I’d never heard of Pandemic’s 2009 release The Saboteur, and when I found it for $17, I picked it up. Why not? There’s nothing too tempting out at the moment, and you get to kill Nazis. That’s fun, right? So without expectations, I loaded her up, and for the first time in a game, I felt like what I was doing was important. Not just important, but fundamentally necessary. I was so bowled over with rage, it was all I could do to keep from constantly fantasizing about burning down a Gestapo HQ. Toss in the fact that the game is loosely based on real life, French resistance operative William Grover-Williams, and you’ve got a solid set of pieces. The question is though, do they stack up?
Set in 1940’s Paris, Sean Devlin, an ex-stock car driver and roughneck Irishman with a guilty conscience and a broken heart, is sullenly trying to drink his life away in a Montemarte brothel. However, everything changes when he’s unexpectedly approached by a French novelist with an impassioned plan: liberate his beloved city from the Nazi occupying forces. Reluctant, Sean is persuaded to help only by being promised revenge on Kirk Dierker, an enemy from his past. From there, the whirlwind narrative of sabotage and retaliation takes off in ways both devastatingly poignant and frustratingly benign.
My chief complaint is the story can’t ever find its footing. It so desperately wants to be a noir, but its format (which is basically Grand Theft Auto: Nazi Edition) stifles it at every turn. Scenes of utter emotional brilliance are immediately undercut by stereotypical, action game hoopla. This is felt most painfully at the end. After a truly bold and artsy segment, a cheesy sequel-setting proclamation of “I’m just getting started” ruins everything. The dialogue is clunky and cliché one minute, then insightful and elegant the next. It was a constant back and forth between the very, very good and the very, very bad.
The Saboteur is a raunchy game. If you aren’t hiding in brothels to escape pursuing Nazis, you’re trading sex jokes with your blond and busty British counterpart. Yet, the overt, suggestive nature is weirdly charming. You’re a guy in your late twenties in war-torn Europe who lives in the back room of a cabaret; your adrenaline is sky high, because you’re killing every Nazi you can find. Of course you’d crack a lewd comment or two. The Midnight Show DLC (included for free if you buy the game new, 240 Microsoft points if not) renders almost all the prostitutes topless and opens up a VIP room with a mini game and burlesque shows. However, there’s never any actual sex in the game.
The format is linear: complete a mission, get a cutscene, and advance the story. There’s ample room for “freeplay,” which mostly consists of sabotaging Nazi installations. And though said destruction is repetitive, I never got tired of killing Nazis. I’d almost feel guilty when I turned the game off. Pandemic did a great job of blending novelty and intensity. I was absolutely horrified the first time I saw a German officer beat up an old man, and there was no question the Nazi had to die—not because of the game’s objective, but for justice’s sake.
Unfortunately, there are substantial glitches and poor control responses. When I would want Sean to jump off a ledge, he would climb it. When I’d want him to duck, he’d stand—armed—and have the whole SS shooting at me. The checkpoint system saves at awkward spots, and I had a major issue with the Nazi special forces flamethrowers. Did you know fire can go through solid walls or three flights of stairs? No? Me either… until I played this game and died five hundred times because of said glitch.
The graphics are decent, but nothing to write home about. The NPC character models are heavily recycled, as are the buildings, but from specific “scenic spots,” the recreated Paris is quite beautiful. The French countryside is also well crafted and seems to have garnered the most attention.
In the same vein, one of my favorite features, and something I’ve never seen before, is the “returning color” system. Areas of the city that are heavily occupied by Nazis are featured on-screen solely in black and white. As players liberate different parts of the city, the color slowly returns to the game, giving a much needed breath of life to the citizens. It’s inspiring stuff.
There could’ve been more ambient sounds in French. On occasion, bits of German could be heard from passing Nazis or on a propaganda speaker, but it was rare when I heard any actual French, which I found odd given we’re in Paris. The voice acting also left something to be desired. There are enough people in the world that it should’ve been easy to find European actors to dub the supporting characters. Unfortunately, almost all the voices were done by American talent who fumbled through accents like toddlers on two-wheelers. The random dialogue though, from the Parisians and Nazi grunts, was legitimately funny, and made up for the fact that everyone spoke flawless English.
The songs featured in-game switched from actual 1940’s music to present day covers that more often than not sounded too clean and modern to keep up the illusion of the era.
There are plenty of innovative and downright haunting moments in The Saboteur to make up for some of the more egregious flops. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in a passion. The controls are a bit weak, and the story needs a swift kick from an Allied boot, but there’s something cathartic and inspiring about helping liberate Paris from the grip of true evil. While I think Pandemic should have stuck with manipulating player emotions instead of falling back on their supposed desire to blow things up, the studio still managed to make a solid game. I’d say I’m excited for the suggested sequel, but since 9/10ths of staff were fired and the studio was shut down upon completion… here’s to dreams.