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TVG gets down a dirty with the French Resistance as we get our first look at The Saboteur...
Pandemic hasn't exactly had the best of times lately. Last year's Mercenaries 2 was hardly up to the standards we've come to expect from the Star Wars: Battlefront developer and the less said about Lord of the Rings: Conquest, the better. Much like the long overdue Saboteur itself, EA's Pandemic studio has fallen way behind the curve with the current generation of consoles. Perhaps factors such as a heavy workload from EA have squeezed the margins of quality that Pandemic has been able to produce but one thing's for sure: the Los Angeles based studio is in dire need of a hit game.
And this is where The Saboteur could come in. The game appeared to be on some sort of a hiatus until a revamped website for the title was launched earlier this month. EA has now allowed us to get a first look at this Second World War sandbox game and, to our pleasant surprise, it's got some real potential. As the game's Executive Producer, Tom French, emphasised during his demonstration at EA's Spring Showcase earlier this week, The Saboteur should not be regarded as a traditional WWII game. Sure, Nazis are swarming all over the title's 5km x 5km game world, but the values of patriotism and honour that other WWII games espouse are replaced by racing cars, Zeppelins, and an Irish brawler for a protagonist.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
Why Irish? Well, the developer wanted a lead character that was more neutral than the usual American GI who bounds through war zones wailing, "Take that, President Hitler!" Pandemic wants Shaun Devlin to be a reluctant hero; one who is drawn into the French Resistance more through luck than judgement. Of course, once he's there, Shaun will be dishing out some patently Irish knuckle sandwiches while bellowing, "Ta-he, ta-hay! What a lovely day it is to be showing those Nazi ejits how we do things in the Emerald Isle," but Pandemic's decision to distance themselves from the usual WWII game clichés is worthy of plaudits nonetheless.
Taking place in an open world that's centred on a recreation of Paris and stretches off into the French countryside and German boarder, The Saboteur should mark a return to sandbox form for Pandemic, visually speaking at least. From what we saw of the world itself, features such as the lighting, some huge draw distances, a continuous variation in environment, and the depiction of Paris itself are beautifully stylised to the point that they intrigue as much as they impress. If the Pandemic team continue this momentum in the remaining development time, there's no reason why The Saboteur can't mark itself as one of the best of the rest (behind GTA IV) where open world design is concerned.
One particular noteworthy feature is the title's mixture of colour, and black & white visuals. Whenever Shaun manages to liberate an area of Paris from Nazi control, The Saboteur's default black & white visuals are exposed in full colour, which is a symbol of the hope and inspiration that he is bringing to the Nazi Resistance and Paris' inhabitants. Shaun does this by completing missions, the objectives of which tend to be built around the 'Saboteur' moniker. For example, a mission we saw had him battling numerous Nazis across Parisian rooftops before sabotaging a Nazi gun emplacement as the final objective.
Unlike many other sandbox games where you tend to be led through rooftop sections as if you're tethered to certain waypoints, the dynamic looks entirely freeform in The Saboteur, like it's just one of many angles of attack you can chose. It's befitting of the city where Parkour was founded and we'd like to see much more of this kind of vertical thinking from Pandemic in the final game. The developer is also promising plenty of lateral thinking as well though, with stealth being billed as one of the major features. Pandemic is being coy about the specifics of this stealth gameplay at the moment though and all we saw was Shaun performing a couple of silent kills. After all, stealth has been an illusive gameplay dynamic in the past for sandbox titles. No one game has quite nailed the balance quite yet, so we asked The Saboteur's Executive Producer, Tom French, whether the reason for Pandemic's secrecy was to avoid other development houses stealing their ideas:
"It's not so much that. There are definitely things from other games that have influenced us but doing stealth in a sandbox game is really, really hard. In a level based game they can script every patrol path and you know pretty much where the player is going to be, so you can have that moment-to-moment stealth gameplay. But in a sandbox game, especially when Shaun is as mobile as he is, you get 360 degrees of approach and then there's the vertical nature where he could be up on a roof, so you don't really know where the player is.
"So, with us we really had to treat them all as tools and mechanics that the player can use at their will. If the player doesn't want to play stealth and they want to go out all-guns-blazing then you can; it's just that it's harder, a lot more brutal, and you can get Shaun killed pretty easily if you're not careful. Part of the fantasy is having stealth but also we didn't want to make it harsh; we don't want to fail the player for not being sneaky because the player didn't want to play it that way."
No sandbox title is complete without providing a very good reason to drive all over the place and The Saboteur's comes from Shaun being a bit of a boy racer. His set of wheels, the Aurora, is something of a marvel. It's a vehicle from a bygone age where racers tempted death at every turn and Pandemic has clearly gone all-out to ooze that kind of style out of the car, designing a two-seat racer that Juan Manuel Fangio would've been proud of. One of the demo sections we saw, where Shaun escapes the Nazis in one of the game's opening levels, presented plenty of huge jumps complimented by slow-mo camera shots of the GTA 'insane stunt' variety. Again, it's a feature we'd like to see more of in the final game.
It Does Matter If It's Black Or White
Getting back to the black & white vs. colour visuals, Pandemic has been careful not to simply layer a black & white filter over the game and leave it at that. The style is clearly film noir and Pandemic has obviously identified that the key element for this style is lighting, not only with the contrast of streetlamps illuminating dingy street corners, but from focusing that light onto the lead character in such a way as to aptly depict his moody persona. Nazi symbols of power such as flags, tannoys, and guard posts are then lit up in red to contrast with the rest of the environment and seem ever more imposing as a result (the similarities to Sin City are intended).
It's these kinds of visual touches that put Saboteur on the fringes of fantasy as much as a World War II biopic. The fact that Pandemic is toying with this distinction is never more evident than its use of Zeppelins in the game. Of course, these daunting airships were decommissioned by the Germans during WWII, but that's not really the point. The Saboteur is surrounded by a world of its own creation as much as it is historically recreated, allowing the developers to tell their own story and design hangouts such as a cabaret club/brothel safe-house called the Belle De Nuit. Located just over the road from the Moulin Rouge, this burlesque house is set to add some pretty raunchy content to The Saboteur. We asked Tom French whether he was worried that this might cause some controversy:
"We use it a lot for mood and setting. It's one of those things where one of our big focuses is separating ourselves from the war, so having that in there definitely appeased it, fed into the noir aspects of our game and helped to separate it. We're not going for any interactive sex mini-games and things like that - it's just not what we're trying to do - but we want that mature flavour all across the world.
"There's the sexual nature of Paris and the romance of Paris, and obviously at times that means breasts in some ways to, but it's something that we wanted to feed gamers into the world. It's kind of like Rick's place from Casablanca and what's cool about that is that it's a place where the Nazis would be watching the women dance and doing their own thing but, at the same time, the people inside are kind of conspiring against them; it's a place where the Resistance and the Nazis all coexist in one place. It has a great dramatic effect too."
The Saboteur is still a couple of months away from an alpha build and it'll be interesting to see whether Pandemic can get the title out this year, but we'd rather they get it right instead of rushing the game to market. There's a lot of potential here, from an intriguing game world to a promising story and what looks like some fairly varied gameplay. Let's just hope this potential is converted into Pandemic's first great game on the current generation of consoles.