There is a game that will let you shoot Nazis, fire rockets at zeppelins, hang out in a brothel, climb the Eiffel Tower, oh, and try to maintain your career as a race car driver during all this. Sound good?
Novelty is not a predictor of quality. So, really, who knows how good EA's holiday game The Saboteur will be any good. I haven't played it.
But, until earlier this week, I didn't really understand The Saboteur either. The game's lead designer from EA's Pandemic Studios, Tom French, remedied that by spending about 20 minutes demonstrating the game in a rented New York City nightclub earlier this week. And while I can't say whether the game will veer toward unusual-good or unusual-bad, I can at least report that The Saboteur is rightly described as not just another World War II game.
The game is open-world and sits, in terms of graphics, somewhere between the Godfather IIs, Prototypes of the world and the GTA IVs, Infamouses. The hero is Sean Devlin, an Irish inspired-from-real-life, race car driver turned resistance fighter who winds up fighting Nazis throughout France in order to get revenge for a tragedy that befalls him early in the game.
The game isn't just in Paris, stretching its adventure from Germany to the countryside, with a good amount time set up in what French described as a Disneyland-version of the famous city. It's Disney-fied in its scale. The city is shrunken from its real-life counterpart, except for its landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, which is built to scale.
The game world and Devlin are rendered primarily in black, white and shades of grey, with splashed of red supplied by the Swastika armbands of Nazis. The drained colour represents a low will of the locals to resist the Nazis. But some locations in those regions, like the aforementioned Parisian brothel, are rendered in colour, a sign that it is there where resistance is brewing. As missions are completed, the game is designed to restore colour to regions of Paris and the rest of the game world or to take that colour away. When colour is restored, the locals will help resist the Nazis, making a quick escape from a black-and-white area to a fully-coloured one a dash toward friendly reinforcements.
In the midst of this game are some oddities. The Nazis, for example, aren't authentic Nazis. They are Nazis with bazookas and flamethrowers and anachronistically high-powered machine guns. Also less than obvious is the inclusion of some car races for Devlin to enter. French said one of these is aggravated by the Nazi's attempt to expose Devlin as a resistance fighter by messing with him while he drives.
Devlin's a good climber, can snap to cover, don disguises and wield lots of guns. So combat or stealth options are varied. He can also duck from his pursuers, French told me, by running to a urinal and using it while his enemies run by. Or... he can do the same by grabbing a nearby lady and kissing her.
One other game design quirk worth noting: French promised a persistence to the player's interactions with the game's open-world that is still rare for this genre. Paris contains several sniper towers and anti-aircraft gun emplacements. These can be destroyed and treated as collectibles. But some are set up where missions occur. Taking them out prior to those missions will register with the game and make those missions easier. I saw this in effect during a mission that tasked Devlin with destroying a big cannon. A sniper tower nearby was an aggravation that would have been absent had it been destroyed before the mission began. (One other Saboteur quirk: while that mission was timed as a race against the Nazis firing the cannon, the timer was eliminated when French sniped the scientist trying to fire the cannon. Then, he had all the time in the world to blow up the cannon and make his escape. That's an optional wrinkle, not a required way to play it).
The Saboteur is one of those games that seems full of ways that it's more different than the norm. As I wrote above, it's hard to say whether it will come together to be special in terms of quality. But what I saw looked enjoyable and imaginative, a game that deserves attention rather than eyerolls by those who are sick of killing virtual Nazis.
The Saboteur is slated for a PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 release this holiday season.