If there's any period of time in gaming that has probably been outlawed in all the major development studios throughout the known universe by now, it's got to be World War II.
The mere mention of this overused, thrashed, and thoroughly tapped-out setting should be enough to see studio executives dive for cover behind large, luxurious, winged-back seats, perhaps pausing only to speed-dial security on the way down. Sadly, Pandemic didn't get the memo, and as Electronic Arts have now axed this development team previously responsible for such titles as Mercenaries and Dark Reign 2, it seems decidedly appropriate that the now redundant studio has presented their publisher with a title featuring a grey-scale world locked down by fascist oppressors. No love lost there, clearly.
The Saboteur is an open-world title largely set within the confines of Nazi-occupied France during the early stages of World War II. The French military have scattered faster than a stabbed rat in the face of the overwhelming German approach, and now it's up to Le Resistance to interfere with the occupiers in the most devious ways possible. Think Allo Allo but with slightly more death.
Thrown into this maelstrom for no discernible reason is Irish mechanic Sean Devlin. He's the type of chap who clearly enjoys his fast women, fast cars and high-spirited brawling - all that's really missing to complete the stereotype is a St. Patrick Day's parade, a t-shirt that says "Kiss Me I'm Irish" and a conviction for drunk and disorderly. You'll be treated to the full gamut of Irishisms, so if you actually are Irish, you might want to prepare to be indignant at the overuse of the word "arse". If you're Kiwi, just be thankful he's not wearing jandals and towing around a pet sheep, because we could be next.
Sean finds himself torn between his desire to drink himself to death, and his urge to exact revenge on a psychopathic blonde German torturer who brutally executed his best friend for destroying a prized race car. And you think you have problems. His payback takes the form of ingratiation with the Resistance, followed by extensive missions that usually culminate with large objects rising several hundred feet in the air, and scattering themselves over a wide area. Throughout these missions, Sean continues to improve his skills through perks (or achievements if you prefer) that reward successful repetition with additional abilities. Kill a couple of Nazis in a particular manner and you'll become better at killing additional Nazis later on, that sort of thing.
If you can struggle through the first couple of hours or so, you'll discover a title that tries hard to replicate a detailed, open-ended environment where Sean has the freedom to hunt Nazis, bomb encampments and race through the streets like a man possessed. Any title that features violence at this level generally should come equipped with decent combat, and this is where The Saboteur comes unstuck. I know it's technically possible to kill someone with one punch, so I'm not going to grumble too much about Sean's pernicious right hook, but he seems to have a remarkable ability to absorb round after round of close-quarter machine-gun fire, which really just detracts from the overall cloak-and-dagger theme of the game and makes it all a bit too arcade. Likewise, it becomes pretty obvious that it's generally more strategically advantageous to gun down the enemy rather than utilise stealth, which is clearly not what the game wants you to do.
Having obviously identified early on in development that an Irish car racer in occupied Paris sticks out like a Rabbi at a yacht club, Pandemic have introduced a mini-map area-of-influence warning mechanism that alerts that player when Sean has been spotted by an errant Nazi. Unfortunately this again fails to really capture the spirit of reality, as if you happen to mow down a German soldier whilst driving your one-of-a-kind car through town, you can simply drive a block or so down the road until your wanted level disappears, then turn around and drive back past the scene of the crime without anyone being any the wiser - typically in less than ten seconds. It's a fundamental gameplay attribute that Pandemic should have devoted more time to prior to release, and along with the previously described combat flaws, it acts to remove the player from the story that the cut-scenes work so hard to establish.
As we recently learned from production head Tom French, The Saboteur's historical content was never intended to faithfully reproduce the events of World War II. The continuity and historical experts must have been some of the first to leave the sinking ship however, as there are some significant departures from established fact. These liberties fail to break the game, and after a while you tend to accept small failings, such as the unrealistic weapon behaviour. And Zepplins.
The art style is perhaps the defining characteristic of The Saboteur. It's not merely a permanent monochromatic filter applied carelessly like so many other pretentious film noir clones out there, it actually forms part of the game itself. At the beginning of missions, your world is almost entirely lacking in colour, however once you succeed in your objectives the world gradually floods with light, which acts as a nice reward and allows you to see where you're driving for a change. This has been dubbed the "Will to Fight", and as you gradually free various areas within Paris, the colour will spread and the quantity of German influence will reduce. As a new method of providing incentive to the player I'm not so sure it works particularly well, but as a novel way of lifting the pace of the action it's a brilliant device.
Likewise the dialogue, cheesy as it may be, is strangely appealing, and you will find yourself caring about the outcome of each conflict. Although some of the cut-scene animations are questionable from a visual quality perspective, the story is strapped together and presented in a relatively logical fashion. Some aspects, such as Sean's ability to climb virtually any building in Paris, or steal vehicles from locals are welcome. Ultimately however they're largely employed without any real purpose - such as missions that require you to steal a vehicle to drive a couple of hundred metres, when in reality a brief walk would have been much more conducive to a long life.
The Saboteur was always going to be an uphill struggle from a conceptual standpoint. Is it Assassin's Creed in Nazi Paris? Grand Theft Auto: Vichy City Stories? Or perhaps a video game adaptation of Sin City without Jessica Alba? It's such a divergent mix of so many other titles that at one point it actually manages to shake free from being new intellectual property, and adopts the unnerving appearance of an organ transplant recipient. It's the swansong of an under-appreciated developer that must have know they had little to gain from actually completing the title, which is a shame because with a bit more work The Saboteur could have been something quite special.
As it stands however, with obvious flaws, no multiplayer, and no studio to provide ongoing support, it's hard to see longevity in this one.