US: 8 Dec 2009
Sean Devlin is an incredibly polite saboteur. I only mention this because being polite is such an uncommon quality for the protagonist of an open world game. The protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, The Godfather series, Assassin’s Creed, or Bully for instance don’t bother apologizing to bystanders that they might brush past or knock down or roll right over in a car. Of course, all of these characters share something in common: lawlessness.
Open world games generally thrive on criminality or at the very least some kind of general social ambivalence in part to work. As I wrote in a review of True Crime a number of years ago, feeling a sense of restraint is not something generally conducive to a form that ostensibly wishes to gift the player with the freedom to do pretty much as they desire in a free roaming world. Playing a cop in an open world game seems problematic as the player’s “freedom” may come in conflict with the role that he or she is being asked to play. Playing a criminal allows the player the latitude to do some bad things and not violate the basic premise of the narrative. Trying to create a heroic character in a world where you might purposefully or even accidentally cause some collateral damage can be a tricky sort of business.
Which brings me back to the general good manners of Sean Devlin, the titular saboteur of Pandemic’s vision of a Nazi besieged Paris, as Sean represents a character that can be viewed as heroic (since he is on the right side in the war) but who is also a character that neatly fits into the role of criminal within the context of the period that he inhabits. That Pandemic has chosen to add apologies to Sean’s list of scripted speech as he traverses an open world points subtley at a way of skirting the problem of casting a heroic character as the lead in an open world game: give voice to the guilty conscience of someone whose noble acts are tainted by the means with which he must get the job done.
The “No Russian” sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2has recently caused outrage by asking the player to take on the role of a soldier taking on the role of a terrorist but The Saboteur is much less likely to cause any such stir because here you play as a good terrorist, a saboteur. Of course, Sean isn’t interested primarily in taking out civilian targets as the traditionally defined terrorist would. The saboteur attacks military targets that might only inadvertently cause damage to civilians. Again, the apology becomes a way of representing the nature of soiled nobility belonging to a protagonist given the freedom to knock someone down or blow some people up under the auspices of freedom and liberation.
Liberation is indeed the main interest of the game, and it is reflected not only in the liberating qualities of open world gameplay but throughout a number of the game’s mechanics and even its artistic style. The most notable artistic choice being to represent the city of Paris under Nazi occupation as a black and white world barren of most color (some smatterings of red, yellow, and blue are notable exceptions a la the art direction of a film like Sin City) that has to be “colorized” by restoring freedom to various quarters of the city. I commented a bit on the way that color informs the images of the game in my blog earlier this week, but it is an interesting convention that seemingly would work well to symbolically represent the changes that the player makes in a video game world.
Most of Paris is “blacked out” in this sense as the game begins. Areas visited by the player will remain bereft of color (these areas are also marked by rain and other general environmental nastiness) until a mission that allows the sabotage of a major Nazi installation in an area or the assassination of a particularly iron fisted Nazi official who has charge over a neighborhood occurs and color is once again restored to the area as if oppression can be measured in the physical world that Devlin occupies.
It is a clever idea and watching these changes occurs is generally fairly interesting. Unfortunately, in practice, this symbolic choice does cause some problems with play. The starkness and darkness of areas that have yet to be liberated can make navigating some corners of the world difficult at times. I found myself changing the brightness settings to help in areas that would occasionally become more or less blacked out, making movement and orientation difficult. Doing so is a shame, though, as the black and white version of the world is appropriately grim and foreboding looking and switching visual options all the time really removes the player from being fully immersed in what is an otherwise compelling world. One could chalk the difficulty to easily orient oneself in Nazi oppressed sectors to the game’s themes (after all, the authoritarian Nazis should restrict what can be easily accomplished in an area), but truthfully, it is more a disruption to play than in serving as a useful atmospheric purpose.
Similarly, some generally frustrating controls especially related to Sean’s movements (like the need for constant button mashing while climbing) becomes a restraint on the player that is less than endearing. As is the difficulty of really performing missions in a stealthy way because the world is so open. It is far too easy for Sean to be seen in the game, resulting in more firefights than a successful saboteur would probably likely want to be involved in.
Nevertheless, the game still remains fun especially when it focuses on the more unique qualities of this version of the open world genre. In addition to the main story missions, Nazi targets abound across the map (And when I say abound, I mean abound. There are hundreds of secondary targets dotting the map.) that serve as kind of set of free floating “side missions” for Sean to undertake. Running into a farm house on the outskirts of Paris that has several juicy targets, say an artillery piece, an armored unit, and a Nazi general, leads to small emergent side missions that the player can choose to be distracted by or not.
Likely, some players will avoid these targets and some will want to blow up everything possible on the map, but in either case, the option is always there for Sean to choose to liberate a smaller local target. Getting side tracked by these little targets is easy to do and adds a layer of additional interest to the game as you figure out how to approach these targets in your own way, but they can get aggravating after awhile just because they do tend to distract from what is going on in the main narrative. I enjoyed knocking these out for awhile and found myself skipping them as I got deeper into the game. Again, very likely, different players mileage will vary based on their own level of interest in these unique missions.
The primary narrative serves its part in supporting the various aspects of game play, involving the story of Devlin’s past as race car driver who due to the loss of a race and a friend to a Nazi psychopath now has a personal bone to pick with the Nazis. If that sounds hokey or a bit convoluted, that is because it mostly is. By trying to justify why Sean is a saboteur but also a GTA-style driver, the plot tends to contort itself into some unlikely shapes.
More compelling is just the general interest that the game has in playing around with the dichotomy between freedom and authoritarianism as it plays between the color of libertine culture (ranging from liberating the red light district of Paris to the paintings and sculpture housed at the Louvre) and the darkness of Nazi oppression signified by propaganda speakers, Nazi book burners, and the like. There is nothing especially innovative here in the notions underlying these themes, but the art direction and atmosphere that serves to represent these ideas makes the presentation interesting enough in a superficial kind of way. The game is fun to look at and (when some of the lighting and control issues don’t cause some minor havoc) generally fun to play. The Saboteur is not the most profound vision of World War II in media, but it will keep your attention by offering enough eye candy and interesting activities to distract from its sometimes facile presentation of the period.