Pandemic Studios' The Saboteur is an open-world action game set during WWII. “Great Scott!” you cry, in the manner of an exasperated Doc Emmett Brown, “Yet another Nazi-bashing game?” Well, yes – this is another adventure in which you dish out deadly justice to Hitler's cronies, but hopefully this one will be a little different. For a start you don't play as yet another Call of Medal of Honour of Duty of Heroes soldier, but as a pseudo Indiana Jones-style hero who is drawn into the fight for personal reasons; secondly, the game boasts one of the more interesting art styles I've seen in recent months.
Saboteur casts you as Sean Devlin, a racing driver loosely based upon the real-life figure named William Grover-Williams. At the start of the game's story you're simply a sportsman competing against rival team named Doppel Z, who are in turn loosely based upon Mercedes. In addition to motor cars this company is also making war machines for the Nazi forces, but you don't care much about that – until the Germans kill one of your close friends. At this point you're drawn into helping the Resistance movement, driven largely by revenge.
The resulting escapade will take place across a highly stylised version of occupied Europe (mainly Pairs) tinged with references to film noir, classic war movies and comic-book pulp stories. In other words, it will be recognisably set during WWII, but it'll also play fast and loose with the rules. You'll see Zeppelins flying around, for example, despite the fact that they were actually decommissioned during the war. There will be other slight deviations from history in favour of pop culture, and with any luck this will help to create a rather fresh and engaging game world.
The Saboteur's unique art style should also feed into this feel. In a nutshell, the visual concept for the game is that the Nazis are associated with a harsh black-and-white look, while the Resistance and rebellion in general is linked to bright colours. At the start of the game, when you're creeping around a German factory, everything will be presented in cool monochrome with occasional bursts of colour to highlight certain things: deep red for Nazi insignia and the blood sprayed from a headshot; vivid yellow and orange for explosions. It all looks a bit like the Sin City film, thanks the careful use of lighting to pick out the edges of objects and people; apparently its very easy for monochrome visuals to look flat if they're not highlighted properly. But then when you reach an area where the Nazis have been weakened, the world will be presented in a broad spectrum of colour, an upbeat contrast to the oppressive look of the heavily-controlled areas.
These playful aesthetics aren't just for show, either. As you roam around and take out Nazi emplacements, you'll bring colour to the place and instil what is referred to as The Will To Fight. In short, this means that other people in the vicinity will join your cause and come to your aid when a battle breaks out. You'll never completely rid an area of Nazis, but raising TWTF will reduce the amount of enemy patrols and will generally make your life easier – to the extent that you can go in and “soften up” a location before attempting a particularly difficult mission. In Paris, where roughly 60 per cent of the game is set, you'll be able to climb up the Eiffel Tower and look out over the whole city, enabling you to see exactly where shoots of Resistance are sprouting through the cracks of oppression.
And when I say that you'll climb the Eiffel Tower, I don't mean that you'll be taking the lift. In addition to being a hotshot racing driver, Mr Devlin happens to be rather good at clambering up things like monkey. It might take you a while, but with perseverance you'll be able to haul yourself right to the top of the French landmark. Naturally, he's also quite handy in a fight – capable of knocking out opponents with close up melee attacks as well as using a wide variety of guns and explosives. The gameplay that's been shown so far looks like fairly classic third-person action game stuff: machine guns, sniper rifles and the now-mandatory cover system. The latter will be handled automatically when you move close to a scenery object, although there will also be a button to send you heading into cover when you're a short distance from a crouching spot. The idea is to prevent that common problem where a player finds their avatar staring blankly at a wall because they didn't push the right button in time. Pandemic wants Sean to look like a rugged bad-ass at all times; that sounds good to me, but as always the crucial factor will be how the basic action controls handle in play.
What is clear already is that Saboteur should look pretty special – particularly when you're roaming the streets of Paris. Like the rest of the game, the city won't be a completely accurate recreation of its real-life counterpart, but rather a slightly exaggerated version based upon its representation in other media – Amelie has been mentioned as one strong influence. Pandemic says that its in-house Odin engine has allowed it to build complicated-looking structures out of “Lego blocks” (ie. Re-usable components) without resorting to the identikit cookie-cutter effect that sometimes affects large open world games; apparently it also pulls off some form of trickery in terms of only drawing and rendering models that can be directly seen at any given time.
However it works, Odin certainly seems to be doing a good job. At first glance The Saboteur's virtual Paris seems to have nailed the city's rich variety – the higgledy-piggledy rooftops, and a wide variety of places to visit. In addition to the high-brow landmarks like the Tower and the Sacre Coeur, you'll also be able to find the notorious Moulin Rouge; I'm not sure whether you can go in, but there's a nearby brothel that plays an important role in the story. Sean himself doesn't seem too phased by this seedier side of the city: one of the first trailers shows him heartily snogging a courtesan. Ah, Paris.
There's no arguing that Pandemic is trying to do something a bit different with this game – in terms of its look, at least. As I've said, the core action looks like it will be fairly close to things we've played before, but this is no bad thing if it's carried off well. One early set piece involves racing through Germany in a bid to jump the French border (quite literally, as you have to leap a bridge to pull this off). As Sean drives through the countryside he passes Frenchmen fighting off the invading German forces in the roads, with bombers roaring in the skies overhead. It looks like exciting stuff, so let's hope it's equally as fun to play. For now, I'm happy to say that the Pleasantville-meets-Sin City art style looks extremely cool. The Pandemic developers at this week's demo seemed to be placing a lot of emphasis on the game's story too, so it'll be interesting to hear a bit more on that front. There's no concrete release date for The Saboteur yet, but we're told we can expect an announcement within two to four weeks. Stay tuned for more details.
The Saboteur will be released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year.