I beat The Saboteur tonight, and keeping with my “review every game” plan to help keep my QA skills intact, here goes!
The Saboteur puts you in 1940’s nazi-occupied France. You play in the role of Sean Devlin, a race-car driver who has no interest in politics or war. But of course, that would not be much of a game. Well, a racing game maybe…
Events lead Sean to become wrapped up in a Parisian rebellion. His hideout is a boudoir of sorts, complete with topless women. From here the game opens up, letting the player progress missions at his own pace.
By the end of the game I had a fairly high opinion of the game, but it didn’t start that way. Open-world games have been done to death, and unless it introduces something revolutionary, or perfects one of the old staples, it feels like the same-old. Saboteur did neither.
Open-world games often suffer from the major design flaw of punishing the player for having fun. Ever since the days of GTA3 the open-world game shows points on the map to reach, but the player rarely gets there without succumbing to the temptation to blow something up, beat someone up or steal something. And as soon as he does, he is funneled down from the infinite possibilities of an open world to the repetitive process of escaping the cops. So to make any progress the player has to restrain his desire to do any of those things. He has to refrain from having fun… This is a fundamental flaw I’ve seen with open-world gaming since day 1, and sadly Saboteur is not the one to fix it.
Granted the gunplay and cover system are better than most open-world games, but at the beginning it really suffered as a result of the lack of innovation. So much so that I put it down and instead beat Mass Effect 2 first. When I did come back to Saboteur it began to grow on me. Despite the many flaws that come with an open-world game, I found it easy to just sit down and have fun.
Paris has a charm that comes across in this game. And I have to hand it to Pandemic for creating a Paris that felt cliché in all the right ways, pushing some of gaming’s limits along the way. The topless women and chain-smoking lead characters were refreshing.
Allow me a moment to rant. Gaming tends to get politicized too often. Games are constantly portrayed in the media as some sort of role model that let the youth of our generation down. I don’t think gaming is about youth anymore. The kids who got Nintendos for Christmas now have kids of their own. And as the market grew up, so did the product. I’m a strong believer in gaming as art, I feel it’s the natural progression of a new story-telling medium. And history has shown us nothing stands in the way of art more than censorship.
So yes, it’s refreshing to see topless women and smoking lead characters, just like it was refreshing when our controllable avatars started dropping F-Bombs.
Does that make this game art? No, of course not. Art is more than just doing something because you can. None the less, beating the next layer of censorship is a step in the right direction. Sadly this game squanders it sometimes. While yes, it was refreshing to have an uncompromised vision of cliché Paris with the beautiful women, and the judgmental chain-smokers, it often felt immature. Some of the sexual innuendo between Sean and the female lead felt downright sophomoric.
While on the topic of art though, the visual art-style was among the best I’ve ever seen in a game. Paris starts in black-and-white. The only colour you see is the red of nazi propaganda and your own blood, or the blue of the rebel’s tell-tale turtlenecks. But as you progress through the game you “inspire the people of Paris” and colour returns to those areas. It’s purely aesthetic but really adds to the feeling of oppression in monochrome, then the sense of liberation as colour is restored. I’ve written before about how colour returning to the game-world is a reversal of the norm, and one I approve of.
The story in The Saboteur has its highs and lows. It feels uneven at times, not sure where it’s going. But the parts it does right, it really does right. For example, the main enemy in the game, a car-racing nazi named Dierker, was an enemy I could really hate. And towards the end of the game he delivered a retrospective line that actually sent chills down my spine.
The game suffers from small hiccups like path-finding issues and level streaming failures, but these are not the things I will remember about the game. It had some truly memorable moments that made the rougher areas worth bearing.
Pandemic Studios was closed shortly after the completion of this game, and it has been called their “Swan song”. While flawed, I think they can be proud of their final effort as a team and the fact that they left on a high note.