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Review: The Saboteur

Justin McElroy

You've got to feel for The Saboteur. Sean Devlin's one-man war against the Nazi party would have been a fine way to while away the summer hours, but here at the end of a holiday season -- filled with wonderful games -- it's tough to leave it thinking about anything other than its squandered potential.

It's a solid open-world action title, but it's one that hits just enough amazing, explosive crescendos to leave you wishing you could have seen it in an alternate reality, where developer Pandemic hadn't been shuttered and was able to give its swan song just a few more months of polish.

Gallery: The Saboteur | 36 Photos

Before being wronged by the Nazis, our lead character was a car mechanic/budding race car driver who had made his way to France for an elite competition. But all that is less important than the fact that he's Irish or, more specifically, The Most Irish Man Who Has Ever Lived. Seriously, half of the dude's lines are designed to show off either his brogue and/or his love of whiskey. Angry at Nazis and almost aggressively Irish, that's Sean Devlin.

As Irish as he is, Devlin's only one man, so most of his battling with the Nazis is, as the title would suggest, through sabotage. As the newest member of an anti-Third Reich resistance movement, he's typically called on to sneak or blast his way into a heavily-guarded facility and destroy something important.

If you prefer a quiet approach, Devlin can steal a fallen Nazi's uniform (provided that Nazi is brought down in a fist fight), which allows him to sneak into areas deemed off-limits to civilians. Unfortunately, Nazis are so sensitive to our hero's oppressive Irishness that you'll rarely be able to carry off a disguise for long enough to complete a mission. It's only occasionally a helpful system.

Also on the stealth side, the titular saboteur is able to scale most buildings in the game, though the climbing (which requires you to pound the "A" or "X" button as you gradually make your way up a building) feels archaic in the era of Assassin's Creed's fluid parkour.

No, the game's at its best when Devlin's on a full-tilt destruction binge. As an example: During one particularly difficult rescue I resorted to planting some dynamite on a fueling station as a distraction, shortly before stealing a car, planting explosives in it and driving my Bombmobile right through the front door, leaping from the vehicle at the last possible moment. Keep your uniforms, guys, I just drove a bomb into you.

If the missions aren't enough to slake your thirst for destruction, Nazi-occupied Paris is just littered with opportunities to blow up Nazi stuff like propaganda-spouting speakers and search towers. Each one you destroy not only makes the world a little safer, but also nets you contraband you can use to purchase new weapons and perks like expanded ammo capacity. Perks can also be attained through an achievement-like system that rewards you, for example, with a steadier aim after 10 kills through a sniper scope.

As you win these little victories against the Nazi forces, areas of the city slowly regain their "will to fight," which takes the region from a stylish black-and-white to a pretty, but much more conventional colored look. It's a neat effect; I just wish it affected gameplay at all, as Nazis seemed just as powerful and pervasive in colorful areas. As it stands, it's a good idea begging for more work.

In fact, that's a sentiment that pertains to much of The Saboteur. Gunplay is functional, but only just. Brawling is downright clunky. Enemy AI is often horrific, with Nazis either not noticing or staring in the exact wrong direction when you kill someone a few feet from them. The script, while adequately performed, is comprised entirely of clichés, which, while probably worthy of some Guinness attention, doesn't help the immersion one bit. There's plenty of straight glitches too, though it was entertaining when a compatriot ran 10 feet or so backwards to give me an important update from the front.

Like with so many of Pandemic's games, every time it skirts greatness, there's a poorly balanced bit, some clichéd dialog or a backwards-running guy to kill the momentum. (OK, so other Pandemic games don't have backwards-running guys, but you get my point.)

In the end, it's impossible to divorce The Saboteur from what it represents. Since the end of development on the title also meant the end of Pandemic as we knew it (the brand persists inside EA), it's tempting to chalk up its problems to collateral damage from the closure. But in a way, a game that's just a few layers of polish shy of amazing is the perfect send-off for a studio that consistently got within a few rungs of greatness, without ever quite reaching it.

Editor's note: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game provided by Electronic Arts.

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