It’s 1940 in Paris. The Germans have rolled the tanks in, occupied the capital, hung swastikas all over the place and installed blaring loudspeakers informing the French that the Fuhrer welcomes second class citizens into the Reich. They might not be blond, they might not be blue-eyed, and they might be overly fond of garlic and long sticks of bread, but Adolf would tolerate them.
The resistance in Paris, however, wasn’t about to tolerate back, and initiated a fierce guerilla campaign of sabotage and slaughter against the occupying army. Not the French resistance, oh no; we’re talking about the Irish resistance in The Saboteur. The Irish resistance that consists of a single foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, sociopathic and very angry Gaelic man named Sean Devlin.
Stepping into the shoes of Sean, a racing driver turned anti-Nazi vigilante (aren’t they all?) out to avenge his best friend’s death, the player is faced with a huge map of Paris and the outlying areas to explore. It’s a sandbox environment which you’re free to explore, scaling walls, stalking along rooftops, sneaking in the shadows to infiltrate German compounds, assassinating generals, stealing cars, tailing SS officers and so on.
The player has the choice of whether to stick to the central plot-advancing missions, take on side quests for the likes of the French resistance, or just tootle around the city in a Grand Theft Auto style, seeing what cars can be stolen and what cool jumps can be pulled off. It’s always amusing to take a diversion here and there, and spend some time scaling the Eiffel Tower, or blowing up German AA gun posts, radar emplacements and tanks.
Any such destruction, climbing to the top of landmarks or pulling off a spectacular set-piece jump earns black market credits, which can be traded in for upgraded cars and weapons back at the resistance base. Perks are also awarded to Sean’s character for certain achievements. Stealing five vehicles unlocks a smart sports car in which to hare around the streets, for example.
And all this compelling, open-ended action takes place within a beautifully crafted Parisian world. The occupied parts of the city are rendered in black and white, gloomy and oppressive with constant thunderstorms, whereas areas you’ve worked to free from under the jackboot of the Nazis become vibrant and colourful again. It might sound trite, but this visual style is surprisingly effective and cinematic.
Where Saboteur falls down is in the believability stakes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For example, the atmosphere of the captured Paris is fabulous in many respects. The loudspeakers blaring out propaganda, the checkpoints where you’re stopped and asked for your papers, the odd Nazi officer beating up a French peasant on a street corner just for the hell of it. Get too close and he’ll wave his pistol at you, too.
Take out that officer stealthily and you can don his uniform to infiltrate German buildings where you’d otherwise not be allowed to travel, providing you walk slowly, in character as a solider. Running around will generate suspicion, as will getting too near another soldier who may rumble you at close range. SS officers can spot a fake from much further away, too, so really need to be avoided.
All this sort of stuff works well, but at times the game falters and the mechanics feel too false. A German guard coming across a comrade’s corpse may notice it and investigate the area. However, sometimes he’ll ignore it. Even dafter still, it’s possible to shoot one chap fairly close to another and his mate won’t bat an eyelid.
In a base infiltration mission we completed, the objectives were to blow up about ten targets, including fuel tanks, monster sized Zeppelins and a Nazi rocket. When the base alarm was inevitably raised early on, only the soldiers already within the walls of the compound came after us. We spent quite a while completing the rest of the mission, yet no reinforcements actually entered the base.
But plenty of troops responded to the honking alarm calls and arrived outside, which made getting away from the scene pretty darn tricky. However, it seemed quite odd that none of them dared venture inside to help defend their prize Zeppelins. Sometimes Saboteur requires the player to suspend his or her disbelief, and to a considerable extent.
This was a price we were quite prepared to pay, however, as we thoroughly enjoyed the tale this game told and the considerable variety in the missions. One minute you’re racing a Nazi officer around a circuit in a Grand Prix, the next you’re shimmying up the sheer walls of a church with a sniper’s rifle to assassinate an informant. Or bursting into a German base in a huge truck that you’ve converted into a giant bomb on wheels. Or wasting a Nazi top brass and cohorts at his wedding, while trying not to harm the French peasant family whose daughter he’s forcibly marrying.
Just touring the city, spotting landmarks to scale, earning salvage points and unlocking perks is good fun in itself. Or discovering the hidden mini-games, such as the bird-shooting range out in the countryside. There’s always something to do, and this is one of those rare games where we actually found ourselves not wanting to leave any optional quest untrammelled before we advanced the main plotline. And sure, that plot can be pretty silly – indeed, it features more rampant clichés than an Irishman has sacks of potatoes in his cellar – but like the game, it has bags of character (not potatoes).
One final moan though: we’ve no idea why the developer didn’t define a hot-key to bring up the map. We cursed them every time we had to click through several stages of the main menu to peruse the big map of Paris. Oh, and the less said about the AI drivers, the better. Actually, that was two final moans, wasn’t it? Well, we still love the game.