This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Saboteur.
I think I've realized the problem with World War II games. It's that everyone already knows how they're going to end! A load of fascists with hard-ons for sausages and hanging big red banners on everything take over continental Europe, spread themselves over too many fronts like a single-cunted hooker filling in for her triple-cunted friend, Hitler kills himself just in time for some Russians to come and laugh at his mono-bollock, then an entire subgenre of alternate history fiction is born. And stories concerning the French resistance are no less predictable: Allies will be victorious, Germans will hop onto the next sausage back to Berlin, and everything will smell faintly of cheese.
The Saboteur was the very last game developed by Pandemic Studios before they went they way of all underperforming EA subsidiaries, but will it be a glorious swan song or the last spasmodic twitches and bowel evacuations of a bullet-riddled corpse?
The first problem one runs into when pitching a French resistance game is that nobody likes the French. They're fine as villains or as mustachioed Lothario types who come to seduce our women, but the term "French hero" just doesn't sit well on the tongue. And neither does their cheese. HA!
Okay, then, why not base a game on the life of William Grover-Williams, an Anglo-French race driver who was tasked by a secret British operation to foster the French resistance? A better idea, but unfortunately no-one likes the British either. So let's keep the race driver thing but make him a hard-drinking, two-fisted Irishman. Yeah! Everyone loves the Irish. That is to say, Americans love the Irish. Sadly, the only voice actor they could find was the bloke who did Travis Touchdown in No More Heroes, whose best Irish accent bears about as much resemblance to the genuine article as the photocopy of a poorly wiped anus does to a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Saboteur is a sandbox game and the bastard offspring of about fifteen different sandbox games. Chiefly I'd call it the result of a bout of the soggy biscuit game involving Red Faction Guerrilla and Assassin's Creed, with inFamous taking the place of the biscuit. From Guerrilla it takes an emphasis on property destruction, although you can only blow up selected Nazi structures, because the Nazi war machine apparently builds everything out of potato crisps held together with Pritt Stick. From 'Screed it takes the ability to evade pursuing guards by hiding in things, but the things in question are about as easy to find as a virgin in a maternity ward. And from inFamous it takes restoring areas of the map, direct testicle assaults, and climbing up buildings. But the climbing is cat-in-pants annoying because main character Sean Devlin is Irish and therefore breathtakingly stupid, and you have to continually tap the jump button so he doesn't get distracted by thoughts of Guinness and leprechauns and stuff like that.
At this point, The Saboteur seems to be just the thing for people who played any sandboxed game this year but felt like it was just a little bit not mediocre enough. So does The Saboteur have no unique features? Well, it does have this arty thing going on, where Nazi-controlled areas are all in black and white Schindler's List mode, while liberated areas are all colorful and shiny places where accordion players can sell onions free of oppression. Getting rid of all the monochrome becomes the main incentive for liberating the city--besides, you know, morality and justice and shit like that--because the heavy black shadows make it impossible to tell what the fuck's going on, whether you're about to plough through a flimsy fence or smack into a brick wall. Or if the evil goose-stepping Nazi upon whom you're about to commit vehicular homicide is actually an elderly French woman in a funny hat. And this isn't helped when you jump into a car and by default the camera stares at the fucking ground like it's being scolded by the teacher.
Paris is one of those old European cities where the roads have been built up over the centuries from the ancient dirt tracks where some proto-Frenchman long ago left his sickly goat out in the sun to create the very first disgusting cheese. So that leaves us with a lot of narrow, twisty roads inhabited by lots of nuns, poodles, and strolling lovers in the brief moments before they all get tangled up in your wheel arches. And the missions have a terrible habit of making you drive tediously all the way across the map between objectives. It's like they've got a grudge against nuns. Perhaps Sean went to a Catholic school.
The missions themselves generally involve entering an area the Nazis would rather you didn't, finding a prisoner, an enemy, or a piece of equipment and either freeing them, killing them, or breaking it. To do this, you either take the sneaky approach by stealing an enemy uniform, slowly walking around the guards and taking them out with silenced attacks with nobody looking, or you take the direct approach, run screaming in the front door spraying bullets, get your potatoes shot off by three snipers you didn't notice, die, reload, then take the sneaky approach instead. Some missions don't let you do the sneaky mode, not that you'll know that until you actually start it. This one time I blew all my money on a silenced machine gun in preparation for a big mission, then the alarm was set off the moment I arrived. It was rather embarrassing, really, like I'd shown up to a dinner party in my gimp suit.
I guess there are few games that give you an achievement for hurling yourself off the top of the Eiffel Tower and landing in a pond, so The Saboteur can at least hold my attention, but it just doesn't have any identity of its own. It seems more like a grab bag of sandbox game features that other games have done better, all spread unappealingly thin like green shamrock-filled butter. There is no emphasis on any one mechanic that could have added a tasty layer of marmite.
The only innovation it could hope to have is in the story department, since very few games have a protagonist who talks like the thing from the Lucky Charms box. But as I implied at the start, game stories just lose a big chunk of intrigue the moment Nazis get involved. I've honestly lost count of all the ways I've killed Nazis in my life as a gamer. I've killed them in linear first and third person, sandbox first and third person, I've shot their planes down in flight sims, I've invaded their installations in RTSes, and in the Indiana Jones adventure games I've point-and-clicked their lights out. Now The Saboteur has let me beat the Nazis in a go-kart race, so all I have to do now to have the full collection is smack a Nazi to death with a Guitar Hero controller.
No-one to throw stones when it comes to bad Irish accents: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I wonder if William Grover-Williams ever preferred to be called "Double Bill"
Happy new year I suppose