Sunday, 8 January 2012

Grand Theft Nazi

Though an incipient sociopath, one of the things that's always perturbed me about the Grand Theft Auto series is that, away from missions involving (fellow) criminals, the only fun to be had involves mischief against innocents (including, obviously, murder). How much slower my transformation to suburban psychopath would be if there were targets that could condition more wholesome Pavlovian responses. Well, Pandemic Studios (RIP) clearly share my concerns, and have adapted the GTA formula to include enemies against whom mischief is not only condoned, but is practically encouraged: Nazis!

Set in occupied France during World War 2, The Saboteur pits Irish racing mechanic (and stereotype), Sean Devlin, against a blonde, Master Race archetype, Kurt Dierker. After the pair initially clash in a (flashback) race that takes place near the French border shortly before the invasion of France, the action picks up months later in a digital version of Paris crowded with entitled Nazis bullying the local populace. While Dierker now crushes Paris beneath his jackboot, Devlin now lives out of a cramped hidden room at the back of the Moulin Rouge (complete with windmill!), darkly bemoaning the turn of events that have ended his career, oh, and led to the oppression of the proud nation of France.

After a chance meeting with a philosopher-turned-resistance member, Luc, Devlin's career prospects take a turn for the better. Before long he's sent on a series of missions that aim to disrupt Nazi operations in Paris and, as the game progresses, the neighbouring countryside (including an unexpectedly nearby Le Harve). These begin with simple mischief, such as destroying hardware and fuel depots, but they ramp up to more daring escapades, such as assassination missions and prison breaks. They also bring Devlin to the attention of the UK's Special Operations Executive who know of more nefarious Nazi activities that need a stop putting to them. Once the SOE have gotten over Devlin's Irish indifference to British activities, they have him interfering in Nazi plans to build an atomic bomb. Disrupting these further weakens the Nazi hold on Paris, and the resistance spots an ideal opportunity to exact a crushing blow during a showcase racing event through the streets of Paris. Who, I wonder, could the resistance get to take part in that?

While I left The Saboteur with a generally good feeling, and certainly enjoyed large parts of it, I can't deny that it may strike others as something of a curate's egg. Overall, I think that its good points outweigh its flaws but, boy, does it have some flaws.

First, though, the good points. Most immediately, Pandemic have done a great job on the setting, both the streets of Paris and the idyllic rural hamlets. It's nowhere near as detailed as the likes of Liberty City, which is fully-realised from skyscrapers and parks to seedy flyovers and side alleys, but it does an excellent job on many of Paris' famous attractions (and rewards players with viewpoint achievements for scaling them). Another great point is that, in casting Devlin as an athletic Celt with a head for heights, The Saboteur opens up the play area by allowing climbing up and over buildings. This is fun in of itself, but it makes the arena a proper 3D environment, allowing the player a hiding place (Nazis never look up) from which sneak attacks can be mounted. Devlin's athleticism is a little unrealistic at times, but it's still a lot more convincing than the ineffectual relationship to vertical space that GTA protagonists usually have.

As already mentioned, it's certainly an enjoyable change to have an abundance of wholesome targets (= Nazis) at all times that one can imaginatively dispatch. There's a lot of entirely-defensible fun to be had taking out Hitler's goons, whether through "careless" pavement-driving, a silenced pistol shot to the back of the head or, more bluntly, by sneakily blowing up their sentry towers. And on the subject of enjoyment, there's a load to be had from the game's humour. It's broad, and not always politically correct, but there are a lot of quality lines from Devlin, often as he taunts a Nazi that he's just "taken care of". A particularly choice piece occurs in the settings menu where, when switching off the game's (limited) nudity, Devlin remarks that the player "can always go to confession later". Finally, and in keeping with other titles like GTA and, especially, Fallout, The Saboteur has a great period soundtrack (alongside an already good game soundtrack). Most of the tracks aren't immediately familiar, but they add greatly to the ambience (and there's an excellent, haunting rendition of "Feeling Good" played by a dying Nazi in the closing mission).

But, as I said above, it's not all good. The most immediately glaring problem lies with some buggy draw distance issues when driving. Frequently the road ahead of me would disappear, both allowing me to see objects below me, and causing cars in front of me to fall into empty space. Worse, the "fix" the game's authors appear to have instigated to resolve this boils down to the game freezing momentarily then restarting with the road in place. Talk about breaking the fourth wall! Another frequently annoying issue, which is in part a consequence of allowing 3D movement, lies with the controls when in fiddly, confined spaces. On more than a few occasions, after planting a bomb onto a target, I'd find Devlin jumping back onto said target, just in time to get wasted by the blast. One other disconcerting feature lies with the game's vehicles, which can absorb a truly ridiculous amount of damage before failing, at which point they do so suddenly and unpredictably.

Leaving aside the game's mechanics, there are also serious issues to do with its pacing, which is really rather haphazard. In the most glaring example, I actually completed the game by accident - I literally had no idea that I was on the last mission until I found myself face to face, and packing a pistol, with an insane Dierker. In retrospect, I should have worked it out - I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower after all! But the last mission (as it turned out) came at a point where there was still a big chunk of Paris that I'd not properly explored, and was so ridiculously easy and straightforward (and/or buggy), that the penny just didn't drop. These flaws probably have a lot to do with the developer, Pandemic, going belly-up shortly after "finishing" The Saboteur - I'm sure that they just ran out of time and money. But it's a crying shame that the publisher, Electronic Arts, didn't take the time to finish things up and make the most of the 85% or so of the game that Pandemic put in place.

By way of summary, for me The Saboteur is still a good diversion despite its numerous flaws. It's nowhere near as immersive or well-plotted as the GTA titles are, but equally it's much more impressive than the likes of that GTA-wannabe, Saints Row 2. It's certainly something of a pleasing change to play GTA-style against proper enemies, and to do so through against the novel backdrop of WW2 (clichés and all). It's just a shame that, largely because of Pandemic's collapse, The Saboteur is unable to live up to the promise that its setting (and art design) offers. Still, there are plenty worse games out there.

Finally, I note from the Wikipedia article on The Saboteur that it's inspired, albeit loosely, by a real-life figure, William Grover-Williams, an Irish racing driver who worked for the SOE and the French resistance. I can't see anything in his biography to suggest a shoot-out at the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I do notice that he didn't survive the war.


APM said...

I think Jack Higgins should sue: Sean Dillon+Liam Devlin=?

Plumbago said...

I think he might have a case there! Though the game's developers have some plausible deniability in that Liam Devlin fought on the other side, and Sean Dillon is a late 20th century character (at least according to Wikipedia!).

Anyway, I must congratulate you on again surprising me with your literary omnivory. Who would have guessed that the Venn diagram incorporating "people who have read Les Mis" and "people who have read Jack Higgins" would have had an intersection? :-)