Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Saboteur Review

Boom.

There are, by my unscientific 'pull a number out of the air' count, about a million and one games that are centered around killing Nazis. No other group provides as convenient and guilt free a punching bag (until someone makes a game about beating up KKK members who work for Fox news, Rockstar is probably stealing this idea from me right now). Even so, the well has gone dry enough for the big names to move on to modern age, more ethnically diverse, villains. Pandemic, on the other hand, has never been shy about digging deeper into abandoned territory; they pulled a decent game or two out of Hoth, which is something that had no right to happen after Rogue Squadron. Then they looked at World War II and said, 'maybe, just maybe, one more game.' Much to my surprise, they have pulled it off, and not just because they allow me to 'accidentally' run over french people. The Saboteur is a natural extension of Pandemic's Mercenaries series, another few games that I have enjoyed much more than is reasonable. It is also good not because of who I was killing, but in spite of it, and it still manages to show a side of WWII that actually hasn't been beaten to death.

When I look at The Saboteur with my cynical, critical eyes there really isn't much nice to say. It is not just derivative of Mercenaries, it is Mercenaries, set in occupation era France instead of a nameless modern country being fought over by super powers and a steroid laden Norwegian. The two games operate almost identically: get missions involving blowing things up, blow the things up, repeat until you are desensitized to all forms of violence. In my head I know that Mercenaries 2 was really not that great, but I smiled the entire time I played it, because damn if knocking buildings down with bunker busters is not a good time. The Saboteur takes the same sandbox structure, adds a little more plot, a lot more sand, and a main character that actually has more depth then a silly accent. Taking this formula and giving it a little historical context, even one as over used as this, actually makes it more involving. Many of the sandbox of destruction's faults are mitigated by there being just enough story to provide direction. It is still easy to wander off track and just dynamite everything is site, but more often than not it is caused by player ADD instead of there being nothing else to do.

Boom?


This is not to say that The Saboteur doesn't bring some of its own failings to the table. There is plenty of space to explore here. Not as much as Far Cry 2 or Just Cause, but big none the less, and there is no quick travel function. This means that when objectives are on opposite sides of the French country side you are going for a long drive. The first time through it is not bad; there are plenty of random targets scattered about to keep things interesting. The second and third times, after all the sniper towers and fueling stations have been destroyed, there is nothing to do but drive and focus on how bad the driving really is. The main character is a drunken, angry Irish race car driver named Sean with a shady past and a taste for explosive carnage (and slutty English secret agents). The game stays true the character, with racing playing a large part in both story missions and just escaping from enemy patrols. It's a shame that every car controls poorly, races are scripted to prevent you from winning or losing to soon, and you are generally better off on foot jumping from roof top to roof top than trying to make a getaway by road. I was not looking for a racing simulator, but controls beyond that of previous generation shovel ware would have been nice.

Once you arrive at the target and ditch the car (or turn it into a rolling bomb and take out a platoon of SS) things get right back on track. The Saboteur uses the same color change routine that worked so well in Okami, with new areas almost entirely black and white save for the red of banners and flying limbs. The Nazis seem to have mastered weather control as well, as their strongholds are invariably cloaked in rain and wind. The oppressive atmosphere rivals that of Stalker in its effectiveness, and when the last enemy falls and France explodes back into color it really feels like a triumph. Even the transitions between the areas are handled gracefully, with the color slowly fading the further away from free areas you get. The end result is the game looking much better than it should, at least from an art direction stand point.

BOOM!

Combat in the occupied areas usually begins with some sneaking around, but Sean is no Solid Snake; being discovered is only a matter of time. It is just as well, the sneaking mechanic is inconsistent at best. Some enemies could spy me from blocks away, but I could sneak between two guards and plant explosives on the armored car they were standing in front of without anyone noticing until it was far, far too late. Once the shooting starts there is a simplified cover mechanic that automatically sticks Sean to a wall when he has a weapon drawn. It works well enough, but is only required when the uber-Nazis from Wolfenstein show up and laugh at your feeble attempts to kill them with only two full clips of ammo and a grenade. Up to that point Sean soaks up bullets like he soaks up whiskey, which is probably not a coincidence. Combat can be best described as a serviceable distraction between making things go boom. Destroying towers filled with unsuspecting soldiers never got old for me, and it only got better when I found a tank to roll around in.

The Saboteur is simply more than the sum of its trite parts. As a jaded old man I know there are better games that I should be spending my time on, but the part of me that never grew up and likes to watch things explode doesn't care and just wants to see more. And then just as the inner child begins to tire and look for the next thing Pandemic squeezes in actual character development and real emotional moments, something that 'better' action games often fail to do. I had fun and played in through until the story was done, which is where it ultimately lost me. I had finally gotten my fill of wanton destruction and a reckless disregard for the safety of innocents, which makes this a fitting swan song for Pandemic. I had destroyed enough, and they will not be giving me any more opportunities to do so.

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