Sabotage. While men fight on the frontlines of war with guns and tanks, secret wars take place where cunning and caution are the main weapons. Infiltrating the enemy and interfering with their plans is a battle filled with intrigue and its own unique dangers, but the edge it can give you against an enemy can be valuable enough to tip a conflict in your favor. The Saboteur’s name seems to imply that sabotage will be the central focus of its gameplay, but the focus oddly enough seems to be on the safe and well-trodden staples of open world action games akin to Grand Theft Auto, driving and gunplay taking up more of the experience than intricate or involved sabotaging.
The Saboteur does put itself in an interesting historical location for its story at least. Irish race car driver Sean Devlin ends up stranded in France when the Nazis invade and seize Paris right after one of his races. Content to mope about his lot in life at first, a French resistance leader finds Devlin and encourages him to fight against the controlling Nazi forces, something Devlin agrees to do not so much for his anger at the Nazis in general but rather one specific member, a Nazi leader named Dierker who was responsible for the death of Devlin’s dearest friend. Devlin does prove to be an incredibly effective agent of the resistance though, many new characters coming into the story as the resistance effort grows in strength and influence, but Devlin carries himself with quite the attitude, leading to many interesting turns of phrase to match his feisty demeanor. His personal goal remains taking down Dierker specifically, but as you play through the game, your missions can take you all across Paris, the player able to weaken the Nazi hold on the city by doing side objectives or extra missions.
The Saboteur’s visuals are rooted in the era they’re based on, but it does something very interesting with its color usage. When you’re in an area dominated by Nazi forces, the area is presented mostly in black and white, the few highlights of color being things like the striking red of Nazi armbands or banners. As you complete missions or story objectives though, color can be restored to segments of the city, this change meant to represent the people taking back Paris even though it doesn’t equate to a full removal of Nazi occupation in that area. There is certainly a difference in their strength though, making any activities safer in a colored area than in the areas still monochrome. Paris is, as you might expect, quite a lovely city even when drained of color, but seeing it lit up properly makes it a reward in itself to clear out the Nazi forces. Old fashioned music on the radios and the classical architecture all around mix well to make it feel authentic to its time period, although the game sometimes use modern language that breaks the illusion of historical authenticity. The Saboteur also seems a bit indulgent in its portrayal of European brothels, the first image of the game being a dancing lady on stage, the main character setting up his base in a brothel, and the game originally even offering DLC to make the women from the brothel go topless if you were willing to pay real money back when the servers were up.
Devlin’s story of revenge and the retaking of Paris from the Nazis serves the game’s story well enough, giving you a few reasons to hit more bombastic set pieces like climbing aboard a zeppelin or working your way through a train to free a prisoner, but what the game doesn’t do a very good job of is setting up moments for interesting sabotage missions. Most of The Saboteur stays focused on shootouts and a lot of driving, and while some of it ties into Devlin’s history of race car driving, other times the game is just having you go back and forth between missions where you’re storming a building to rid it of Nazis with gunfire. The shooting does its job, shotguns, sniper rifles, and machine guns filling their roles when the moments arise, but the gun fights aren’t too complex. Even on hard difficulties, your opposition’s advantage is usually just that if you’re not behind cover you can die quickly, but you gradually heal if you avoid damage and can easily duck in and out to lay down fire when needed, shotguns great for clearing anyone who dares to rush you and snipers used for picking off far away foes. A bit too many missions involve you entering some area where you are encouraged to stay stealthy, taking down foes quietly but able to easily shift it to a gun fight without much penalty unless they’re packing something heavy duty like a tank or turret. There is an option to use a disguise to get further behind enemy lines undetected, but pulling it off involves walking too slowly to avoid being suspicious, making this option a very dull way of getting behind enemy lines. For the most part though, the gunplay is a bit basic but not altogether bad, but since it makes up most of the game, it wears a little thin. You get things like grenades to clear out enemies behind cover and some unique weapons now and again like flamethrowers to play with, but most fights are set up to be handled with direct aggression or a bit transparently designed to be approached stealthily to a point, enemies having their back to your line of approach and other obvious setups that make it less rewarding to pull off. The game does include the option to fist fight with your enemies, but thankfully it’s only necessary in a few early missions since its awkward and slow control makes it awful to use.
The constant presence of shooting can be swallowed well enough though, but the mission designs aren’t as imaginative as one might hope. Many will ask you to climb up some building, the game allowing you to scale any building surface with enough ledges to get to Paris’s rooftops, after which you might need to snipe an individual and then run out of a circle on your mini-map that indicates how far the Nazis are willing to look for you that updates if they spot you. While you can do things stealthily enough they won’t see you do it, when Nazis are on your tail, things become just about trying to leave their alert radius, after which all aggression immediately stops. If you stay to fight the radius will get larger though, so a lot of the times its about doing your job and then hopping into a car and driving around, hoping you’ll soon escape the moving circle and can move onto the next task. This alarm circle crops up perhaps most often when you’re actually involved in some sabotage, and the sabotage is often, unfortunately, incredibly straightforward. Most of the sabotaging done in The Saboteur involves sticking a bundle of dynamite to something and running away, the explosion alerting nearby Nazis but the player usually able to clear the blast before they’re detected, and if they are, they just escape the alarm radius. Almost all optional objectives in the game like taking down enemy sniper towers, eliminating German armored vehicles, or destroying equipment like radar relays involves running up to it when the Nazis are looking away, pressing a button to place the bundle, and then running off. The game rewards you with money for doing these optional sabotages, this being the way you can buy new weapons or refill ammo besides picking up dead soldiers’ weapons, and while these are technically optional, even main story sabotage is often not all that involved. You might go on a mission where someone else needs a ride to go inside a Nazi office and set off the bomb but you’re just acting as the getaway driver. It certainly seems like it would be much more interesting to be the one to go inside and need to discreetly place the explosive and escape. Instead, you’re a chauffeur and a soldier more than a saboteur, and the sabotage you do participate in is usually not as involved as one would hope.
The game does include some bigger moments of sabotage like blowing up a bridge so its not all bombings that almost feel more like pranks than sabotage, but most of your participation in the game feels a bit too simple. You spend a long time getting to a destination to do a simple task like killing an individual or planting dynamite, then need to drive out of the range of the angry Nazi reaction. The Saboteur’s problem is it makes you do the same basic things repeatedly to the point the mechanics can’t carry the burden placed on them. Gunfights tend to go the same, and then when it mixes in some new idea like you driving a tank or using a turret on the back of a truck, it makes them clunky and prone to problems like enemies abruptly spawning in that ruin the feel of what seems like it’s meant to be an empowering moment. Cars seems to abruptly cling to the ground instead of getting air when hitting ramps or speeding up hills as well, the game seeming to pull back from giving moments that could inject something more thrilling into experience than its run of the mill constant gun fights.
THE VERDICT: The Saboteur takes places in a Paris drained of color, its wonderful sights and creative people suppressed under the boot of Nazi rule. Unfortunately, the gameplay is dulled along with the black and white cityscape, the gunfights and driving being too flat mechanically too support the weight placed on them in a game nominally about sabotage where sabotage often just involves running up to things and smacking dynamite on them. The Saboteur’s simplicity might not sting at first when everything’s new, but as more missions and side objectives are completed, the repetitive designs wear down the player, with meaningful changes in play sometimes not executed properly to make them the exciting break from the norm they should be. Brute force is encouraged too much and there’s not enough push back against it for the game to instead embrace a focus on heavy action, with the weak implementation of sabotage failing to add any fresh elements to this dull open-world shooter.
And so, I give The Saboteur for Playstation 3…
A BAD rating. Like many games, sometimes offering more opportunities to do something that could have been passable only gives the game more time to show its flaws. The Saboteur is a bit deceptive in that it can seem like a decent World War II take on the Grand Theft Auto game design formula, but the experience is often slow, similar, and prone to small aspects sabotaging otherwise interesting moments. There’s just too much game for how little they’ve decided to fill it with, leading to a title that can’t sustain itself for very long.
The Saboteur didn’t need to make sabotage its focus even if that seems like a more interesting route, it just needed to make sure what it did offer was up to snuff. The Saboteur mostly involves driving about, meeting with characters, and getting into bog standard gun fights, with the breaks away from the formula in side missions even being prone to copying their same design across multiple missions. There’s little need for cunning or caution, but even if this were called Soldier of the French Resistance to be more accurate, it still lacks the punch needed in its basic play to make the liberating of Paris satisfying outside of the nifty visual component that is earned through too much bland gameplay.