Game Review: The Saboteur - Visit Paris for the holidays and kill some Nazis

I want to waste my own time, not have a game waste it for me. Now, normally I hate it when people complain at length about how games are a waste of time, an accusation the presupposes all kinds of assumed truths about what time is “for” that I don't think deserve to be treated as given. When it's my time to use as I please, I determine what is and isn't a waste. And I have determined that it is a waste of my time for a game to have me drive across occupied Paris, passing through several Nazi checkpoints, and then getting out of the car to talk to some guy who then tells me to drive back where I just was and talk to some other guy. Sure, I can stop along the way as I go to and fro, blowing up sniper towers or anti-aircraft guns or assassinating Nazi generals (and those things are fun!), but when I just want to get on with the game, these kinds of mindless, actionless, fetch missions really are just a waste of my time. And that sums up my feelings on Saboteur – there's a decent amount of fun to be had here, but it's padded out by a lot of waste and repetition.

As mentioned, the game is set in Nazi-Occupied Paris and environs. As the action starts, Paris is rendered in film-noir black and white, with dashes of Nazi red and Resistance blue. It's a striking look that sets the mood but sometimes makes it hard to tell what's going on, especially in shadowy sections. You play Sean Devlin, an Irish race car driver who gets swept up in the war while driving for a small family racing team. When the evil Nazi driver cheats and is also revealed to be an SS torturer extraordinaire, it is on. Sean is recruited by the resistance and launches a vengeance-driven guerrilla war. As he wins back sections of the city, color returns to the City of Lights, banishing the black and whites. As the far-fetched but not un-engaging plot unfolds, Sean's exploits go from dangerous to Hollywood-ludicrous. There are chases through burning zeppelins, raids on Nazi castles to steal race cars, and numerous running gun battles across the rooftops and streets of Paris.

Saboteur is an open world game very much along the lines of Grand Theft Auto, although it has even more in common with this year's Red Faction: Guerrilla. Like that tale of Martian revolution, Saboteur has plenty of enemy targets all over Paris to attack as you please. Usually this involves sneaking up and placing dynamite on them, but the game gives you several ways to tackle any target (most of the time). That said, the destruction pales in comparison to the exciting, physics-based demolition of Red Faction, and while I never quite grew bored of blowing up Nazi installations, it was pretty repetitive. The only way to inspire a neighborhood from black and white to Technicolor is by completing the game's scripted mission, so destroying random targets only gives you money to spend on gear. I much preferred the influence-level system in Red Faction, where every action had a tangible effect on the enemy. And since there's no penalty for Sean's dying except that he loses whatever weapons he was carrying, the game effectively encourages suicide missions (getting replacement weapons is free and easy). So while the sabotaging is fun, it feels weirdly disconnected from the rest of the game, almost like a way of mining gold instead of actually fighting the Nazis.

Also like GTA and many other open world games, Saboteur has an alert system. Piss off the Nazis or let them see through your disguise, and they blow whistles and sound alarms. As is typical, you need to get out of sight and out of the search area to cancel the alarm. Saboteur adds hiding places, which are nice but often inconveniently located on rooftops, and a few special locations where you can rally the resistance and make a stand against the Nazis. This latter idea is cool, but I never ended up using it unless it was part of a mission, because I seldom tripped alarms anywhere near these resistance points. So most of the time an alert means running or driving around for a while until it ends. I'm frankly sick to death of this game mechanic. The fleeing itself isn't much fun for me, and just seems to take forever sometimes. It interrupts the game flow and, to me anyway, seems a waste of time. It's a personal taste thing, and your mileage may vary, but there will definitely be a lot of miles spent running away.

All in all, Saboteur is just an OK game. The core setting and idea offer plenty of possibilities, and the pulp-action tone of the ridiculous story is a nice change of pace from other World War 2 games. At the same time, moments meant to thrill, like the aforementioned Zeppelin mission, seem flat and and under-executed. The driving is fine, but there's a lot more of it (including multiple car races) than I liked. The climbing buildings is fun on the way up, but an unpredictable frustration-fest when you're trying to climb back down. The shooting is decent, but a little unpredictable. The game makes up for this by making Sean capable of absorbing a massive amount of enemy gunfire, which saves on the frustration but can also seem silly at points, so I'm of mixed feelings about it. I had fun with Saboteur but it never thrilled me, and it was always easy to put down.

Saboteur is available for PC for $50 and Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 for $60 (although you can get it on sale many places).

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