It’s probably quite fitting that Pandemic’s swan song is an amalgamation of genres that fails to form a cohesive whole, leaving us with a decent, fun game that has too many faults and glitches to really impress us. It seems to have been Pandemic’s raison d’être over the last few years, from the broken mess that many of us loved for some reason (Mercenaries 2), through to the broken mess that none of us loved (Lord Of The Rings Conquest). It seemed to be taking a while to make a game and ultimately releasing something a bit worse for wear.
As with Mercenaries 2, however, The Saboteur is something you can have a fair bit of fun with should you give it due care. It isn’t the type of game like Uncharted 2 where it will go out of its way to be clean, polished and functional to aid you in your progress, point out routes to take and be fair and – dare we say it – quite simple. No, this is the kind of game that through a combination of both difficulty and… idiosyncrasies… manages to challenge as much as it frustrates. Don’t misunderstand this statement, though – a playthrough of The Saboteur will have moments where you will want to tear your hair out and it will be entirely the fault of the game, whether it’s because of the overly touchy stealth mechanic, the convoluted and generally quite broken climbing system or by the fact that your car has hit a small pebble and come to a complete and instant stop (an issue which was present in the original Mercenaries game). You will be annoyed. But at the same time, you will have fun with it.
The Saboteur is a stylish GTA-style romp around Nazi-occupied Paris during the early stages of WWII. Players take control of whisky-sippin’, woman-lovin’ Irish vagabond/race-car driver/explosives expert Sean Devlin as he aids the French resistance in fighting back against the evil occupiers. Now, if this all sounds a bit comic book, that’s because it is. The look of The Saboteur is an obvious place to start, with the stylised black and white regions representing areas where Nazi oppression is at its strongest. Some reds, blues and yellows show to remind you your TV isn’t broken and to highlight what side a character is on – blue for good, red for bad – and the general feel of oppression is tangible in these darkened, dulled areas. The almost constant rainfall makes it just feel so right: it makes you as a player want to liberate, to help and to fight on the side of the French.
Once you complete the right missions, usually by taking out an important target, an area is ‘liberated’. While the Nazis remain, the fighting spirit of the people is brought rushing back, meaning the people of Paris will fight alongside you when needs be, all accompanied by a burst of almost saturated colour. It seems like such a simple touch when written down and, frankly, it isn’t very clever or subtle, but it works perfectly and suits both the wartime era and Parisian setting to perfection. It isn’t just the look of the game that makes The Saboteur a comicy world, with a story that combines action movie elements with a subtle dash of ’Allo ’Allo for an interesting, if not entirely straight-faced, portrayal of Sean’s world.
The French women are petite, large-breasted and have ridiculous accents that simply don’t exist in real life, the Nazi women all wear tight leather and have ridiculous accents, the Nazi men are all blond-haired, blue-eyed monsters with ridiculous accents, the Gestapo all wear small, round glasses and have ridiculous accents, the French men are all womanising wine-drinkers with outraaaageous accents, the British all have toffee wedged firmly up their noses and speak in posh (innuendo-laced) accents and Sean himself cares more about whisky and swearing than he does the war. He also has a daft accent. It’s not exactly fine characterisation, but it does fit the mood well enough, and the reasonably light-hearted take on things never strays into anything approaching offensive. After all, you can’t be mad at ’Allo ’Allo.
The Saboteur isn’t just a GTA clone, though, and draws influences from some surprising areas. Stealth plays a big part in missions – should you choose to play in that way – and changing outfits and not behaving suspiciously in order to blend in are ripped straight from Hitman. There are even some extra kickers thrown in, such as the fact that you cannot steal a uniform if you shot the person who was wearing it. Gunshots show up, after all. Assassin’s Creed comes into play through the climbing, which comes as a bit of a surprise to see when Sean reveals himself to be part Spider-Man.
It’s useful for infiltrating secure areas and opens up missions to a good deal more options than if it were all ground-based, but it isn’t implemented too well and will often leave you frustrated. There’s also an obvious hint of previous Pandemic-’em-ups like Mercenaries 2, with vehicle handling feeling very similar to anyone who’s played that particular rough diamond. The standard extras we’d come to expect from a game like this are all present and correct, with side-missions, collection and destruction tasks littered across Paris, Saarbrücken, Le Havre et al, street races available to tackle, dozens of vehicles to collect and upgrade, perks to unlock to improve Sean’s skills and a black market to trade weapons and ammunition on.
But as we said at the very beginning, The Saboteur suffers from Pandemic syndrome. It just needs another layer or two of polish and, well, it’s never going to get it as the studio was closed not long after the game’s release. Bugs and glitches rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times and leave the player feeling they’re taking part in something that’s just ever so shoddy.
Examples are many, but include some such as: a dodgy climbing mechanic, which sometimes doesn’t let you climb a place the game itself lets you know you can and one time just bugged out and threw us to the other side of a wall; inconsistencies with the game itself, meaning there are certain animations in which Nazis cannot be shot, like when they are bending down to check a fallen compatriot; escort or protection missions where the escortee/protectee refuses to move until they’re shot to death or you run them over out of sheer frustration; Nazi checkpoints that don’t actually react when you smash through them at high speed in a stolen German army vehicle; civilians that collapse in a heap when you so much as look at them while driving; weapons unequipping themselves as and when they see fit, usually after climbing a wall to get a better vantage point on which to shoot or after a cut-scene, sometimes making fights a bit harder than they should be thanks to the unresponsive weapon select. We could go on, but this would just turn into a rather long list indeed.
Needless to say, there’s nothing about The Saboteur that feels distinctly broken, per se, there’s just a lot about it that could do with more spit and polish. Maybe Pandemic wasn’t given the time, maybe it was forced to release something that is quite obviously not as well made as it wanted it to be, but it doesn’t change the facts: this could have, and should have been a lot better than it is.