Crispy Gamer

The Saboteur (PS3)

The Saboteur is not an easy game to like.

The whole operation feels like Grand Theft Auto: Europe. That might have been interesting three or four years ago. But GTA's gameplay isn't aging well. As slick and as polished as Grand Theft Auto IV was, as terrific as the characters and storylines were -- Roman, you lovable, heartbreaking bastard -- I never got through the game.

And how I tried! I tried again with the recently released The Ballad of Gay Tony. I told myself, "This time, I'm getting through this! This time, things will be different." I forced myself to play through no fewer than three Gay Tony missions each night. But one night I forgot to do my three missions.

I have yet to go back to the game.

I am weary of the drive-here-do-that-drive-there-do-this formula. And I have been weary of it for a few years now. Also: If you find that you need to implement a do-your-homework-style strategy in order to get through a game, you're probably playing the wrong game.

The Saboteur
Look out! Old-time-y car coming through! HOOONNNNKKK.

Hijacking a car was such a heady, empowering moment in 2001. There was a tangible look-out-world feeling when I tooled around GTA III's Liberty City for the first time, blowing through red lights and sounding my horn. The simplest things, like having an apartment to sleep in, or having a car to drive, or better still, having a garage in which you can park said car, were exciting then. But nearly 10 years later -- can you believe it's been almost 10 years? -- it's not that novel anymore.

I remember when I first realized that I could fly a plane in GTA III. My response: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN FLY A PLANE IN THIS GAME?"

Now, if a game doesn't let you fly a plane, my response is: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN'T FLY A PLANE IN THIS GAME?"

How things have changed.

I think The Saboteur would have gotten a warmer reception from me if it had gone into a time machine and come out three or four years ago. As it stands, here at the tail end of what has a been a strong release year, it feels like a game that was made in a biosphere by a group of people who were obviously very talented and very gifted, but who were not receiving news, especially game news, from the outside world.

The world has changed. And here's The Saboteur, showing up in December, late to the 2009 party, the wrong game for the wrong time.

The Saboteur
"I think I'll hang around up here for awhile, enjoy a smoke, and act like a jerk."

The game tells the story of the hard-boozing, race-car-driving, womanizing, Irish bachelor named Sean Devlin. He's the embodiment of so many clich?s that he actually manages to be vaguely interesting on occasion. When Devlin loses a car race unfairly to a clich?d German, his quest for revenge winds up getting his French friend, Jules, tortured and killed.

This leads the mourning Devlin to Paris, where he connects with Jules' attractive skirt-wearing sister. He joins the French Resistance and holes up in (of all places) the back room of a La Cage aux Folles-type boob bar. And so begins our drive-there-do-this roster of missions.

Following the GTA blueprint to the letter, Devlin is introduced to various characters who give him things to do and reward him with contraband and weapons in return. Frankly, most of the missions aren't terribly interesting, and I seemed to complete a large percentage of them merely by luck. For example, one mission had me assassinating a German officer who had cut off the hand of a Resistance fighter. First try: I sniped his bodyguards, then shot him. Fail. Second try: I attempted to fight all three in hand-to-hand combat. Fail. Third try: I sniped his bodyguards, but left the officer alive and attempted to corner him in an alleyway and beat him to death with my hands. (The handless guy who'd issued the mission had asked me to deliver a message to the officer before killing him.) Maybe I encountered a bug in the game, but when I approached the officer, I was inexplicably rewarded with a MISSION COMPLETE message.

Huh.

Really?

Another mission had me freeing a group of French prisoners -- at least, I believe they were French -- from an outdoor Nazi compound. I frantically ran from cell to cell, freeing each prisoner while getting shot at endlessly by the nearby guards. The screen turned more and more crimson the closer Devlin was to death. Again, I wasn't sure I was doing any of this right -- it certainly didn't feel right to me, with the screen being almost solid red -- but suddenly, though I'd limped my way through most of it, and had gotten shot about 87,000 times, the mission was completed, and I was successful.

The Saboteur
Warning: Shooting randomly at these wine bottles could result in a MISSION COMPLETED screen.

This kind of thing happened early and often in the game. I was completing missions; I was meeting objectives; but I wasn't always sure how I was doing so. This loose, unpolished quality pervades almost every aspect of The Saboteur. The gameplay mechanics feel starched and dated. Running and gunning your way through the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris works well enough, but like GTA, it has its problems.

The camera betrays you when you need it most. The "snap-to" cover system more often than not leaves you frantically pressing the R2 button while a nearby Nazi with a shotgun targets your head repeatedly. Finally, the ability to scale buildings is a terrific idea -- Devlin can scale almost any building in Paris -- but unfortunately, Assassin's Creed II shipped only a few weeks ago, and the climbing mechanic in The Saboteur is almost crude in comparison.

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I realize the game is really just Mercenaries with cut scenes, and that this is a step forward for Pandemic, master of the story-less open-world game. But the writing should be better. It lacks the crispness and credibility that The Ballad of Gay Tony (at least, the first few hours of the game I managed to endure) has in spades.

But something sort of miraculous happened. Well, two miraculous things happened.

Number one: I realized how important it is to cull Nazi targets from the city. The city is littered with these targets, each one represented by a white diamond on the map. Getting rid of a target typically involves sneaking up on something, like a Nazi-occupied sniper tower, and planting a charge of dynamite at the base. Boom. Target is eliminated in a very gratifying explosion, and the white diamond disappears from the map.

I figured these were optional side-quests in the game, and decided to ignore them. But an hour or two into the game, I found myself stuck on a particular mission. I repeated the mission no less than 15 times. This is when it dawned on me that erasing a few more of those white diamonds from the map might make missions easier to complete.

The Saboteur
Another white diamond bites the dust...

After that, I was off on a surprisingly gratifying, totally improvised quest to erase every last white diamond from the map. There are literally hundreds of white diamonds spread across Paris, so getting rid of them is a time-consuming, and absurdly fun, task. Chasing away the Nazi occupiers also gradually brings color back to the game's black-and-white world. So returning to what was previously a grim, shadowy area and seeing the sun shining again provides a satisfying visual reward.

It's in these moments that The Saboteur transcends its poor-man's-GTA vibe and becomes something that's truly exciting and cool.

Number two: The game taught me who Madeleine Peyroux is (American singer-songwriter of French descent; very much alive, but she sings like she's from another era). She sings a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" in the game that stayed in my head long after I powered down my PlayStation 3.

Also: more bonus points for including Nina Simone on the soundtrack.

Finally, I'm sad about this whole Pandemic shut-down thing. And I'm sad that this is its last game. And I'm sad that I can't give it a higher recommendation than a Try It.

Sorry, boys.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 3 game provided by the publisher.