Sneaking in the back with belting gameplay
One of the toughest things about buying games around Christmas is picking the quality from the chaff. Whilst most Christmas times have been light on major blockbusters due to a certain “800 pound gorilla”, there have been a few notable releases to pick from if you aren´t a die-hard FPS player. Enter The Saboteur: An open world game that looks like GTA but thinks it is Assassins Creed.
The actual city itself is practically a character all on its own
This third person action/stealth/sandbox adventure is the swansong of Pandemic Studios, forced to close their doors after the debacle of finances surrounding EA this year. The game itself tells the tale of Sean Devlin, an Irish race driver living and working in France at the time of the German occupation during World War 2. Sean gets drawn into his own localised war after the death of his best friend, and has his own personal story to tell which neatly sidesteps most of the well trodden tales of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor series, and instead offers us a more personal, yet generally lighter adventure. And what an adventure. Although the tale starts as a simple story of revenge, bit by bit the main character is drawn into the seedier side of Paris, living in a club-come-brothel, running jobs for the French resistance and the black market, and eventually agreeing to work with British intelligence. This creates a great feeling of the many sides to the war, as even though the main goal is the same, not all of the factions are prepared to tackle the Nazis in the same way. You actually are required to far more than is initially apparent, and the storyline goals work their way up to some truly jaw dropping instances, where Sean (and occasionally others too!) take on masses of Nazis in multi part quests. So, you, as Sean, basically are out to sabotage the Nazis at every turn through a combination of stealth, fighting, destruction and driving, initially very reminiscent of GTA and Pandemics own Mercenaries, but very quickly revealing a lot of the nuances more associated with the likes of Assassins Creed. This isn´t a game about big gunfights as much as I initially thought, more about scaling buildings, sneaking in and planting bombs before getting the heck out of Dodge as fast as your legs can carry you. There is gun and hand to hand combat too, but it is far less pronounced than in many sandbox games, as it generally leads to your own hasty death. Throw in a considerable amount of breakneck driving through tight packed streets, and Sean suddenly starts to look like a man who really could take on the Nazis of Paris singlehandedly. The game also has no shortage of stuff to blow up, and each mission generally has several ways to complete it, delivering a good shelf life too. One of the major pulls of this game is the art style, and Pandemic really went to town. All the characters and locales are rendered in a style evoking classic war art, with a slight Technicolor glow adding to the level of atmosphere evoked by the story itself. The real cherry on top is the colour mechanic: heavily occupied areas of town are black and white, with only the bright reds of Nazi flags and armbands adding any colour. This idea works excellently on several levels: firstly, the mood in the occupied areas is far heavier when devoid of colour, adding to the atmosphere. Secondly, Nazi guards are easy to spot, with the flashes of red on their arms standing out brilliantly. And thirdly, once an area is liberated, the colour flows back into the zone, washing over people and buildings, as a visual reference to the restoration of hope to the area brought about by your handiwork. This allows you to easily find friendly areas in a car chase, as the locals will fight back on your behalf once the oppression is removed from their district. All of Paris´ major landmarks are in the game too, from Le Tour Eiffel and L´Arc d´Triomphe, to the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Museé du Louvre, albeit on a map scaled somewhat to allow for flowing gameplay. A couple of bad points, then: Well, firstly, the control scheme really needed a good looking at prior to release. Actions are placed erratically around the keyboard, losing some of the intuitive play required for some of the faster paced sections of the game. I got the hang after a while, but I can´t really see the point in changing the standardised controls of an established genre, as it smacks of reinventing the wheel. Secondly, enemy AI can occasionally vary wildly; One minute, you can walk right up to a guard without him spotting you, the next minute you can have an alarm raised by a soldier 500 yards away from behind a box. This does generally settle down, however, but can be frustrating after you have spent 10 minutes setting up a break in. Finally, the initial story set up fades after a while, to only get resolved right at the end of the game, letting the plot meander a little more than necessary for a good portion of the game. The Saboteur doesn´t reinvent the genre very much, but I don´t believe it was trying to. Instead, it tells a new story in arguably overused period of history, and adds a different take on how to present open world gaming without losing immersion. Also, by freeing itself from the literal history of WW2, Saboteur feels less stuffy, and is able to tell its tale more openly. The characters are generally very good, in a slightly clichéd way, and the actual city itself is practically a character all on its own. I think that perhaps a little more polish would have really delivered all that The Saboteur promised, but unfortunate circumstances for Pandemic mean that this was not to be. However, gamers looking for something fresh who weren´t interested in Assassins Creed 2 really could do no worse than to pick this overlooked gem up.
The Bad: A little underpolished; alarms can be erratic, making gameplay a bit hit-and-miss