midnight show DLC...nothing else but trailers), but that's okay because it doesn't have to. The Saboteur is a good game no matter how you look at it, and comparing it to other titles belittles it. The Saboteur is a memorable adventure in a rich setting, with amazing atmosphere and exciting game play that will leave you entertained for hours. I'm never trading it. Nope.
Now we just need an "Assassin's Creed: London 1902" and we'll be all covered.