Reviewed: January 12, 2010
Released: December 8, 2009
For those looking for the quick version of this review allow me to summarize by saying that The Saboteur is the best open-world game I have played since Mafia back in 2002. It blows away all the GTA's (yes, even Vice City) at every level of design. It is the most complex and immersive world I have ever lost myself in for 50+ hours, and easily the best and most addicting action title I played in 2009. Game of the Year all the way baby!
Now, for those looking for some validation for that previous bold paragraph, read on.
Pandemic Studios is responsible for some of my favorite games of recent years including Full Spectrum Warrior, Star Wars Battlefront, Mercenaries, and even Destroy All Humans. It was with great sadness I learned that EA had dissolved the talented team of designers but not before they could leave us with one final parting gift, and what is easily their best production to date - The Saboteur.
In The Saboteur you play as Sean Devlin, an Irish racing mechanic and driver, who through a series of unfortunately events gets caught up in some serious Nazi espionage just about the time Germany unleashes a full-scale invasion of France. Motivated by revenge and a great personal loss, Sean joins the French resistance as well as several other rebel factions in a valiant attempt to drive the Nazi hordes from Paris and the surrounding countryside.
The Saboteur sucks you in from the very beginning with a sexy opening act inside a burlesque club. Depending on if you have installed the Midnight Show DLC, the level of nudity will range from tasteful pasties to full topless dancers, singers, and waitresses all around the club. Even with the nudity turned on the game is still quite tasteful in a European artsy kind of way. With the DLC installed you will also have access to an underground portion of the club with special games of chance and four very special and personalized private dance numbers from three very lovely ladies.
Putting aside the titillating aspects of The Saboteur, you have a huge open-world action-shooter that not only allows, but virtually requires you to blow up countless targets all over the massive map. I had no idea just how many secondary targets there were in this game until I purchased some special maps from one of my black market contacts. The map turned almost entirely white with little diamonds indicating targets of interest. These secondary targets are non-critical to the completion of the game but they do earn you valuable contraband (the currency of the game) as well as swaying public opinion in your favor. You can just as easily taint your public image by shooting or running over innocent civilians while fighting off the Germans.
Targets of interest range from the numerous watchtowers and sniper perches to the larger AA turrets, tanks, spotlights, and radar dishes to the ever-observant SS Officer who can see right through your disguise. Yes, much like the Hitman game, Sean can takedown soldiers with melee attacks then disguise himself as that soldier. This not only allows him to carry a gun in public, but also gains him entrance into secured areas noted on the map with barbed-wire boundaries. Of course, you must never run or get caught climbing or doing anything un-Nazi-like or the suspicion meter will start to rise. If your cover is blown the costume comes off and the fight is on.
The whole stealth element of The Saboteur is one of my favorite parts of the game. I would literally spend an hour trying to take down a secondary target using stealth tactics; a task that could just as easily be completed in 5 minutes if I went in guns blazing. And once you gain access to remote detonated charges, there is nothing more challenging than trying to plant multiple bombs and blowing up an entire installation with the single press of a button. The game can be played gung-ho or completely stealthy or any mixture of both for any given situation giving the gamer ultimate freedom in how they approach each mission or target.
Obviously, playing stealth is a much more rewarding and suspensful experience. Then again, it is just as rewarding to run around sticking bombs on tanks, towers, or AA guns and lighting a fuse, then running out of the yellow circle of suspicion. After every act of sabotage a jeep will race up and a group of suspicious soldiers will prowl the area. The level of suspense in this epic game of hide and seek is unparalleled to any other game I can think of at this time - even surpassing the suspense of Hitman.
Blowing up secondary objectives is easily a 20-30 hour experience. I’ve completed the story part of The Saboteur, viewed the credits, and finished all the primary goals and I still have only completed 68% of the secondary missions, and that’s with nearly 60 hours of gameplay behind me. This is probably one of the first games I can think of that may have “too much” content. I did my best to perform as many of these missions during the course of the main game, because I knew it would be really hard to go back and finish them after the fact, and I was right. But it still makes for a fun diversion when friends are over and we just want to run around and blow stuff up. Who knows – I might actually “complete” the game someday.
The story portion of the game is amazing with a large overlapping story arc that deals with Sean and his family and a close group of friends. Things branch out a bit when he starts teaming up with the various rebel factions who appear as safe houses on the map – places to hide from the enemy and load up on weapons, maintain a growing garage of vehicles, and get your next assignment. Interestingly enough, despite only a few missions that required vehicles including a couple of actual racing events, I walked or ran just about everywhere on foot. For the first 60% of the game there are just so many secondary targets – often two or three per city block, and just as many in the countryside – that it was simply easier and more productive to walk and sprint, even across the entire country of France. Plus, if you didn’t have the appropriate “papers” you could never drive through a Nazi checkpoint.
The primary missions were very clever in design, integrating the best elements of espionage and sabotage with objectives like driving a brainwashed soldier to SS HQ so he could kill a target, or stealing a prized German racecar from a Nazi castle or hijacking a zeppelin. There were assassination missions, revenge missions, defend the base missions, you name it, and The Saboteur offers it. And with so many secondary objectives there was always something to do on the way to and from those primary assignments.
Gameplay and controls are pretty good, although I found the driving to be a bit problematic, even after mastering the powerslide technique. Plus, if you run over too many pedestrians they will penalize your later when you need to find a place to hide. The weapons and melee combat were excellent – far superior to anything GTA has offered. The whole stealth takedown or even the ability to walk up to a soldier and mug him face to face was great. Aiming or shooting from the hip was fairly accurate and nothing beats climbing into an AA turret and shooting down zeppelins and fighter planes.
With the mini-map and awareness radar it is all too easy to “work the system”. Your level of detection is indicated with a dotted circle that grows or shrinks based on your actions. It allows you to steer your character through enemy troops like you are avoiding landmines, but then again, that is just part of the game. It doesn’t have to be totally real. Once detected, Sean can withstand a surprising amount of damage, but you still need to find a safe place to hide as noted by a green icon on the map. The trick here is that you cannot enter a hiding place within sight of an enemy. And again, it seems a bit unnatural that you can bomb the crap out of a base alerting half the German army, then run away to some arbitrary distance to deactivate the alarm and return immediately with no repercussions. Realistic, no...fun, yes!
I loved the Perk system that rewards the gamer with special bonuses for performing well within the game. You can read up on what it takes to unlock these perks then strive to meet the goals. I loved the ability to request a car (of my choosing) to be dropped off anywhere and anytime, and you can even level this perk up to where the guy who is dropping off the car is also an arms dealer so you can buy new guns or ammo. There are so many perks and most play an important part of the evolving gameplay.
The whole monetary and black market system works quite well despite the fact that you can get weapons and ammo from fallen soldiers. At first contraband is hard to come by, at least in any great amounts, but the more primary and secondary missions you complete, the more cash you build up. You’ll need certain lump sums of cash to purchase special story-driven items like papers that allow you to drive to other areas of the countryside. It's also interesting that you only need to buy a weapon once (per vendor) and you can obtain that same item at no charge later. Ammo, grenades, and explosives always cost.
Much of the action in The Saboteur takes place above street level on the rooftops. Sean can scale buildings and zip-line on power and support cables like a superhero, but the suspicion meter will start to rise if the Nazi’s see him clinging to the side of a building or even hanging from a short ledge. You can literally drop to the ground inches below your feet to disarm the suspicion gauge. The game is quite forgiving in respect to damage from falling, and it usually takes a 3-4 story fall or higher to kill you.
Death in The Saboteur is handled in one of two ways. If you are already assigned a primary mission you simply get a “Retry Mission” prompt and spawn at the nearest checkpoint with no penalty. In fact, anything you have done or destroyed up to that point is still completed. However, if you are not engaged in a mission you will need to “Return to HQ” and you will lose your weapons and ammo. This can be expensive if you die a lot, but the system can easily be glitched as long as you make sure you are always engaged in some sort of mission (i.e. yellow waypoint is on the map)
The presentation is so fantastic I was already casting the film version of this game in my head while playing. The voice actors are all excellent with realistic accents and great line delivery full of multi-layer emotion. Sean has an almost stereotypical Irish charm and swagger about him that is only masked by his hatred and vengeful motivation. The game is loaded with cursing as well as plenty of hilarious and off-color metaphors like “he’s as happy as a cat with a cream-flavored asshole”. I fell in love with each and every cutscene and anxiously looked forward to the next. Even ambient conversations like the pedestrians commenting on my scaling up a building or the Nazi’s booing me off stage when I tried to grope the naked singer add to the immersion of the game.
Visually, The Saboteur is as impressive as it is vast. The sheer size of the city would normally offer plenty of chances for repeated textures and architecture but every rooftop and city block was always different in some way, and there was always some signature piece to make one block different from the last or the next. All of the famous landmarks are there and you will have some sort of mission that will take you to all of them including the very tiptop of the Eiffel Tower. The draw distance can suffer in rare moments like these, but never in such away that it detracts from actual gameplay. If you can’t see it, you don’t need to see it.
The Saboteur is far more sprawling than just Paris. The surrounding countryside is fully and realistically populated with people and buildings, small villages, larger coastal cities, large factories, sprawling train yards, lakes, rivers, and forests that are home to secret rocket launchers, spotlights, radio towers, and other strategically relevant targets. You can even make your way over to the coast at Normandy or head across the border into Germany.
Also important to the gameplay as well as the oppressive atmosphere of the story, all German occupied territory is void of color, giving the game a distinct Sin City flavor. The red swastika arm bands, the blue glow of a rebel contraband box, and the yellow tints of the windows and street lights are the only color you will see until you complete certain military objectives at which point that territory is liberated through a triumphant colorization effect radiating outward from the key objective. Since liberated areas are easier to take refuge in, this colorization effect is a valuable tool in giving you instant awareness of your current situation, especially when traveling long distances across the map.
Those looking to liberate France had better reserve a week or more of steady gameplay. The story mode takes at least 15-20 hours to finish and that is assuming you can force yourself to not get distracted by the countless “targets of opportunity” along the way to each objective. And for the completionists, you have a few hundred secondary targets, numerous vehicles to collect, street races, rebel contraband drops, postcards, and scenic vistas to discover. Plus, there are 45 Achievements, 30 of which I unlocked with relative ease over the course of 50+ hours and the rest of which will take some serious effort. I’m still not sure how to jump off the top of the Eiffel Tower and survive but it’s worth 15 points if I can figure it out.
Obviously, The Saboteur isn’t representative of the peak of next-gen gaming but for my money, this is the most fun and addictive gameplay I’ve experienced in 2009, and I’ll probably be pulling it off the shelf in 2010 to work on those secondary targets. It builds on the best parts of games like Mercenaries, GTA, Hitman, Infamous, and Mafia, and then adds on its own superior element of historic flavor and Parisian charm. The Saboteur is Pandemic's finest project to date and I am terribly sad to see them go, but we’ll always have Paris…