A mini-review of The Saboteur (2009). Windows PC version. Pandemic/Electronic Arts.
This is an initial review of just the first four hours of The Saboteur, with covers a tutorial mission in Paris, and then takes the player back through a long (three hours) playable “flashback” sequence and integrated tutorial which explains why you’re in the city.
The Saboteur is certainly fast-paced and (quite literally) explosive, with a vaguely 1940s pulp-novel (Doc Savage etc) atmosphere — reinforced by the pulp-style artwork used on the loading screens, and ambitious noir-style B&W art direction. The game is set in an “open world” 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, mixing stealth with arcade-style building-climbing and demolition work. “Sounds like my kind of game”, I thought when I first read about it in Edge. What I eventually played, at least in the first few hours, was rough-edged and rather “on rails”, but a great deal of fun.
Comparisons and sources:
The Saboteur has been compared by veteran gamers to Grand Theft Auto, The Godfather, the first Assassin’s Creed, and countless Second World War team shooters. None of which I’ve ever played, since they’re not my kind of games. To me, The Saboteur instead had cultural echoes from movies such as A Fistful of Dynamite (an Irish dynamite expert on the run in 1920s Mexico), Cabaret, and even the Paris street photography of Cartier-Bresson. And gaming-wise, perhaps echoes of Mafia 1 (for the cars), Velvet Assassin (1940s war stealth).
Story and history:
Our hero Sean is a rough Irish car mechanic, turned racing-car driver. Possibly he’s actually a British agent, who has used the “mechanic turned racing-car driver” as cover to get into Paris with an Irish passport (the IRA collaborated with the Nazis, historically). Or so the Nazis suspect. This would certainly explain his expertise with explosives and guns, and also his less-than-convincing Irish accent.
There are more than a few other convenient glosses on history. The Nazis indulged in vicious civilian reprisals in areas where there had been resistance attacks, for instance. Yet here every attack makes things immediately better for the Parisians in that neighbourhood. There are no collaborators, and all the civilians are seemingly on your side. There are no tensions between untrustworthy communist resistance members and the other types of freedom fighters. But then you just have to assume that this is very much an alternate-history story. Which your resistance pal makes clear in the first 30 minutes of the game, “We are changing history, my friend!“.
Your hideout is a Parisian cabaret that doubles as a brothel. What with that, the swearing, the scantily-clad dancers, Nazi babes strutting around in tight black leather, and the ability (so I’m told) to smooch with any passing female whether she agrees or not — it helps you blend in to the city and hide from Nazis — the game triumphantly holds up two fingers to the world’s censorship boards.
The game’s script and dialogue is excellent so far, but the voice-work delivery is often hammy. The accents of the supporting cast vary in quality. Sometimes there are no accents – during the tutorial you hear Paris background loudspeaker announcements, presumably being spoken by the Germans, spoken in plain English, rather than German-accented English. It’s little things like this which suggest the game needed more work before release.
No mid-mission saves:
The game installed perfectly, ran very smoothly at rock-solid frame-rates, and I encountered no bugs or glitches in the first few hours. But annoyingly, the game does not permit mid-mission saves — yet will let you make a savegame anyway. Which will then be useless. This was rather annoying, since at the end of the tutorial I found myself — mission “completed” or so I thought — back home. But since I didn’t actually go back into the club, I had to go all the way through the tutorial the next time I started the game. No bad thing, as it turned out, since I learned a few more tricks I should have learned first time around.
Graphics and interface:
The graphics are generally acceptable, but fine details often take a back-seat to the overall aesthetic. Imaginative use of colour, or alternatively the lack of it, has to do a lot of the heavy-lifting due to problems with distant scenery (disappointing blurred) and some close-up textures (lacking detail and grain) on 3D building models that lack variation. Weather effects are limited to rain and sunshine, and these are well-enough done but nowhere near the high standard of Oblivion‘s weather system. Additional anti-aliasing can’t be forced on the PC, apparently due to the use of a console-centric game engine. The elements on the screen (mini-map etc) are clunkily designed and “console chunky”. There’s no way to make these screen elements semi-transparent, to help remove the distinct barrier they create between you and the game-world. The menu system is fine, if a little sluggish.
The open world of Paris is a big place (5 square miles, according to the developers) so you’ll often need a car to get around. This is the main area in which the game fails. There are apparently plenty to collect, but the car controls are far too sensitive. The main problem is that you can’t limit your speed when playing with a keyboard. 70mph in the narrow and twisty Paris streets is not really very useful. And if you mow down enough Parisians in your car, the resistance will come gunning for you. It often seems easier to walk or run somewhere. Alternatively you can scale a building (easy, once you get the hang of the controls) and clamber over the rooftops of Paris in order to avoid checkpoints. It’s not much better when playing with a wired XBox 360 gamepad. And when certain missions require you to drive someone somewhere, the game almost becomes unplayable.
I was hoping for some tense TheHunter-style stealth, but our almost-invincible hero seems to be able to take so much damage that I suspect it won’t often be needed. And apparently there are also problems with the detection sensitivity of the German A.I. However in the PC version of the game there’s a fully-annotated and tweakable .ini file for the AI — so hopefully the game’s stealth A.I. elements will be improved by a future fan modding tutorial. Which may well, on its own, make the PC version the version of the game to play in future years.
The music is forgettable, so far. The really vivid music from this period must be out of copyright by now, surely — but that doesn’t seem to have been taken advantage of. Perhaps they do things differently in France. Or perhaps the Electronic Arts lawyers came over all paranoid, in case some long-lost rights holder might come forward and make a fuss?
In the flashback sections, you see the invasion air-force heading toward Paris.
Part two soon.