The Saboteur Review

By Rob Manuel - Posted Dec 03, 2009

Developer Pandemic Studios tries to set up everything from the very beginning: a large cast of characters, deep motivation, and a bold story. The problem is that the team coasts on most of that momentum until the end of the game when they decide to tie up the story, or at least the main arc.

The Pros
  • Lots of stuff to blow up
  • Unique setting and look
  • Different ways to tackle a situation
The Cons
  • Bad Enemy AI
  • Poorly designed areas
  • Lots of little problems
  • Lacks polish/Glitches

The first thing you’ll see in The Saboteur is a set of bare breasts -- read into that what you will; I’m just the messenger. Those glorious orbs belong to a burlesque dancer strutting her stuff in front of a crowd of Nazis at the Belle de Nuit -- a cathouse in the middle of WWII-era occupied Paris. Our protagonist, Shaun Devlin, tries to drink away the past in the back as he’s approached by the leader of the local resistance. From there, it’s just a short ride to the local enemy fueling station with a fresh stick of dynamite in his hands. Up it goes in a fiery mess and, just as you’re getting a taste for the city, The Saboteur thinks it’s time you should sit down for about for a bit of backstory.

The Saboteur Review

The City of Lights (and Fires)

Developer Pandemic Studios tries to set up everything from the very beginning: a large cast of characters, deep motivation, and a bold story. The problem is that the team coasts on most of that momentum until the end of the game when they decide to tie up the story, or at least the main arc. Missions send you gunning for the main generals terrorizing the city, but it never seems to be leading toward the one Nazi who shot your friend. Behind a scoped sniper rifle, they all look the same anyhow. Pull the trigger, mission accomplished. A simple, yet powerful, act of vengeance gets diluted in various subplots that include mysterious archeological artifacts and you playing errand boy for the Resistance. This is not how you tell a story – especially when you want to turn The Saboteur into an ongoing franchise, which, given Pandemic’s unfortunate fate, may never happen.

“Maybe I should find a disguise,” Devlin grumbles under his thick Irish accent. While missions allow for some sway, there’s usually a right way to take them on in the open world game. Find a Nazi, break his neck, take his clothes. Take your shot and get out. Usually, someone gets a little too close to you or sees you climbing. (When climbing is outlawed, only outlaws will climb). The one big thing that disappointed me about the missions was the lack of muscle protecting some of these installations. We’re talking about huge mansions or factories being protected by a dozen or so people. Occasionally, an extra man would show up from a barrack (which you can blow up). Alarms blaring…men, dead on the ground. I would even blow up additional structures just for good measure. No one came.

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We Will Be Cruel to the Germans...

The freeplay missions, areas of interest seeded all over the map, will keep you busy. They’re the highlight of the game, since they allow you to tackle them any way you see fit. Climb sniper towers to take out guards or destroy them at the base. Throw on a disguise and innocently toss grenades into a fueling station. Call on friends and watch le zut fly. There are hundreds of these spots placed around the map. Some of the best parts of the game come from taking on a tight cluster of sniper towers, tanks, and guarded cannons, which can become hairy once the alarm goes off and more troops enter the picture -- something the core missions completely forgot about.

But even that doesn’t come without its own problems. The suspect system is easy enough to escape that you usually meet with little resistance as you move from target to target. Blow up a tower or shoot your gun and an area of suspicion appears on the map. As long as you’re outside of that area before guards see you, you’re fine. Even if you do get caught, there are hiding areas that allow you to cancel the alarm. Moving outside of the radius immediately cancels the alarm. Sometimes I would trip an alarm and escape since it took less time than to wait for the suspicion to wear off.

The Saboteur Review

Black, White, and Red All Over

The Saboteur dishes up a lot of good ideas, but a lot of them just get bogged down with little irritations, which add up over hours of play. Climbing from building to building is a great example. To climb, you’re constantly jumping (re: mashing a button) to get to the roof. Some buildings are connected by rope but many aren’t and are spaced too far apart to jump safely. Climbing down, however, is more of a controlled fall. The roofs themselves are a random mess of slanted buildings and unexplainable pockets. I understand that Pandemic is trying to make for an interesting environment but it seems more random than intentional.

The perk system rewards players by completing little tasks such as blowing up a certain number of enemies or stealing certain types of cars. By unlocking a perk, you can gain new abilities or resistance shops will carry new items. The usefulness of the perks is disputable. Getting a discount on explosives is a big plus in the game, but getting free car repairs is particularly useless. Why worry about the car in the shop when it’s so easy to steal the one down the road?

One of the most striking and original aspects comes from the black and white aesthetic of the occupied territories. It’s film noir with splashes of Nazi reds, yellows, and cool blues. Racing through the gray and often darkened streets reminds me of pulp war movies on warn out celluloid. Sometimes it’s hard to navigate – either a little too dark or everything looks a little flat – but the effect is never lost. But everything goes to color through following core missions and not by chipping away at Nazi installations. While the color bleeds in as you blow up more towers, you’ll never take out a large chunk through the free missions or be able to convert a territory in the middle of the occupied grey. Likewise, a mission can transform an area covered in Nazi strongholds into one with color. The change never feels like you accomplished anything more than getting through another part of the story.

Again, small issues pile up to hurt the overall experience. A couple of towers are placed in odd positions where the ladders are nearly unusable. Enemy AI will always check a downed body with the same animation. They quickly forget about you as well. Death doesn’t have a high cost. You lose a couple of grenades, but guns are easy to re-equip. I would sometimes kill myself instead of having to drive all the way back to base.  For a game starring a racecar driver, the two racing missions feel very staged.  A number of glitches removed objects but not the items around them – such as guards without a tower. And then there’s the ending that almost made me want to break my controller. It’s a lot of little things that can bring down a big idea.

…And I Want My Nazi scalps.

For all of these little problems, there are easy fixes or at least, something that could have used a little bit more testing. The Saboteur is such as great idea and comes with enough original concepts that it saddens me when so many problems keep popping up. If you’re someone just looking for mayhem and a little style, this will feed your need for a little bit. Otherwise, this open world game will fall to the wayside as have so many others before it.