World War II games. It's the genre everybody loves to hate to love. We gripe about mowing down swarms of Nazis even as we gobble up the next WWII-based shooter. It's become practically a running joke in the industry. Maybe that's why Pandemic created The Saboteur, a game set in World War II that's unlike any other game in the genre.
You take on the role of Sean Devlin, a race car driver turned resistance leader who's based on the real-life William Grover-Williams. When "someone close to Devlin" is killed (the designers are being cagey regarding who), he sets out to get his vengeance on the killer: The driver for a rival team, who also happens to be a Nazi.
The Saboteur E3 2009 Trailer
So Devlin ends up in Paris as a grassroots saboteur, causing trouble for the Nazis at every opportunity by destroying German weaponry, vehicles, and other property. (Also, by destroying Germans.) To complete these feats he roams around a huge, open world, free-climbing pretty much any building and speeding around in pretty much any wheeled vehicle. Oh, and he's also handy with pretty much any weapon, using guns in a manner that will be familiar to any fan of third-person shooters.
One notable improvement, though: When approaching any suitable spot, Devlin automatically takes cover, crouching behind crates or flattening against walls, and popping out automatically when the player fires. This is one indicator of how The Saboteur is influenced as much by action movies as open-world games.
"We have these set pieces where we can really pull people in," says lead designer Tom French. "So we can have scripted moments and tell the story and have those huge events that you normally wouldn't see in a 'sandbox' game." He shows off one such "set piece": a lengthy trip up a docking tower and into an enormous zeppelin…and then through its interior as it catches on fire. And it all happens above the sprawling streets and rooftops of Paris, the vast majority of which is open for Devlin to move about in freely. (Along with the smaller, more countrified Le Havre; some bits of Germany; and a ton of countryside between them, scattered with chateaus where Devlin can find side-quests.)
The idea of an open-world game of stealth and destruction set in WWII would probably be intriguing enough on its own. But the reason The Saboteur keeps turning so many heads is its striking visual style, which mixes black-and-white and color in a way rarely seen in games.
It's a concept the designers call the "Will to Fight." Nazi-occupied areas are rendered primarily in severely muted black-and-white, with swastika armbands and garish red lights being often the only spots of color. But by interfering with the occupation in those areas, you can spur the civilians' will to fight, which helps them return to normal life…and causes the immediate vicinity to be rendered in warm, rich color.
"You're not driving the Nazis out," says French. "The Nazis are still in control. You're just chipping away." You do this by completing sabotage and assassination missions, but also by engaging in optional side activities like demolishing enemy vehicles, sniper towers, radio towers, and so on -- which serve as the game's collectibles. As you do so you get an immediate reward in the form of seeing life start to return to normal for the civilians.
It's a far cry from the standard WWII-themed FPS, and though the game certainly features plenty of shooting, it also appears to include a heck of a lot more. (Including, of course, racing.) Will the substance match the style? You'll be able to find out when the game releases this holiday season for PS3, 360, and PC.