It is unavoidable to talk about The Saboteur without making comparisons to it's influences. Influences that it makes no attempt to disguise: free-running from Assassins Creed, over-the-shoulder shooting from Gears of War, an open-world mission structure and countless other nods to Grand Theft Auto. Labouring over unflattering comparisons to industry heavyweights, or labelling The Saboteur a 'Jack of all trades' is necessary as a critic but missing the point as a gamer. Ultimately it uses the GTAIV template and applies it to a unusual and stylised WWII setting whilst maintaining a good tempo and sense of fun throughout.
You play Sean Devlin, Irish racing driver turned freedom fighter (Think Eddie Irvine meets Che Guevara) after the German invasion of France leaves him stranded on foreign soil with a personal vendetta against the Nazis and a taste for explosives. Sean finds refuge in Paris, joins the Resistance and sneaks, climbs, shoots, races and at times womanises his way to victory. Vive la France!
Not only are the visuals stylised but the whole setting of the game is knowingly distinct from reality, at times, it would seem in order not to deviate from the GTA formula. Vast zeppelins loom over Paris equipped with machine guns ready to hunt you down if a sufficient level of alarm is sounded, all vehicles have car stereos for some drive time music – no Weasel News though. One particularly eyebrow-raising moment is when you receive a note “I know of someone organising underground street races. Thought you would be interested” - seriously? The Saboteur is no more an attempt at accurately portraying occupied WWII France than the film '300' documents the historical battles of the Spartans.
Maybe it was because 2009 has been knee-deep in zombies, aliens and dead Russians that I was surprised to find myself smiling when a game asked me to drive classic car through rural, peace-time France during an early section of the game. It may not do accents very well but it has knack of creating atmosphere and the way this atmosphere can change between occupied and liberated areas of Paris is The Saboteur's saving grace.
A cold, dark, black-and-white filter is applied to areas of Paris where Nazis have a stranglehold over the people. Much like Frank Miller's Sin City the only colour to be seen is the yellow light emitting from windows and the stark red of Swastikas or spilled blood. Citizens shuffle about quietly and quickly in fear and the music played is muffled, French blues. These areas don't just look unpleasant, with higher concentrations of Nazi troops, sniper nests, tanks and such, they are also a dangerous place for Sean to be. Checkpoints, restricted areas and rolls of barbed wire also make these areas harder to move about in but thanks to some trusty dynamite the Nazi defences can be slowly softened. When regions of the city are liberated colour floods back to the area, sun breaks through the clouds and the spirits of the people are lifted.
At some point in development the decision was made to include lots of tits in The Saboteur. Justification being Sean's safe house is in the back of a Burlesque club. Yeah that's the one – just past the changing room. The Midnight Show downloadable content adds a couple of mini-games and essentially acts as a nude patch allowing players to turn nudity on in the options menu. PC gamers will be ecstatic to hear the PC version comes with the DLC at no extra cost, unfortunately the inclusion of the seedy Parisian red-light business feels decidedly cheap. Witnessing the game essentially whoring itself isn't hugely enjoyable - unless you're into polygons.
Sean is an Irish cliché to the point of parody, when combined with innuendo-laden dialogue from a British secret agent and The silly French accents on display it slips dangerously close to being a comedy game, in which case we can add British sit-com 'Allo 'allo to the list of influences. Not everyone's cup of tea.
An entirely different type of comedy is generated by the abundance of bugs is this clearly unpolished final product. Old favourites like non-player characters running into walls are all present and correct but the hilarity really starts when clumsy Nazis randomly fall from great heights. Tactical parking can cause French drivers to fearlessly ram into Nazi emplacements and getting caught in explosions can do some wacky stretching of character models. Personally I love this stuff but it doesn't spell out quality and most players would agree it breaks immersion into the fiction.
Questionable taste and glitches aside, the things it does get right tend to be of a more substantial nature. Something new that The Saboteur brings to the plate is the feeling that all your actions have consequences in this war of attrition; every Nazi installation taken down helps the resistance war effort in some way. For example, after a couple of failed attempts at a rescue mission I decided to take down four nearby sniper towers to ease the getaway. It worked, the enemy forces were slightly weakened in that area I made good my escape. The number of enemy targets on the map is huge and provides plenty of longevity for the completionist out there.
Over time Sean learns new abilities and skills in the form of 'perks'. Rather than have an experience point system perks are earned by meeting set objectives such as 'Throw five Nazi's to their death' or destroy ten towers to unlock cheaper explosives from arms dealers. It integrates an achievement system into the game and rewards players without any XP 'grinding' – a nice touch.
A consequence of copying so many games at once is the number of genuine options available when considering which approach to take for a mission, or as Sean puts it “Theres more than one way to skin a cat”. By donning the German uniform Sean can infiltrate enemy bases using the games blunt stealth mechanics, scaling buildings may reveal a different approach entirely or you may have spotted an particularly efficient way of blowing everything up.
The flaws may be plentiful but none are big enough to ruin the experience and it's easy to forgive lack of originality, coding flaws and dodgy scripted moments when it's this much fun. Most elements from The Saboteur have been done elsewhere and to a higher standard, but this should not detract from the games greatest achievement: the ability to motivate the player, not to unlock bigger guns or achievement points, but purely for restoring the game's biggest character - 1940s Paris.