When Pandemic Studios was shuttered on November 17, it seemed less another casualty of the economy than a mercy killing. The studio, famed for franchises like Star Wars: Battlefront and Mercenaries, hadn't come up with a good game in quite some time, and its most recent effort, Lord of the Rings: Conquest, was one of the worst releases of 2009. When Pandemic's final completed project, The Saboteur, shipped in early December, you'd have been forgiven for assuming it was nothing more than a relic from a developer that had long since lost its fastball. But you'd have been wrong. Although The Saboteur is rough in places, its vision shines through. Maybe Pandemic's plug was pulled too soon.
|The Saboteur | For Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Pandemic Studios | Published by Electronic Arts|
Like the recent Assassin's Creed II, this one has as its greatest strength its setting. You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish expatriate who finds himself fighting for the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France. Although The Saboteur's take on Paris lacks the fine details of Renaissance Italy in AC2, it provides the same thrill of seeing popular tourist destinations in a whole new context. Sean can visit the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre, and much more, and if this city feels a little more compressed and toylike than those of AC2, the upside is that there's not as much downtime.
The Saboteur's other innovation is its color scheme. At the outset, Occupied France is under a pall, rendered in black and white, with red accents for the Occupiers and blue ones for the Resistance. As Sean destroys the German military's hardware and assassinates its leaders, he empowers the French citizens to fight back, and color gradually returns to the cities. It's like an inversion of the classic newsreel footage showing the Nazi menace spreading like a black cloud across Europe. The visual metaphor provides a good incentive to keep going.
In its mechanics, The Saboteur steals shamelessly from the Grand Theft Auto playbook. Sean is a rough-and-tumble hood who's equally adept at brawling, shooting, and commandeering cars for quick getaways. At least, that's the idea. In fact, the third-person gunplay is finicky, the brawling is simple and repetitive, and the driving, though competent, is nothing special. The lack of polish shows most clearly during the primary story missions, when you're compelled to adopt a particular style of play depending on the objective. Some play types simply work better than others. Moreover, you have to go back and forth across the map to pick up objectives — something that's been stale for years.
But the side missions are so much fun that it almost doesn't matter. The map is flush with things to destroy, from anti-aircraft guns to propaganda speakers. The Nazis on continuous patrol are more of an annoyance than a deterrent to your dashing from one German stronghold to another and planting dynamite along the way. Alarms are raised on occasion, whereupon the troops come out in force, but flight is easy: Sean can climb most any wall or building that he sees. In the open-world free-running sweepstakes — which also includes AC2, inFamous, and Prototype — The Saboteur lands somewhere in the middle of the pack. The platforming is slow and a little clunky, but it generally cooperates with player intent.
The Saboteur isn't a world beater, but neither is it the mere beneficiary of low expectations. With a few more months of polish, it might even have been great. This is a worthy final effort from Pandemic, and evidence that dire business conditions were what cut the studio's life short. Speaking of looming black clouds . . .