When Pandemic Studios' The Saboteur was unveiled in 2007, it certainly caught our attention. The story of an Irishman caught up in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris sounded like an appealing setting for a video game. Inspired by the film-noir genre popular during that period, The Saboteur shows vast areas of the city constrained to a black-and-white gamut, with only the occasional splash of colour, which fans of Sin City will relish. The game is finally hitting shelves next month--almost three years after it was originally announced--and we got the chance to play through the first few hours. Before you read on and discover how The Saboteur begins, however, here's a clear SPOILER ALERT: This preview reveals substantial plot details from the beginning of the game.
Things begin at The Belle, a cabaret club in Paris's famed red-light district near Montmartre. We were instantly greeted by a dancer entertaining Nazi soldiers by wearing nothing but nipple tassels and lingerie. After this brief moment of titillation, we then met the game's main character, roguish Irishman Sean Devlin. It seems Sean has fallen on hard times during the war, and we found him drowning his sorrows with a glass of whiskey while staring nostalgically at a photo of himself with a friend. Frenchman Luc Gaudin strikes up a conversation with Sean, and you soon discover that he's a member of the French Resistance who has been observing Sean for several weeks. While initially reluctant, Luc goads Sean into becoming an activist, and once the cutscene was over, we went to meet Luc in the back alley to start our adventure.
In the first action sequence, you help Luc blow up a nearby German fuel depot. We drove Luc's car to the street outside a German supply depot where we were introduced to our first challenge: stealing explosives. Before that happened, however, Luc rushed to rescue an innocent Parisian being assaulted by some soldiers, and we had to give him a hand. This served to teach us the game's hand-to-hand combat controls. The Saboteur doesn't deviate from action-genre conventions, with light or heavy punches, kicks, and grabs performed using the face buttons. After brief fisticuffs with the guards, we earned our first perk: haymaker punches. Acquiring perks increases Sean's abilities, and you can earn melee, sniping, explosive, racing, and evasion skills--with 30 in total. You earn these by achieving specific objectives, such as killing 10 Nazis with grenades, which then allows you to carry additional grenades. The Saboteur features a regenerative health system, which means you won't have to worry about finding health packs when you're injured. Taking damage will result in an increasingly blood-splattered screen, but hiding for a few moments is enough to recover completely.
The explosives we needed were located within restricted areas--sections of the city that were garrisoned by Nazi guards. They will shoot you on sight and attempt to sound an alarm that brings further troops. If this happens, you need to remove your wanted level by exiting the nearby area and losing the police--much like in Grand Theft Auto. The Saboteur's minimap aids this process and reveals a variety of useful information, including the police's search radius, enemies, and objectives. It also displays your current suspicion level and, at times, a dotted circle around your character. If enemies enter this circle area, your suspicion level will increase, and actions out of the ordinary, such as running or climbing, will increase its radius.
After knocking out the guards and collecting some TNT, we made our way to the fuel depot where we were introduced to The Saboteur's climbing mechanic. Given the vertical scale of The Saboteur's gameplay, grabbing enemies and throwing them off rooftops is a great way of disposing them. Sean can climb virtually any surface he can see, and in addition to being the stealthiest way to traverse Paris, it's one of the easiest ways to infiltrate enemy installations. After climbing a nearby building and taking out a guard from behind, Luc created a diversion by rigging a fuel truck on the street to explode. With the guards rushing out to investigate, we slid down a power line to enter the depot. Once inside, we planted the charge to a fuel tank and then made a quick getaway with Luc back to The Belle.
Before we could get cracking with the next mission, we were treated to a flashback cinematic that took place three months earlier, before the German invasion of France. Sean was a mechanic and race car driver in better times. We meet his teammate--whom we recognised from the photo--Jules Rousseau; his sister, Veronique; and team owner Vittore Morini. We also meet Aurora, a race car that Sean intends to race to victory in the Saarbrucken Grand Prix the following day. Before that happens, the team meets for a drink at a local bar, the Red Ox. There, we bump into Sean's archrival on the track, Kurt Dierker, who is a perfect example of the blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan race. With typical Nazi arrogance, he provokes a bar fight, causing the attention of the local police and the Gestapo, which has us hightailing it out of town by any means possible. Once outside the pub, we meet Skylar, a blonde bombshell racing fan and love interest to Sean. After using her car to lose the cops, we make our way back into town, and once Sean bedded her using his Irish charm, it was time for some racing the following morning.
The next mission featured a three-lap race where we had to fight our way through the pack and win the race. The controls are certainly not as responsive as a dedicated racing game, but the action was still engaging as we raced to gain the lead. Unfortunately, before we crossed the finish line, Dierker sabotaged our victory by blowing out a tyre with a bullet. Incensed with anger, Sean and Jules disregard Vittore's orders and decide to destroy Dierker's car before it can be paraded around the following day. We tailed Dierker out of town, making sure we kept our distance so we didn't spook him. Eventually, we arrived at the Doppelsieg factory, which was Dierker's team base and a rumoured Nazi stronghold. We snuck in and drove the car off a ravine, after which we were knocked unconscious by the Germans. We then woke up in an interrogation room where Dierker accused us of being a British spy. It seems that in addition to being a respectable racing driver, Dierker hides the dark secret that he's actually a Nazi agent. Much to our alarm, Dierker kills Jules, and after leaving the room, Sean kills the guard, which gave us a chance to escape. While it's easier to silently take out guards from behind, we had the option to shoot our way out of the base once we discovered a cache of weapons that included a pistol, machine gun, and grenades.
By now it was nightfall, and one great section involved climbing out onto a massive scaffolding structure to get to another area. The black-and-white visuals were striking, with flashing-red beacons standing out against the dark backdrop of storm clouds and heavy rain. We accidentally alerted a guard who called for reinforcement and decided to make a hasty getaway by fighting our way out of the base and driving a stolen car back to Vittore's farm. When we arrived, the Gestapo had already appeared on the scene and were torching the farm to the ground. We then had to fight our way through the troops, rescue Vittore and Veronique, then make our way back to The Belle, which, it turns out, belongs to her parents. The flashback sequence then ended with a cutscene that featured zeppelins floating ominously above the Eiffel Tower and swastika banners adorning the Arc de Triomphe.
This prelude did a good job of explaining Sean's motivation for getting involved in the resistance, as well as hinted at the ultimate goal of exacting revenge on Dierker and his cohorts. Before we could plan our next move, Vittore was taken by the Nazis on suspicion of blowing up the depot, and we needed to rescue him from a slaughterhouse that was being used as a Nazi prison. The game then introduced us to the suspicion meter. Similar to Assassin's Creed, attracting too much attention will result in nearby guards attacking you, and openly carrying a gun, planting explosives, climbing, brawling, or getting to close to enemy troops or installations will quickly put them on full alert. We were also introduced to "inspiration." After completing missions, Sean's actions result in the local Parisians being inspired to fight back against the Nazis, and this increased resistance is indicated by the restoration of colour to an entire area of the city. It also results in the absence of enemy troops from that area of the city.
As we mentioned earlier, The Saboteur features an interesting visual style with various neighbourhoods featuring a full colour or black-and-white gamut, depending on your progress. In addition to adding a splash of vibrancy to an otherwise gray landscape, the inclusion of colour in Nazi-occupied areas often indicates interactive objects, such as the yellow rungs of a ladder or red lights on scaffolding. Other objects are also bathed in colour, such as Nazi propaganda and neon signs. Vittore's vibrant blue eyes and suspenders are bathed in colour as well, which perhaps reflect his zest for life and freedom. On the downside, we did notice some bland textures and models, but we're hoping that these will be improved before the game's release.
In addition to an eye-catching visual design, The Saboteur has some great action sequences and an interesting storyline. While it's a bit rough around the edges, with some textures that aren't as detailed as we'd like, there are a lot of fine ideas at work in The Saboteur, and we're hoping that Pandemic can tick all the boxes once the game is released.