Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Saboteur review


Using World War Two as a backdrop for its story, The Saboteur left me divided about whether its technical shortcomings obscured the dramatic setting of Nazi occupied Paris. I loved the vengeance-driven narrative and the use of colour to depict the city's oppressed state, but I found the game falling short of the epic open-world environment the first two hours had expertly setup. Those heights were never reached again but despite The Saboteur's many failings in execution and technical competance, I couldn't help but enjoy nearly every moment of this different World War 2 game.


Thanks to my personal interest in all aspects of World War 2, The Saboteur was already a game that piqued my interest before I even started to play it. The premise of playing as Sean Devlin, a vengeance-seeking Irishman based on the real-life war hero William Grover-Williams, in the streets of occupied Paris was a fascinating concept.


Using World War Two as a backdrop, rather than the central focus of the story also made a big difference to how I treated the setting. The absence of a clichéd Call of Duty-esque narrative was refreshing and the way the main plot wove into the rise of the French Resistance was an interesting twist. Even some of the unnecessary supernatural British Intelligence missions gave the game a bit more variety and Sean’s attitude towards his plummy English contacts was hilarious coarse. The only aspect absent from this setup was any mention of the collaborationist Vichy Government - a series of missions involving assassinations and pursuit of collaborators would've been really exciting.


It was this use of occupied Paris as the backdrop for the game that really made me fall in love with what Pandemic Studios tried to do. Cruising around in period cars, stopping at Nazi checkpoints and generally getting a feel for the city in-between missions gave me a similar thrill to that of GTA IV. The little touches, like German soldiers randomly interrogating groups of suspected resistance members, gave the city a sense of reality that complimented the authentic street layout and architecture. However, this feeling of immersion never lasted long enough for the game to carry as much meaningful weight as it could. Far too often the technical glitches and shortcomings took me out of the experience and exposed the inner workings of an open-world game.


In all honesty there's a certain amount of technical problems I'm willing to look beyond in order to have a good experience with a game. STALKER: The Shadow of Chernobyl was a game beset with critical bugs and errors, but the atmosphere of the abandoned city of Pripyat and its surroundings overcame all those problems to deliver a very unique experience. The Saboteur almost gets away with such deficiencies but the staged dialogue, floating enemies and the sight of characters and vehicles suddenly dropping into the world occasinally made the experience difficult to enjoy.

It also has a very stereotypical portrayal of its characters which oddly, feel entirely right for a game like this. Playing it too serious or with a sober perspective would no doubt of made the experience very boring and pretentious, but Sean is a walking Irish cliché complete with a 'top of the morning' greeting that is guaranteed to make any Irish native cringe. Every resistance member sounds like a variation on Pepe Le Pew and the Germans also have such thick accents that I was half-convinced dialogue had been taken from 'Allo 'Allo. But all of this stereotyping feels remarkably effective in painting a caricature of the occupation of Paris - it gives those darker moments a bit more impact amongst the jollity and showed me that the game was capable of some (admittedly lightweight) pathos.
 
One aspect that I appreciated the most was the use of colour. Occupied areas of the city within the game would be drained of all colour save for an unsettling red hue around the Nazi's and their crimson-blood armbands. These sections in black and white would only have colour restored to them after completing a series of story missions or subquests, like destroying a Zeppelin factory or assassinating a senior Gestapo officer.


Although the game promised that bringing colour back into the city would have a tangible effect I found it worked better as a visual statement of Nazi control than a gameplay changing feature. Being in those black and white areas for a period of time became depressing and uncomfortable, making the moment when a shockwave of colour blasts out over the city all the more meaningful.

This feature's greatest impact came in the game's prologue and showed a glimpse of the adult drama that The Saboteur infrequently delved into. In fact, the first two hours of The Saboteur contains some of its greatest moments and showed that beneath its goofy surface, a melodramatic story was at its heart. Showing the shadow of World War 2 in these beginning sequences was an excellent touch that gave the game a sense of deep foreboding. Going from the entertaining hi-jinks of running the German race-winner’s prize car off a cliff to a gruesome torture scene was handled well and it’s at this point, literally when the trigger of a gun ends the life that Sean once knew, that the colour drains out of the world.

The game never reaches those dramatic peaks again and even though echoes of melodrama occasionally crop up along the way, they don't quite scale in comparison to those first two hours. So I'd be lying if I though The Saboteur portrayed an occupied Paris in a truly dramatic or authentic way, but it still did enough to entice me into the world and enjoy my time there.


It would be very easy to criticize the game for its technical flaws but my own personal fascination with WW2 and the love I have for this setting means none of those concerns mattered in the end. The Saboteur shows that World War Two still has many epic and dramatic tales to tell if the narrative is spiced up and the setting is right. With its combination of melodrama and whimsical humour I was willing to look past The Saboteur's failings and enjoy its rogueish, open-world charms.


 



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