Hands-on: The Saboteur

Lead designer Tom French calls this world "Disneyland Paris." That's not exactly what came to mind as I jumped from rooftop to rooftop dodging Nazis, machine gun fire, and rockets, but French wasn't characterizing this bleak, occupied (and dangerous) World War II-era recreation of the city. The Saboteur features a scaled down, open-world Paris with oversize landmarks splitting the skyline (like Disneyland!) that trails off into countryside connected to parts of Germany.

The entire world has been stripped of color, save for those blood-red symbols of Nazism and oppression. As Sean Devlin (inspired by the real Grand Prix star turned SOE special agent William Grover-Williams), I attempted to bring a little color -- what Pandemic calls "Will to Fight" -- back to Paris as I took on a demo mission to destroy a pesky BFG.
%Gallery-49266% While French confirmed that The Saboteur is "content complete," there were still plenty of rough spots in this particular build. As I was cruising over to the mission start point in my Grand Prix racer, I pulled over to check out some commotion along the edge of a small, outdoor square. French informed me that this was a "harassment event" and that, in this build, I wouldn't be able to interact with it. I stood by, helpless, as a pair of Nazi soldiers executed several civilians. Wondering what I could do, I turned to a row of buildings and leapt at the closest facade. Denied! These particular assets hadn't been "tagged" for climbing yet. On to the mission then ...

I found entry down a narrow back alley, scaling up the backside of a house to get a look at the target. Climbing is less dynamic than in, say, Assassin's Creed, requiring a button press to jump up to a new position rather than simple, directional steering to automatically move across climbable surfaces. Still, French promised that any surface that looks like a handhold is one, removing much of the guessing game out of plotting a vertical course. While the climbing controls feel dated, they do serve to remind us that Devlin is more rough-and-tumble pulp hero than nimble, stealthy assassin.

The Saboteur does feature plenty of sneaking, though, which is the silent half of the "quiet in, loud out" gameplay dynamic that Pandemic encourages. Theoretically, Devlin creeps in, does his subversive service (plants a bomb, for example), and then BOOM -- fight of flight time. I flubbed that delicate balance, however, quickly blowing my cover as I stepped out into the line up sight. Let's just say I wanted to test the shooting.

The game's shooter element does use a "dynamic" cover system, which was still being ironed out, apparently. I had trouble getting Devlin to slide, snap or, really, make any effort to position himself into cover. (It should also be noted that there is no doge, roll or otherwise evasion action to perform.) There was no consequence in this demo, since it was in God mode, but I fully expect the finished version to feature a Devlin more concerned with self preservation -- the best offense is a good defense, after all. As for the strictly offensive move set, Devlin is capable of the standard shoot-from-the-hip or down-the-sights aiming (with traditional WWII weaponry), and he tosses grenades and reverts to his feet and fists when the combat gets close quarters. There are unlockable "perks," too, but French wouldn't talk more about them (I saw a "gunslinger" reward pop up after nailing a headshot).

I took my licks, but eventually made it across a series of rooftops to the BFG -- buying some time by sniping the lab-coat engineer who had armed the doomsday device and thus disabling an on-screen countdown. I planted my explosives, took a few steps back, and squatted behind a barrier, and then triggered the remote detonator (Pandemic has taken some liberties with respect to historical accuracy). Another such liberty, a Zeppelin airship, soon appeared in the sky (historically, just around the time Germany began its occupation of France in 1940, Zeppelins were scrapped for resources fed into the war industry). A single rocket blasted at the giant balloon ignited the helium hydrogen inside and the ship exploded, its skeleton plummeting onto a distant neighborhood.

Unlike Pandemic's previous open-world efforts, such as Mercenaries or Destroy All Humans!, The Saboteur is rooted firmly in narrative, not carefree destruction. The downed Zeppelin wouldn't have set fire to a city block, if I was to go look, nor will the player have other means to dismantle Paris instead of free it. French talked a lot about the scope of this project as I played: from city planning (each neighborhood will have its own visible characteristics) to the hyper-stylized color motif to the "historically inspired" set pieces. There's a revenge story: Devlin versus rival race car driver turned maniacal Nazi war criminal. There's a love story: French left it at "love triangle." And then there's the war story: the battle over territories (once one is secured and colorized by the Resistance, you won't have to worry about protecting it, except during a few scripted plot events).

Of course, there's no way to judge these concepts in action during a brief mission demo. French did fire up some additional scenes, showing off an interior space, one of several, which serve to balance the open-ended gameplay of the "outside" world. These segments will be played more like traditional, linear shooter experiences, as we saw Devlin fight his way out of a Nazi-controlled manufacturing plant. French also teased a giant Zeppelin level, as well as the introductory racing event (literally, a Grand Prix race). How these pieces fit together, including the little extras in the world (there's a secretive, in-game currency -- we picked up cigarettes and tuna -- and undoubtedly a host of side missions and perhaps minigames to explore), will ultimately decide how The Saboteur ranks against the ever-growing number of sandbox games. There's a lot of potential in this offbeat WWII adventure, if not a lot of work to be done to fulfill the possibilities. Oh, the suspense!

The Saboteur is scheduled for release between Fall and Winter 2009.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.