Pandemic Studios, who first rose to prominence with the twin franchises of Mercenaries and Destroy All Humans!, was shitcanned by EA weeks before the release of what is now their final game, The Saboteur. Pandemic had a track record that was, to say the least, very mixed- they put out some terrific games, but their output had become steadily mediocre as of late. I'm sorry to say that The Saboteur is in that tradition, but it's not without its charms. OIRISH charms!
Sean Devlin (Robin Atkin Downes) is a man of action. A hard drinkin', hard lovin' mechanic turned racecar driver, he and his French friends Jules and Veronique, and his coach Vittore, are participating in a big race in the German town of Sarbrucken in 1939, on the eve of the invasion of Poland. Unfortunately for them, the Nazi party's premiere race car driver/SS commandant, Kurt Dierker, is also competing in the race. After an altercation in a local bar the night before the race Sean and Jules wind up on Dierker's shit list. Dierker retaliates by sabotaging Sean's car during the race. Sean's attempt at revenge escalates the situation, leading to tragic consequences that finds Sean, months later, drowning his sorrows in the Paris cabaret owned by Jules and Veronique's parents. Did I mention it's now 1940 and the Nazis have invaded? There he's found by the local leader of the resistance, and convinced to help them overthrow the Nazi regime. And it just so happens that Kurt Dierker has just arrived in Paris...
The Saboteur's first hour or so flies by in a total rush. There's the initial "training" mission, where Sean is tasked with blowing up a Nazi fuel station in Paris. Then the game flashes back to the events in Sarbrucken, where there's set piece after thrilling set piece. The cinematic sequeneces of The Saboteur are directed with real verve and flair, and the creators really do a good job of immersing you in what feels like a classical WWII thriller, but with the requisite over the top attitude that comes with most open world/sandbox video games. Actually, you might call it the video game equivalent of Inglorious Basterds, only Pandemic isn't nearly as good at switching from tongue in cheek action to serious suspense as Quentin Tarantino was (and it could be argued in that film he wasn't that great at it).
When the game begins, Paris ia awash in black and white, occasionally punctured by the red of the Nazi flag. The more Sean helps to disrupt the Nazi presence and liberate Paris, the sun comes out, and the French countryside retursn to its original color (which is kinda brown and green, but a brightly colored brown and green at least). The game's use of black and white in contrast to color is neat and visually exciting at first, but it eventually wears out its welcome. Ironically, the game's graphics look slightly crisper in black and white, even though the goal is to turn it all to color. The character models are spot on, and yes, there's breasts for those of you who download the Midnight Show add-on. Nicely rendered breasts, to be sure, but I think my Saints Row 2 character was hotter.
Once the flashback finally makes its way back to Paris, the game proper finally starts. Occupied Paris is immense- almost too immense. There's no fast travel in the game, and the main mission givers are spread out across the map. A good chunk of your time will definitely be just driving from area to area, and while the soundtrack features some excellent tunes from the era, there's maybe only five or six of them, and they get old really quick. Oh yeah, a word about the driving- it's terrible. The game gives you a good variety of vehicles to choose from, but controlling the cars feels boxy and the cars seem to turn on the center, which makes any of the racing side missions utterly useless. It's telling that the main story missions in which you're required to actually race- Sean is a driver, remember- are few and far between.
The on foot controls are a good deal better. The targeting system is similar to Saints Row- no lock-on, just an easily aimed reticule. The shooting is generally fun, and there's a decent variety of weapons to choose from, though you'll likely stick with a machine gun and sniper rifle combo for the duration. The fisticuffs are fine too- just tap the left trigger to go into a fighting stance and hammer the X button until your opponent goes down. Sean does a lot- I mean a LOT- of wall climbing in the game. In an obvious nod to Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed, Sean can leap from rooftop to rooftop with the greatest of ease. When it comes to climbing, it's a bit more labored than those games. Instead of the free flowing gripping, the player must continually tap the A button to go from ledge to windowsill to pipe etc. It's a little irritating, especially when compared to the games Pandemic is aping, but it does have one thing I liked- each ledge that Sean can grip is highlighted by the camera.
The game also has a stealth mechanic that at first seems neat but turns out to be completely broken. Given that Paris is occupied by Nazis, any tomfoolery- hell- just looking at Nazi funny sometimes- will result in your suspicion meter cranking all the way up and a GTA IV style circle of shame appearsm based on different alarm levels for Sean to escape from. But these can be avoided, however, if Sean sneaks around and stealth kills Nazis, then dresses up in their clothes. You can walk slow and sneak through! Well, not exactly. You see, if you get close to any Nazis, or run, the suspicion meter goes up anyway, and 9 times out of 10 you'll get spotted and have to shoot your way out. I only completed one mission without raising an alarm, and that was only by virtue of it ending the moment I completed the task. Once again, Pandemic seems somewhat aware of how fucked the stealth is, and while it's encouraged, it rarely, if ever, is a mission killer if you're spotted. The game will let you shoot your way out. That's kind of a push pull of this game- for every annoying thing, there's something else that makes up for it.
As I said a few paragraphs back, you'll be spending a lot of time driving from one area to the next. However, Pandemic didn't fill Paris with just pretty pictures. No, the game has hundreds of "Freeplay Targets" for Sean to get. Each Freeplay target earsn the player Contraband- instead of cash, you get cigarette,s jewelry, and other valuables to trade with smugglers for weapons and other supples. A few of these targets are just mundane collectibles or jumps. The majority of them, however, are Nazi targets, and that's where The Saboteur begins to live up to its name.
There are Nazi watchtowers. Nazi sniper towers. Nazi radar. Nazi gun emplacements. Nazi fuel depots. Nazi propaganda speakers. Nazi the T-Shirt. Nazi The coloring book. Nazi the FLAMETHROWER. Sean can run up to these things, slap a stick of dynamite on it, and then run for the hills, and kaboom! Lots of dead nazis, less Nazis to go after you if you get spotted, and a nice heaping helping of contraband. The main story length of The Saboteur is about ten hours, but you can get much, much more out of that if you decide to accomplish the insane task of hitting every single freeplay target in the game. Given that there are anywhere between 300 and 400 of them in a given region, good f'n luck.
At first, I was obessive- I kept stopping in the middle of trips to blow up little targets, mowing down all Nazi soldiers in my path to get cash. I remember staying up nights, bleary eyed, making sure I had just taken out that tower I went past. The thing is, though, as fun as it can be, eventually you realize that there's only one way to take out most of these targets, and that's with the dynamite. Late in the game you acquire a rocket launcher, but they handle so awkwardly and the ammo is so miniscule it's better to just go back and use the dynamite. Also, you really don't "light up" the area by destroying a target. I expected little bits of the map to get lighter as I did that, but as it turned out you only actually "clear" an area when you complete a mission. It's not really a serious flaw, just slightly disappointing.
The mission structure is pretty satisfying. While most of them follow the pattern of just trying to infilitrate an area and assassinate a Nazi or blow up a target, they're fairly challenging and Pandemic took pains to make them as exciting as possible. Actually, the most annoying parts about the missions in the game are the brieftings. Sean and another character stand static barking overbaked dialogue at each other, and it always feels like there's three times more gum flapping than is necessary. For some odd reason you can move the camera around with the right stick during these sequences. Sooner rather than later you'll be hammerin' the B button and having Sean bark "GIMME THE SHORT VERSION". It's also in these sequences that the writers' flair for B movie dialogue fails them miserably. Downes' performance is ridiculously broad compared to the other actors, which doesn't help.
A word about Downes, if I may. Now, Downes is one of the most prolific voice actors in video games not named Nolan North. His most prominent leading role is Travis Touchdown from the No More Heroes games, but he's also had roles in some of the biggest games this past year alone, like Uncharted 2 and Dragon Age Origins. He's generally a good actor, but by the end of The Saboteur I wanted to kick him square in the nads. It's not just the hardcore Irish part of me noting the bad taste of a Brit playing a character who's clearly a former IRA operative (it's never explicitly stated, but he's Irish, knows how to blow shit up- you do the math). It's that Downes dives into the role like Artie Lange into a drum of Bolivian nose powder and never comes up for air. The Saboteur starts out as a very dashing, funny adventure, but it progressively gets more serious, with the stakes escalating in the game's second half. Some really, really horrible things happen late in the game, and Downes just can't handle the tonal shift: When Sean screams, "Ive seen things I can't unsee, I've done things no man should do!", it fails to have any impact at all, because he sounds exactly like he does when he's making jokes. By contrast, Kari Wahlgren, who plays a British pilot secretly working for MI:6, is able to switch her character from sexpot to deadly spy and make it believable. I genuinely don't know what went on here. Did the developers just think Downes being over the top in the recording booth was too funny and told him to just go hog wild?
Part of the blame goes to Pandemic's story, though. One of the great parts of the Saboteur is how the first two acts of the game build and build with amazing missions that could only take place in video games, without seing the budget into the stratosphere. Holy shit, I'm chasing Dierker in a drigible that's on fire! Awesome, I'm smuggled aboard a blimp going to a prison! I've got to get to the head of this train, kidnap a dude, and then blow the train up before it's too late! The tale of Sean and the French resistance, and his relationships with Jules and Skylar, plus the mysterious MI: 6 operatives Skylar is connected to, is compelling. But then, there's an event that is so brain-crackingly stupid- I mean, it makes all the characters look like complete and utter idiots for not being able to see it coming. The script establishes one fact about a character that everyone knows, and asks the characters- and the player- to be surprised when that character acts on that fact. From there the story becomes melodramatic and completely unravels, building to a series of surprisingly easy final missions. It feels like a good chunk of the story has been left on the cutting room floor; there are two villains that seem important but completely disappear from the narrative, and the third act. feels absurdly rushed, as if, well, the develoer was runnign out of time, under the gun, and needed to ship this out and show the publisher they were a developer worth keeping.
Or the short version: The Saboteur starts out trying to be Inlgorious Basterds, then it wants to be something like The Train. It's unsuccessful.
Yet in the game's final mission, which I won't reveal, Pandemic does something I dind't expect. Something very subtle,and anticlimatic for a video game, but just right for a narrative experience. That little bit proved why, despite all my complaints, I'm giving The Saboteur a solid 7. For all its problems as a game, I still got 15 hours worth out of it, and found myself having a grand old time just blowing up the streets of Paris and ridding it of that Nazi scum. It's much better than the tremendously disappointing Mercenaries 2. Pandemic could have made a better game on their way out, but the game they delievered is still good enough to make me mourn their passing.
One final note: Do you watch Fox's Fringe? Pandemic obviously does: fans of that series will be quite interested in one of the MI: 6 characters- he's voiced by one of the show's central actors, and in a way that makes me think they did a little crossover here. It's a good easter egg for fans of the show.