In many ways The Saboteur is classic Pandemic. It's got a huge, 5.5km by 5.5km open world, with destructible environments and a mini-map on the bottom left hand corner of the screen. But in other ways it's like nothing we've ever seen from the sandbox genre. Firstly, it's a World War II game that's not a shooter. Secondly, the lead character is a race car-driving Irishman.
His name is Sean Devlin, as Irish a name as you could hope for. And, like most Irishmen, at least post 1918, he's not particularly political. This is a deliberate move on Pandemic's part, and a sensible one to boot. The Saboteur, according to lead designer Tom French, is more Indiana Jones than Saving Private Ryan. What he means is the Nazi's might be the bad guys, but at the end of the day their main purpose is to act like good cannon fodder and get shot.
Turning a blind eye to the politics seems an impossibility given the game's set in occupied France and stars a bloke who ends up fighting the Germans with sabotage, a tactic many in the French Resistance employed, but there you go. Indeed The Saboteur looks at the war through an interestingly stylised lens. The Saboteur is Pandemic's fantasy of what the war was. It's not intended to be GCSE Bitesize accurate. Devlin's in it for revenge. He's gunning for the Germans because they killed his mate while he was in town for a race, not because they threaten the entire world with genocide.
So, things like Zeppelins, The Saboteur's version of GTA's criminal-chasing helicopters, are in the game, despite the fact they were decommissioned by the time WWII came around. Some of the cars Devlin drives are entirely unrealistic, too. The Nazis never used shotguns, but for The Saboteur that's fine. Other entirely fictional weapons will be available from the Terror Squad, the black market faction that will sell Devlin tools of destruction as unlikely as flame throwers.
None of that, however, is quite as interesting as The Saboteur's colour-based tug of war territory mechanic. Nazi-held areas are coloured black and white, with areas of interest highlighted in red, giving proceedings a lovely WWII meets Sin City look. As a result, much of the French countryside is in colour, save for the odd barrack or road block, so when you drive outside the city The Saboteur almost looks lush. On the streets of Paris, however, things are different. It's almost entirely drenched in black and white. Paris, after all, is where the occupation was felt most.
Devlin can make a difference by dipping his toes in "Fightback Zones" - pockets of fighting between the French Resistance and the Nazis. These AI-governed battles happen with or without you, so you can decide to step in and help your French mates out if you want, or you can turn a blind eye and carry on with the story-based missions. But getting your hands dirty may be of benefit. Spend contraband, the game's currency, on improved weapons for the Resistance and they'll stand more of a chance in these Fightback Zones. When an area has been cleansed of the Nazi occupation, colour will magically rid the black and white from the world, making it much easier for you to explore. And, when you're on the Resistance's good side, you'll find them useful allies when escaping a Nazi pursuit.
While The Saboteur contains classic sandbox mechanics the likes of which we've seen in open world games before, including the developer's disappointing Mercenaries 2, Pandemic has spent a great deal of effort implementing the kind of missions we're not used to seeing in the genre. French shows one off: a train mission set two thirds of the way through the game. Devlin is driving towards his destination with the sexy upper-class Brit Skylar in the passenger seat. They engage in ridiculous sexy small talk - "I just like to see you sweat," she says. It's a revealing line. Up to this hands-on, we'd thought The Saboteur a refreshingly mature take on the open world genre, but it's dialogue like this, the recent release of screenshots showing prostitutes leaning on brothel walls with their tits out (yes, you can visit brothels in The Saboteur - indeed one is your base of operations), and Sean doing his trouser zipper up after leaving a brothel, that paint the game with a more adolescent brush. One of our key concerns with the game is that, for all the good work Pandemic is doing with the WWII/French resistance premise and plot, it'll ultimately be undone by a desperate attempt to get horny teenagers interested in it.