This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 5/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
Your base of operations is in a secret room in the back of a strip club, complete with peep-hole.
The Saboteur is a very novel game. For one thing, it is a fresh and appealing take on the stagnant genre of World War II-themed games. Essentially GTA in Nazi-occupied France, this game is pretty to look at and a lot of fun to play, even though its features aren’t as fleshed-out as one would like. The game is also surprisingly risqué by EA standards, offering actual nudity, plenty of F-bombs, and loads of gratuitous violence. While I don’t mind seeing more adult content in a game, it is disappointing that Pandemic didn’t find interesting gameplay functions for it. Instead, it’s all just for show.
Liberated areas of Paris will be displayed in bright, cheerful, pastel color; whereas, Nazi-occupied areas are black and white, with highlights of red, yellow, and blue.
The big draw for this game is going to be its unique art style. Areas of Paris that are under the control of the Nazis are rendered in black and white, with yellow, red, and occasionally blue highlights and complete with rain clouds and thunder and lightning. Areas that are under the control of the Resistance are rendered in full pastel color, in full sunlight and with birds singing. It’s a cool effect, and adds a bit of variety to the game’s otherwise uninteresting visuals. However, the colored areas of the city don’t look nearly as interesting as the black-and-white areas, and it’s almost a shame you have to free the city from the Nazis. On the other side of the spectrum, the black-and-white areas are just too dark at the recommended brightness level, and make it hard to see where you are going. But it’s nothing some tweaks to the game’s or TV’s settings can’t fix.
The game is also interesting in that it is kind of a hodge-podge of gameplay elements from many other titles. The core of the game is a hybrid of Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto, complete with car jackings, gunplay, and a living city in which to wreck havoc. In addition, the game has a building-climbing mechanic similar to Assassin’s Creed, sneaking sections similar to Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, and brawling that feels like many action-adventure games. It’s a nice variety of gameplay, and they are all passably executed. But that is one of the game’s biggest problems. They are all just barely passable. Although the inspirations for these mechanics are obvious, none of them work nearly as well as the game from which they are borrowed. And while they work fine most of the time, they are sometimes limited, clumsy, and awkward.
The game tells you that the Nazis will go on alert if they find a dead body, but the game does not give you the ability to drag or hide bodies. And when you are in disguise, you have to keep away from enemies or else they will recognize you. If you were a Nazi occupying a city, wouldn’t you be suspicious of a guy who’s zig-zagging across the street to stay out of view (even if he’s in one of your uniforms)? And the cover system just plain doesn’t work because most of the time, you are surrounded, and the Nazis can still hit you when you’re behind cover anyway. The objective marker is often misleading, as you will many times be required to go AROUND a building or wall in order to find a passage or doorway to get to the marker.
Other odd control issues: Why do I press the Circle button to put my gun away, but have to press R1 to pull it back out? Why do you assign a Sprint toggle to the L3 button (which works surprisingly well) that only starts you sprinting but doesn’t bring you back to a jog when you press it again? Why do I have to come to a complete stop in order to stop sprinting?
Free to play as you please
Need to relieve some stress? Just walk up to a Nazi soldier and punch him in the face!
One of the things that actually makes this game a step up from Grand Theft Auto IV is the inclusion of Free Play content. While older GTA games were full of hidden things to find and do, they were usually just boring, awkward item-collecting. In Saboteur, however, the city is littered with Nazi installations and officers, and in between missions, you are free to wander the city and blow up whatever you want to rid the city from the Nazi scum.
Watchtowers, propaganda speakers, sniper towers, parked tanks, Gestapo agents and so forth are scattered about waiting for you to blow up or kill. Destroying these Free Play targets also has REAL effects on gameplay. Do you have a mission coming up where you target is surrounded by sniper posts and machine gun nests? Well, blow those up before the mission starts and you might find that previously impossible mission is suddenly a whole lot easier! Destroying Free Play targets also nets you money to buy weapons, ammo, and getaway cars.
However, since the Nazis never bother to rebuild or replace any of these infrastructures, it does kind of reduce the immersion and takes away from the sense of being in an active fight for the city, since once you leave the Nazi search radius after destroying a target, they forget that you were ever there. But still, the Free Play targets are a great addition, and there are probably well over a thousand of them to find (don’t worry, the game has maps for you to buy that show their location). There are also some passive Free Play events, such as Nazis harassing civilians, which allow you to intervene to gain points which you can use to buy weapons and so on.
There's a lot of stuff to blow up in this game. Unfortunately, the Germans don't ever put any effort into retaking parts of the city that you liberate, nor do they rebuild any of the infrastructure that you demolish.
There are some other nifty touches. Your first headquarters is a closet hidden in the dressing room of a strip club (complete with peepholes), and when you leave the hideout, the dressing strippers will make witty banter with your character. Additionally, cancelling briefing dialogue will result in your character making silly remarks like "Time’s a wasting" and "I’m already in," which can really mimic the feeling of the players during times when you have to redo the mission and listen to a briefing several times.
Franz Liebkind disapproves!
I thoroughly enjoyed this game, and every friend I’ve recommended it to has loved it. It has its problems, but the simple joy of being able to walk up to a Nazi stormtrooper and sucker punch him in the face is a satisfaction that NO other game up until now has given us, and it’s a satisfaction that should bring joy to just about anybody who isn’t Franz Liebkind. Pandemic definitely was full of good ideas when they made this, it’s just too bad they couldn’t spend a bit more time to flesh out some of the game’s numerous features.