The Saboteur is a strange, hodge-podge mongrel of a game. It's got the open world and vehicle-nabbing of the GTA series, the free-flow climbing of Assassin's Creed, and the sneaky kill-em-from-behind action of any stealth game released over the past decade. It's also got lots of third-person gunplay, the light/heavy/kick attack setup of a roaming beat-em-up, and a system wherein you can inspire people to rise up against the Nazis - a mechanic that feels very similar to THQ's Red Faction: Guerrilla. All of these elements are handled in a solid if unspectacular fashion, and yet somehow The Saboteur is more than just the sum of its parts.
Surprisingly, the game's World War II setting is one of the main factors that ensures its overall success. By now you might think that this particular dead horse has been flogged into equine mush, and yet somehow The Saboteur shows that there's life in the old nag yet. Naturally it helps that we've never had an open world WW2 effort before, but it's still impressive how fresh it feels to go zipping around occupied Paris - swerving around the cobbled streets in a vintage motor and mowing down Ze Germans. However, the real saving grace is the way this environment is presented. When you're in an area where the Nazis are in total control, the game resembles a 1940's Sin City - moody black-and-white with the odd flourish of red; when you're in a neighbourhood where you've helped the Resistance to fight back, the city is brought to life in vibrant Technicolor. It all looks rather classy, and while the graphics certainly fall short of the standards set by GTA 4 and Assassin's Creed 2, they succeed in achieving a kind of stylish swagger.
Upon starting the game for the first time, you'll immediately be confronted by a big pair of naked, digital breasts (actually, this isn't quite true; there's an option to turn off the nudity - and on the 360 you'll need to download a free patch before you can see any "adult" content). On first impulse, I'm tempted to draw a direct comparison between these virtual mammaries and The Saboteur as a whole: they're both surprising, racy and designed with fun in mind - plus they both have an odd, not-quite-right quality that's occasionally quite distracting. However, with hindsight this observation is a little unfair. The naked cabaret that kicks off proceedings is really a statement of intent, a message that tells you that the following tale will be more concerned with having a good time than with documenting historical events. Yes, this is visibly Occupied Paris, replete with the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and other notable landmarks - but it's also an Occupied Paris where enormous Zeppelins glide through the skies, where half the populace drives a sports car, and where the German border is only a 20 minute drive away. In short, the whole shebang is larger than life (well, apart from the geography) - and this approach works just fine.
The Saboteur casts you as Sean Devlin - an Irish race car driver who joins the battle against the Nazis for personal reasons. Before the war Sean was on the cusp of a promising career, but all that was brought to an end by his dastardly arch-rival, Kurt Dierker - an Aryan wonder with Nazi connections. Without giving too much away, competition between the two men got badly out of hand, and one of Sean's friends ends up at the big racetrack in the sky. Sean joins the Resistance as part of a personal quest for vengeance. Devlin's character is loosely based upon a real-life war hero named William Grover-Williams - but like much of the rest the game, there's isn't much similarity between truth and fiction. Sean's character design milks every Irish cliché imaginable - he drinks and smokes a lot, swears like a trooper, and even says "top of the morning to you" from time to time - yet he's still a likeable front man, and you'll enjoy his colourful outbursts as he blows yet another Nazi to Kingdom come.
In terms of its structure, The Saboteur does little to buck the open-world conventions that have been followed ever since the release of GTA III. Quest markers pop-up on your map, revealing the location of an NPC who will dispense your next mission. You can stick to the core assignments and plough on with the story, or you can choose to explore one of the many side attractions. Even by the genre's own generous standards, there are a myriad of things to find and do - including hidden collectibles, optional side quests, cabaret shows and hidden gambling games. However, as we'll discuss in a moment, the two most important distractions both involve change - changes to the environment, and to Sean himself.