Given the huge number of games which take place in World War II, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you rolled your eyes over in disgust after seeing another swastika in a screenshot. Yet what the late Pandemic studios propose is a sort of a Grand Theft Auto in Nazi-occupied France, not just another shooter that blows the American trumpet through a D-Day rehash.
Nope, there’s no sense of conventional warfare here, no soldiers looking for the remaining living sons of some mourning mother or elaborate plans to free France from occupation. This is just you, a young greasemonkey / racing pilot / Irish saboteur, taking the concept of personal vendetta to unprecedented heights. It just so happens that during a race in Saarbrucken, as it often happens in Tom Cruise flicks, a blue-eyed, blonde fella can’t grasp how an alcoholic from the shaky part of Britain could beat him heads-up, so in his ubermensch excess of zeal he shoots off one of your tires and leaves you coughing in a cloud of dust.
As revenge, you take up the noble task of throwing his car off a cliff directly to the sharp peaks below. And in response, the blonde dude turns out to be some kind of high-ranked spook, killing off your best friend and a trigger pull away from sending you to instant harp courses, believing you to be part of the British secret services. Naturally, you escape before that happens and the rest… well, the rest is history.
Hollywood cliches just keep on coming at you throughout the story, but they don’t really offend, quite the contrary. The Saboteur shows strong cinematographic traits and it’s easy to deduce that it was conceived as an interactive movie. Sean Devlin, the protagonist, is a chain smoker with an array of lines one more sarcastic and insinuating than the other, with enough personality for me to remember a few one-liners even after finishing the game.
Taking up the coat of a saboteur in service to the French Resistance, you’ll have to assassinate, chase and especially blow up various structures of Nazi occupation. Wearing this sanitary piranha cloak you’ll be strolling around through all of Paris, sandbox-style, similar in concept to the cities in inFamous, GTA or Assassin’s Creed.
As in the latter example, Paris includes scale renderings of certain landmarks, like Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower, impressive especially when you’re staring at the city through the fog, off their tallest point. You have all sorts of protrusions, bricks and balconies to aid with your climbing, pretty well integrated in the buildings’ architecture, without making it seem like you’re obligated to climb up a preset route. Even if Paris isn’t built in such a manner to be traversed on rooftops, you can still climb up pretty much any building and will do it rather frequently if you want to sabotage all the speakers, lookout towers and radar stations that Hitler’s goons put in every corner of the frenchies’ bohemian capital.
What will fill your destructive efforts with glamour is a pretty interesting visual effect, similar to the ecological metamorphosis from the latest Prince of Persia. You see, the occupied areas are rendered in monochrome, with the black and white convention being broken only by a few colors and lights, a la Sin City. This negative influence marks the hopelessness of the Parisians, but once you complete certain missions and free certain sectors from the Arian chains, color will once again fill the streets of said neighborhood.
Nothing more convincing, especially since we have enough aesthetic variation to fuel Devlin’s efforts. The iconic buildings, atmospheric streets and the mostly neoclassic architecture, complemented by Renaissance and late Gothic deliver one of the most immersive cities I’ve visited virtually, and every time I brought the Technicolor wonder to some neighborhood I was in for strictly leisure purposes, before getting to the serious plot of the next mission.
I haven’t felt in any other sandbox game the same acute degree of landscape immersion, even more so considering that the only comparable game in terms of setting, Mafia, didn’t allow you to climb any tower, house or church like a French parkour junkie. Since I mentioned Mafia, people who tend to fall in love with the classic cars, inter-war jazz or the lasses in corsets and Veronika Lake hairstyles will find a satisfying relief in Saboteur’s design.
The producers didn’t use Edith Piaf or Marlene Dietrich in the soundtrack, but following closely in Tarantino’s footsteps (who put in Ennio Morricone and rock music in Inglorious Basterds), considered that Feeling Good and other star songs of American jazz are just as fit for Saboteur’s mise-en-scene.
And I can only agree – I didn’t feel any lack of resonance or audio mishap while driving a racecar suggestively named Altair through neighborhoods filled with Nazi banners and oppressed locals, while the background had Nina Simone’s unique voice going: „It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me; and I’m feeling good…”
The pastiche defining Saboteur’s unique take is not lacking in good taste, and the fact that it’s pretty eclectic in various aspects only amplifies its artistic effect. The clothing, the introduction of races or the ambient dialogues, things you only half hear while you’re standing at a street corner with your croissant and cafe-au-lait, these subtle cues suggest a drip of passion invested by the producers that can hardly be found in many contemporary games.
I for one was not disturbed by the presence of zeppelins, a fictitious insert from historic reality which only highlights the fact that Saboteur is not a neat little conventional game, anchored in mundane historic renderings. However, the frame still strays away from mutants, occult experiments and other Wolfensteinesque tricks.
Visually speaking, the only flaw I can find are a handful of sketchy animations and an often erroneous pathfinding system, which tear up the fabric of the game at times, but they’re not nearly big enough to chip away from what I see as being Pandemic’s magnum opus, and sadly also their final game.