Dealspwn Rating: 6/10
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
As I write this it has been a month since Pandemic Studios ceased to be. It is dead, gone, defunct, kaput, no more. For better or for worse, we shall never see The Dark Knight: The Videogame or The Next Big Thing, the game rumoured to be bring The Hoff to the Wii. At this point in time Star Wars: Battlefront III lies comatose on a shelf at EA, waiting to be either cruelly euthanised or resuscitated by another company's healing hands. But fret not, Pandemic fans, for the studio's legacy lives on in The Saboteur, a game that comes across a little like Just Cause meets Inglourious Basterds meets Father Ted.
It seems that every single game that comes out at the moment is an open-world sandbox game, and The Saboteur is no different. I have no idea whether or not this is because Pandemic, poised under the sacrificial knife, simply couldn't really be bothered to create a particularly original and engaging storyline and decided that copying everybody else would be a good idea, but it does all seem frightfully derivative. Everything just seems like it's been done before, and much better at that.
Part of this is the setting: it's wartime Paris and you've found yourself in the shoes of the most Irish Irishman there is. My god he's Irish: he hates the British, he says 'feck' a lot, he can charm anything on two legs (pretty much) in spite of having a cauliflower for a head, his drinks like Bernard Manning's fish, and he slips the word 'arse' into every single metaphor and pun he can muster. He's got a bone to pick with the Nazis (there's a backstory involving an Italian, a Frenchman and some Brits, a racecar and an evil German spymaster that sets Sean off on his vengeful path) so he joins up with revolutionary Frenchman Luc and dives headlong into the underground fight against the Third Reich by poorly emulating every sandbox anti-hero from Niko Bellic to Cole MacGrath to Rico Rodriguez.
It is Rodriguez with whom Sean Devlin, our fighting Irish protagonist, has the most in common. Like Rico, Sean toddles off round his open world liberating the French people by blowing things up, bumping off high ranking officials, winning street races, and gun running for the revolutionaries. Unfortunately, Sean can't paraglide but he can climb pretty much anything, although the animations for this are laughable. Where the assassins Altair and Ezio Auditore are sleek and cat-like, Sean is more like a pissed King Kong. But smaller, and less hairy. It's not just Sean who turns out to be massively stereotyped either. The Germans sound as if they've been voiced by a the cast of 'Allo 'Allo and stop just short of goose-stepping.
The open-world staples are all in there, of course: there's a 'wanted' level for when you're naughty, and the obligatory safehouses and hiding spots are dotted all around the French capital and surrounding countryside; there are garages for your stolen cars, black market vendors for your firearm needs and hidden Nazi caches to find and pilfer too. The wanted system is a little too eager, though. Pandemic should be commended for incorporating some good stealth elements into the game - the radar-like HUD is used to good effect and the disguise system works very well too, riddle a guard full of bullets and his jacket will be useless, but a stealthy neck-breaking sneak attack is perfectly wardrobe-friendly. But, far too often, a quiet piece of infiltration will be undone by an irritatingly twitchy alert system that makes you feel like all your hard work has been for nothing. It feels out of sync somehow with the rest of the game's more forgiving arcade elements: no matter how silent you are on the way in, you end up having to get through more bullets in five minutes than John Woo does in five films.
All of these things would be reason enough for taking out the disc and chucking it in the oven, but strangely enough I can't seem to bring myself to do it. You see, I know that I've played this game ten times before in one way or another, I know that these stereotypes are bad, that the game is heavy and clunky, and that the cover system is about as flaky as....well.....a Flake. But in spite of all of these things, in spite of the lethargic camera and the amphetamine-addled aiming, The Saboteur is actually a lot of fun.
Maybe my positivity is just the result of the rose-tinted haze of Assassin's Creed II afterglow, but surely then I'd find this offering to be paltry and unsatisfying, yet I don't. Pandemic have combined two old chestnuts - the WWII game and the sandbox experience - into one flawed but fun little offering. The combat will feel pretty natural to anyone who ever played Mercenaries 2 and it's really quite a blast. The cover system (when it works) is hugely useful, the array of weapons is pretty darn sweet, the melee is surprisingly satisfying and the stealth takedowns are a really nice touch.
On top of that is the art direction. At the start, with Paris overrun by the Nazi occupation, everything is in stark black and white. When you leap in a car the excellent, unobtrusive soundtrack to the game kicks in, all period music and melancholic jazz - the atmosphere is brilliantly captured in stylised fashion. Then, as you progress through the game, enlightening the city's citizens to your cause, the colour begins to flood back into the streets. It's a simple, yet strikingly effective piece of visual work that almost works too well: the game looks so good in black and white that half the time you just want to leave the enemy soldiers well alone and bask in the pretty pictures. With the bright crimson jets of OTT blood that fly every time a bullet or a punch finds its mark, it's sometimes a little bit reminiscent of a less moody, more fun, Sin City.
So, in conclusion, The Saboteur actually proves to be something of a dark horse, if not quite the fitting epitaph that we were hoping for Pandemic. If they'd had a month or two to iron out the creases, then I'm sure this would have been one of the games of the year. As it is, the game stands much like a piece of cubic zirconia: it's shiny and nice to look at, and it emulates much worthier and better things fairly well, but it's not a patch on the real deal.
- Some cracking art direction
- Fairly original take on the WWII genre
- Quite a lot of atmospheric, stylised fun
- Nearly every single facet of the gameplay has been done significantly better elsewhere
- Twitchy alert system
- Feels rushed
The Short Version: Pandemic have somehow managed to squeeze a significant amount of fun into a fundamentally flawed and rushed game. The wonderful visual creativity is let down by some sloppy gameplay mechanics, and you have to wonder just how good it could have been had the studio not been prematurely fiscally guillotined.