Title: The Saboteur
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Sandbox WW2
Release Date: 10/08/09
The news that Pandemic Studios would be closed hit shortly before their final game hit the streets. With a history of games like Mercenaries, Destroy all Humans and Star Wars Battlefront, Pandemic had a somewhat spotty record of actual development, but they always had the right idea conceptually. Which was why when Saboteur was announced I was eager to play it. World War 2 games have certainly been beaten to death but there haven’t been many where you were in the resistance (the second Medal of Honor game is the only one I can recall). Let’s go see what a swan song looks like.
Sean Devlin is an Irish man who loves fast women and fast cars. He used to be a mechanic working on cars but is beginning a second career as a race car driver just before the start of World War 2. In fact he’s in Germany to race the day of the invasion. He is cheated out of winning his first race and is forced to learn a bitter lesson, one which drives him to drown his sorrows at a strip club in Paris. Three months after the war begins and Paris has fallen, Sean is approached by a French man seeking to recruit him into the Resistance. What follows is a story loosely based on reality, but one which is engaging and entertaining. Sean is a sarcastic yet funny guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, and the more I played the game and watched the character evolve the more I liked him, and I liked him from the start.
The rest of the characters are interesting too, for the most part. Some of them make full use of the various clichés they are based on, but never horribly so. There is the posh British spy, for example, or the dastardly Nazi headman, the fatherly Italian who helps raise Sean to be the man he is. All of these characters are used in interesting ways, none actively hurting the story.
The first time I heard about Saboteur, when it was announced, the big hook to grab my attention was the idea that Nazi controlled sections of Paris would be shown in Black and White, while sections of the city where the Resistance had gained some sort of control would be in full color. I thought that was an interesting idea. Having played the game I can now say I wish the option was there to turn it off. You see the idea is an interesting one, and playing the game in the colorless world of the Nazis really makes you feel as though you are in a 1940s movie. And when you do happen to liberate a section of the city the color that floods that neighborhood can be spectacular. I’m used to playing games where the time of day changes as you progress, but never has the effect been so drastic as turning one corner and having it be daylight, blinding daylight by the way, and then turning another corner on the same street and having it be dark as night. So I understand the idea, the contrasting views of tyranny and freedom, that sort of deal, but I wish it were an idea used more sparingly.
Now then, even though I’m not all that in love with the lighting, the rest of the graphics are excellent. Cars, character models, explosions, all of them are really bang on in their presentation. The various locations you stumble onto in the game are excellent as well. I’ve never been to Paris so I can’t say if the game is modeled accurately, but all the famous tourist traps look faithfully rendered, and having the climax of the game occur where it did was most appropriate.
There is the occasional slowdown and frame dropping issue which pops up when you are blazing through the streets of Paris, but the draw distance is really good for the most part, so unlike in GTA 4 where you could be flying down the street and have a building materialize out of nowhere, you won’t be caught unaware by anything in the game.
By the way if Paris really is modeled on the actual city, I’m never going and for absolute certainly never driving while I’m there, because the streets are crazy!
Pandemic’s games have never really been known for their sound. In fact the Sound was one of the worst parts of Mercenaries 2, (a game for which I wrote a stellar review.) So imagine how shocked I was when I started playing this and discovered a fantastic sound track. Both in the cars on the radio and during the suitably dramatic moments found elsewhere in the game, all of it is excellent. The in car radio contains nothing modern, nothing even close to rap or rock. Instead it’s based on the Jazz which Paris was known for in the 30s and 40s. I won’t pretend it’s the best music I’ve ever heard, because honestly I’m not a huge fan of jazz, but it fits the period perfectly and helps to rope the player into giving up their sense of disbelief. My one complaint about the music is the limited selection of music, and the inability to turn off the radio while driving. GTA lets you turn it off by holding down the station selector, but I could not find an option to do anything similar to that in this game. The other portion of the soundtrack, the dramatic music played during battles and such, is much more typical of Pandemic’s previous releases. This isn’t a bad thing, the theme music for Mercenaries was excellent, and so again is it here.
Sound effects are well done, with gunfire sounding as realistic as possible when you have a car barreling down the road. The cars themselves sound outstanding, with the roar of the various engines being extremely visceral. Not every car is a sports car though, and so the Ford Escort of Paris 1940 is still going to sound pretty bland.
Main character dialogue is another area of delight for me. Being of Irish descent, I was nervous when I first heard the main character would also be Irish. There is nothing more annoying than hearing someone put on an accent and doing it horribly. And while I can’t sit here and say that Sean is being voiced by a good Dublin man (or whatever city suits you) I can say the accent is not in the least bit annoying. Add that to some very funny lines the character gets to say and you have a main character who I could listen to for hours.
Outside the main character there are cracks in the wall. Any of the British characters you run into sound suitably British. But bear with me here. You are a person living in Paris. You should at some point, hell, almost exclusively, hear people speaking French. Instead, I don’t think I once heard a person say anything in French. This isn’t explained away in game by some innate ability of Sean’s to understand and speak French with an Irish accent, nor is it just the main characters in the Resistance speaking English to Sean because he happens to be useful. Instead they all speak in that “I’m French but speaking English”Â accent which everyone expects. I think it’s fair to say the French get the shaft here, as it’s their Resistance movement and they don’t once get to hear their own language. Even the Germans can be heard speaking German, with English subtitles appearing for you to understand what they are saying. It’s not racist, but I would say it’s probably a little bit insulting.
One last thing about the dialogue; there is more than a little swearing in this game. Sean will take every chance he can to say something about the Nazis, even some of the French he deals with (one comment about foreigners and sheep which I’m not going to repeat had me howling). Plus every time Sean dies he is more than likely going to emit some curse with his dying breath.
I’ll start off this section by stating how I feel about the game. It is, for the most part, a Mercenaries game. That’s how it feels. There are no airstrikes you can call in, no ability to hop in a plane and fly around, and hijacking tanks is infinitely more difficult in this game than it was in those, but aside from those differences, this game is a Mercenaries game that has been evolved to let you do more while on the ground.
For example, you can now climb buildings. This may not mean much to some of you but when you are playing a sandbox game and are forced to not use rooftops like the ninja you are, it can be tiresome. Thankfully here in Saboteur just about every building can be climbed, so long as there are footholds.
Another evolution from the Mercenaries games is the ability to use disguises. In both Mercenaries games you could hop into an enemy vehicle and not be recognized by that enemy until you opened fire or went past an enemy officer who could recognize the difference. Here they’ve taken that play mechanic and added it to your own personal uniform. If you acquire a uniform (either by killing the enemy without gunfire or if it’s given to you) you can infiltrate enemy bases, and accomplish via stealth that which would require vast amounts of ordinance to achieve otherwise. However, just like in the other games, if an officer spots you he will call for the alarm and then its back to shoot everything that moves.
Enemy soldiers have a suspicion meter, which will rise and lower based on how you act while near them. On the map you will see glowing dots, which are soldiers who are watching you, and if you do anything out of the ordinary, like say accidentally crash your car into their barricade, that meter will rise. If you continue to act suspiciously, like say, getting out of that car and shooting every Nazi you can find dead, the meter will top and they will blow their alarm whistles. The Alarms have different levels as well, similar to Grand Theft Auto. There is the Base alarm, which is just the soldiers in the area, followed by Alarm Stage 1, 2 and so on up to Alarm Stage 5. Each time the alarm raises newer more powerful enemies will appear and attempt to bring about your death post haste. All but Stage 5 alarms are easy enough to escape; you merely have to go where the Germans aren’t. As in say, far enough along a train track or out into the countryside. Level 5 alarms apparently alert every Nazi in France, and escaping one of those requires you to have a hiding place available and a perk which allows you to use hiding places in Level 5 alarms.
Perks are another feature of Saboteur. Much like in Fallout 3, you can obtain perks which will affect the game. You can, for example, earn a perk which will allow you to unlock various cars in the game to always be available in your garage. Similarly you can unlock the ability to park and store enemy tanks and the like in your garage, which you cannot do initially. Perform certain feats using dynamite and you can unlock plastic explosives. The farther into the game you get the more perks you are likely to unlock. Yet Pandemic realize that not everyone is interested in doing everything required to unlock things, so they let you buy 2 perks. Use this option wisely. Some perks are more difficult to achieve than others.
The economy in the game is run via the black market, and you are paid in contraband. Contraband can be collected anywhere in the game world, by destroying specific targets, killing particular Nazis, accomplishing mission objectives and lastly by finding stashes of contraband located all over the map. This contraband can be put towards buying weapons and equipment at the various black market dealers generally located near your various safe houses in game.
Control wise, the game is a vast improvement over Mercenaries 2. Since there are no airstrikes to call in, there is no longer a problem about how to assign buttons on the stick so they can be called in properly. The weapons are assigned to the d-pad, with your primary and secondary weapon being on the left and right, and your dynamite and plastic explosives (once unlocked) being on top and at the bottom. There are a few things you can request be delivered to you, notably an escape car and reinforcements, but I played the game to its completion without using those features more than a few times.
Driving, they finally got the driving right. No longer the strange driving engine found in Mercs 1, nor the slightly floaty feel of the driving found in Mercs 2, when you drive the cars in this game they feel right. Heavy too. If you crash in this game, the cars feel like they are built from the steel they would have been made with. Some of them feel like tanks they take so much abuse.
The game has a cover system. If you run up to a wall Sean will usually position himself so as to be taking cover. There is also a way to force it by pressing a button. Sadly not every piece of what should be cover is immediately recognized as such and so you may die from gun shot wounds to the head which could have been avoided.
Since you are a Saboteur, one of your missions is blowing stuff up. And aside from using rockets or tanks or whatever, the best method of causing such explosions is to plant dynamite or plastic explosive, arm it and then run like hell. This still works, though sometimes the game gets annoying by forcing you to take a step away from the target to before it will allow you to plant it, but for the most part it works. Anyway, the real reason I bring up the dynamite is this: someone at Pandemic finally figured out that the number one way people use explosives in game is to plant the stuff on cars and create car bombs. So they went ahead and programmed in a way to make car bombs while driving, thus making any car a bomb without the hassle. It’s a perk, so you have to earn it first, but it’s great.
The game is suitably long, you won’t be completing it in a day, but there aren’t too many mini-game like missions to be found in occupied France. Aside from the stuff which is sort of a part of the game anyway (collecting all the vehicles in the game, destroying all the various guard posts or whatever, winning the 2 or 3 races, and accomplishing all the feats required to unlock all of the feats), the only real mini game I found was a version of Duck Hunt, amazingly. Sadly no dog.
Either way that is a lot of missions. Perhaps not Dragon Age big, but its still a decent chunk of missions. And because none of the missions are pre-scripted like they are in GTA4, for example, you can go back and accomplish them in different ways each time you play the game.
The game has a few difficulty modes, but the real game changer here is the perks. Unlocking the right perks can make most of the missions in game fairly easy, as you could conceivably unlock the ability to steal and store Panzer tanks fairly early in the game, and then go wild.
Latter levels in the game do ramp up the difficulty as the Nazis unleash Terror Squads against you, which carry superior weapons and are armored very heavily. This makes things more interesting, until you kill one and take their weapon.
The final mission is a bit of a let down, difficulty wise, but I think it suited the story.
As one of only 2 games that I’m aware of that deal with the French Resistance, I’d say the game is very original. It is in many ways Mercenaries 3, there is no denying that, but with new weapons, new star and new location, it’s difficult to say they just painted a new coat on the engine and shipped it, because they clearly didn’t.
I got this game on Wednesday night and played it almost nonstop until the following Saturday. This game was right up my alley, addiction wise.
If you like your cars and women fast, or if you like your characters to like their cars and women fast, this is the game for you. If you liked the Mercenaries games at all, this is most definitely for you. If you thought those games were interesting ideas but not quite done, give this one a try as it might surprise you.
Some of the things I complained the loudest about in my Mercenaries 2 review, specifically the floating boxes and the like, make a return in this game. I’m not going to kill the game for it this time however, as this time the game clearly wasn’t rushed out the door in a broken state. This time it’s merely a game that happens to have a few bugs.
One last thing, before I give you the scores. Someone at Pandemic or EA, I’m guessing EA, decided to make the nudity in game, such as it is, a bonus for people who buy the game new, and make those who purchase the game used pay 5 bucks or so to see the flesh. I played without the download, and things seemed to look just fine without it, but if you need it, there you go.
Sound: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Very Good
Final Score: Incredible Game
Short Attention Span Summary
Pandemic go out with a bang, giving the world one final glimpse of what they were capable of when they got everything (mostly) right.