The Saboteur is incredibly frustrating. Not because its controls are dodgy (though they are) or because its camera sucks (though it does), or even because it's terribly fond of cheap shots (though it is). No, The Saboteur is frustrating because it's just this side of brilliant. You can feel a unique and vibrant experience lurking just beneath its surface, desperately trying to break free, but what you get instead is a solid, if ordinary, GTA clone. It's certainly not a bad game - quite good, really - but you can't help but feel that it could've been much, much better.
You play as Sean Devlin, Irish mechanic turned racecar driver, who finds himself in occupied Paris doing his part to ruin the Nazis' day with acts of sabotage both large and small. New missions appear on your map as they become available, handed out by the various freedom fighters you meet during your adventures. Though the quest delivery system is more than a little familiar - see icon on map, drive to quest giver, go do thing that needs doing - the missions themselves are gratifying. They may be as small as driving the getaway car for a Resistance fighter, or as grandiose as destroying a Zeppelin depot. (No, the Germans didn't actually use Zeppelins in combat during World War II, but having them hovering above you in malevolent fashion is wicked cool, so just try to roll with it.) Granted, they virtually all boil down to kill someone/destroy something/drive somewhere, but their size and intensity are varied enough to keep them from feeling too repetitious.
The Nazis occupying Paris are a particularly paranoid bunch, so you'll have to use a variety of skills, like sneaking, sniping, and disguises, to escape their notice as you go about your sabotagey business. Certain actions, such as climbing buildings or provoking soldiers, will attract attention if a Nazi can see you, but stray into a "suspicion zone," and anything you do is considered verboten. You have until the Suspicion Meter fills to either stop what you're doing or just get the hell out of there; once it's full, the alarm sounds and Hitler's finest will attempt to give you lead poisoning. There are several ways to kill the alarm, including literally just shutting it off yourself, but more often than not, you'll jack the nearest car and run. Figuring out how to circumvent the Nazis is almost like a puzzle game - do you try the quiet approach, or do you just wire a car with dynamite and send it crashing through the front gate?
Given that Sean is a race car driver, it makes sense that you'll spend a fair portion of the game behind the wheel, which makes it particularly annoying that the driving is so uninspiring. Get up any kind of speed and you're seconds away from some kind of collision - though to be fair that's as much the fault of the loose steering as it is the apparent desire of every Parisian pedestrian to commit suicide by hurling themselves at the front bumper of the nearest oncoming vehicle. The smallest twitch of your thumbstick will send your car careening wildly from side to side, which is particularly aggravating when you're fleeing angry Nazis up a narrow street. As vexing as the driving can be, collecting the period-appropriate cars, including race cars, by driving them to your garage is a fun way to blow off steam when you've died for the umpteenth time during a mission.
Sean has similar control issues on foot, though, or perhaps I should say "on hands." The Nazis may be out in force on the streets, but the rooftops of Paris are largely unguarded, making them the perfect thoroughfare for Sean to sneak about unseen. The climbing controls are simple - just hit the A button to pull yourself up to the next handheld, which is helpfully highlighted with a little shimmer - but the ascent rarely goes as smoothly as you'd like. Either Sean simply refuses to advance, or leaps in a direction you didn't ask him to, or the camera swings around so that you might admire those handsome ceiling tiles. It's not broken, merely annoying, especially after experiencing the silky smooth gymnastics of games like Uncharted 2 or Assassin's Creed 2.
If the argumentative controls fray your nerves, stop whatever mission you're trying to complete and just take a moment to walk around The Saboteur's version of 1940s Paris because it is truly a vision to behold. The streets and buildings are so rich with detail you can practically smell the wine and baguettes. Areas begin in a sort of noiresque black and white, with just a few splashes of color here and there, but as you harass the Germans, the Parisians regain their "will to fight," and color returns to portions of the city. It's a simple enough mechanic, but it's a visually striking way to convey the delicate balance between despair and resolve.
The Saboteur is disappointingly ragged around the edges - don't even get me started on what passes for Irish and French accents in that game - which makes its good points just that bit less shiny. Fighting the German war machine by taking small bites out of occupation forces, as opposed to fighting on the front lines, is a refreshing and intimate spin on a very tired genre, and the game's visual aesthetics are frequently breathtaking. Between the missions and the collectibles, you'll have more than enough to keep you very happily busy, but you won't really care much about Sean or his compatriots.
Bottom Line: With just a bit more polish or better characters, The Saboteur could've been remarkable. As it is, it's a lot of ordinary with a few splashes of inspired. Fun, though.
Recommendation: You more than likely already know whether or not you enjoy this open world style game. If you do, you'll enjoy The Saboteur. If you don't, nothing here is likely to change your mind, especially not Sean's overuse of the word "arse."
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt hopes there's some kind of award for "best burlesque dancer mocap in a videogame" and that The Saboteur wins it.