Sean Devlin is a tough-talking, hard-brawling Irishman caught up in a war he has no interest in. In Nazi-occupied Paris, he is approached by local resistance fighters to add his skillset to their struggle. After some prodding by a Frenchman named Luc, he decides to take up arms, fists and his razor-wit against the invaders. But he's not that happy about it. Blowing things up and headbutting Nazis is all well and good, but Devlin has a nasty history to deal with as well.
The Saboteur was 2009's Best of E3 winner, and sure it's no head-scratcher. Here is a game in which the science of game development has been sliced away with a scalpel to reveal the bloody red art of things. As you control Sean through various missions involving sneaking, shooting, brawling, exploding, maiming and generally putting the wind up the Nazis, The Saboteur just piles on the charm. Convincing open-world? Check. Rich, gorgeous environments? Check. Solid AI system? Check - and damn, they've seen me yet again! The Saboteur is an absolute must for the Christmas gaming feast.
The game opens as Sean cools his heels in a Parisian T&A club called the Belle De'Nuit (I think that means ladies of the night). Luc talks to him about the situation in Paris - the bastard Nazis, of course - and appeals to Sean's social conscience. Up front, this is actually one of the more challenging aspects of the story for me. As Sean is goaded into rising up and fighting, he talks about the war being none of his beeswax, and that he'd rather stay clear of it. He also seems to object to Luc in general, and their conversation heats up. Luc eventually tells Sean to meet him in a courtyard near by.
When he gets there, the player watches an exchange in which Luc talks about demolishing a fuel depot supplying the German army. The troublesome part is that all of a sudden Sean seems pretty keen to get into the thick of it. One minute he's all, "This ain't my fight, my lucky charms are magically delicious," (not an actual quote) and the next he's all "These Nazi bastards bought their own tickets to hell, fiddle-dee-dee, potatoes!" (sort of an actual quote). This sudden change does leave one wondering, and it's a shame it happens so early in the piece. In terms of the game's core believability, however, this is the only overly-large pukeko in the ponga tree.
Demolishing the fuel depot paves the way for the player to learn the controls and some of the trappings that make The Saboteur what it is. As far as stealth-shooters/action-adventures go (there is so much genre cross over happening now it really doesn't matter what you call them) the controls are pretty standard, regardless of the system. What's cool about The Saboteur is what you can do, not how you do it. Sean Devlin, as well as being a badass streetfighter, is like Spider Man when it comes to scaling buildings. This is an extremely important part of the Saboteur, and allows a free roaming gaming style where you can really get around the city however and wherever you like. Climbing is a fantastic way to get from A to B and allows plenty of opportunities for killing sentries and setting up your next move.
In making his way into the fuel depot, Sean is required to kill off one such eye-baller before he can flying-fox down into the yard. You can roll up behind your quarry with the light footfalls of a kid sneaking down the hall on Christmas morning, and just like a kid on Christmas morning, break your enemy's neck or bash his brains out. You can also pick your enemies up and throw them, or if they engage you in battle, jab, kick or haymaker them into the next world.
Following a successful explosion in the fuel depot, Sean drives Luc back to the Belle where they aim to get a good night's sleep, a few whiskies in themselves and themselves in a few whiskey-eyed girls. The game leaps back to a prologue here, explaining Sean's background and just why he's willing to exact a bit of cold Gaelic justice on the Germans. I'm not going to spoil it all for everyone, but let me say that here is another chance to fully verse yourself with the game's ins-and-outs. Actually - this is one of the chapters I played at GCA 2009, so I guess if you're really keen you can always read the hands-on. In any case, some great cut scene footage, a hair-raising car chase and a scrappy bar fight help set excellent context, and present an environment steeped in period-accurate atmosphere.
One of the things you'll notice about the prologue is that it takes place in colour. Prior to this, the main area of colour is the Belle De'Nuit; outside, things are rather more lacklustre. At the beginning of the game, most of Paris is in black and white, with pigment only in certain objects. The lurid red surrounding a Swastika or the imposing flags of the Reich. Luc's blue vest. As you complete missions in the game, striking targets at the heart of the German occupation, more of the world will appear in colour. This represents the Will to Fight returning to the people of France. You will notice as you progress that happiness seeps back into the world and that cold European grey dissipates. Where you're operating in an area with plenty of colour, you'll find that the populace will come to Sean's side if a firefight breaks out.
The Saboteur has permanence in action, meaning that if you take out a target, it stays taken out for the whole game. This is handy intel to have when you're trying to work your way through a particularly difficult mission. Taking a step back and laying some ground work can really help you out. Destroying guard towers mean that the Nazis have no visibility in the area - ditto with things like machine guns. Doing the old sneaky-sneaky-whack-a-Nazi will allow you to get about your business with rather more ease.
A good example of this was a sort of hit-and-run attack I did on a group of Nazis at a party. From a rooftop I took them out one by one with a rifle, and between each kill, dove into a trapdoor crawlspace that hid me until the alarms stopped sounding. Such hiding spots are invaluable in The Saboteur (look out for them as green icons on your map when things get prickly) and as the dead Nazis stayed dead, I simply had to repeat this action until they were all gone, before scaling back down the wall and collecting the item I needed from the area. A few others ran over to see what all the commotion was about, but I simply shot them too. Simply. Shot them.
Being a game with sabotage as its central theme, stealth and disguise are incredibly important. Getting into restricted areas is hard enough, but moving around inside them is impossible unless you're able to blend in. After killing an enemy, Sean can take their uniform, and certain controls allow him to "walk like a Nazi," - which actually means nothing more than walking slowly and surely. When in uniform, Sean can carry weapons or enter restricted areas without raising the suspicion of the guards. A disguise circle on your map shows how close you can get to someone before they start giving you the hairy eyeball. Outside the map in a neat little circle itself is the Suspicion gauge. This will start to turn yellow if guards take notice of you. The easiest way to avoid this is keep your distance, don't go sprinting around the place, and don't climb anything. It's unseemly for Nazis to climb.
In your regular day-to-day progress around the city, it's just as important to stay incognito. This is easy enough if you keep weapons concealed and generally stay out of the Nazis' way. If a Nazi can see you, a handy exclamation mark will appear at the base of your Suspicion gauge, letting you know not to go around flashing your shamrocks at the ladies.
While the hand-to-hand battle mechanics are a bit spongy - the targeting system especially so - the gun fights are a joy to control. Sean will take cover whenever his weapon is at the ready, allowing you to use a bit of creative line of sight to work out your targets. You can zoom in using whatever sights your weapon has on it, which will allow you far greater accuracy, but will also keep you moving very slowly. Firing on the run is nowhere near as effective, but of course it makes you a far more difficult target. The range of weapons in The Saboteur is aligned perfectly with the types of guns and ammo realistically available to the resistance at that time and you will have enormous fun discovering them all. The main thing is to push through those early confrontations, because using your fists in a one-on-one showdown is sometimes difficult and frequently frustrating. Too often I ended up besting my foes with lucky over the shoulder punches when I was facing completely the wrong way.
Your ability with weapons, as well as many of the other skills in the game, can be boosted by the perks system. Each ability, for example brawling, hardware and sabotage, can be kicked up across three levels. These are based on targets you reach in-game, whether it be stealth killing a certain number of bad guys or using dynamite on a certain number of targets. This makes things slightly easier as the missions become more and more demanding, and is a good device on the part of the developers to have your character develop more or less as he might in real life, if he were under the same pressures.
Graphics, sound and story in The Saboteur are top rate barring a few minor glitches. Some of the animations are a bit sticky, and bloodspurt from a well placed round is cartoony. Most of the motion-capture work has been well executed, but there are little things that you'll notice don't quite work: again, much of this occurs during hand-to-hand combat. The music matches the action perfectly, and the main problem with the sound is some of the B-grade voice work. These aren't pivotal pieces of the puzzle but I am sure plenty of you will agree that we gamers are becoming an ever more demanding bunch, and really want to see quality throughout. While they don't make all that much difference when developers get them wrong, they're not that hard to get right.
With so many characters to meet and greet, each with their own unique stories, an active black market to take advantage of and the sweaty Midnight Show (download code for this extra R-rated content shipping with each copy of the game), players should get a heap out of The Saboteur. It's a complex game world, with a huge number of areas to explore. With it's R16 rating, there's not as much chance of it ending up in immature hands, but this concern isn't even about the violence and sexual content: it's more that it's very hard to master. Don't expect an easy ride of it. The Germans are savvy, and things are only worth blowing up, stealing or overhearing if it means big trouble for our protagonist. Seasoned gamers will rise to the challenge and enjoy every minute; others are liable to weaken and give up.
It's been a few months since I was at the EA stand at GCA 2009, and I am pleased to report that everything I loved about The Saboteur then has been carried over. Those looking for quality narrative (one that makes you hate the Nazis easily as much as Sean) and an exciting adventure to carry them through the summer can stop their search here.