The Saboteur must have sounded like a brilliant idea when it was explained to executives at Electronic Arts, the game’s publisher. “Like Grand Theft Auto, but set in Nazi-occupied France,” I imagine the pitch. “And the main character can climb buildings and dash along rooftops like Assassin’s Creed, but instead of some quasi-mythical organization, he’s fighting for the resistance. He can liberate Paris.”
Sean, the game’s Irish hero, heaves himself from window-ledge to window-ledge with tireless drudgery. When climbing down, he unfailingly raises his arms all the way up before dropping them to catch the next ledge, resulting in slow descents intermingled with fast falls. On the ground he’s not much more graceful. When he jumps, it looks like he’s riding a small invisible elevator up and down. He can enter “sneak” mode, which has almost nothing to do with sneaking, but certainly seems to dial down the Nazis’ computer-controlled hearing.
As if the game’s action weren’t sluggish enough, it’s interrupted every few minutes for static loading screens. Then those are interrupted by even slower cutscenes, in which the game’s characters stand around and talk. If videogames insist on having narratives — and really, at their best, videogames are beyond narrative — they need to invest some serious time and money in making the cinematics worth watching. In The Saboteur, the story is enacted by digital puppets that move without weight or anatomy, and speak with the conviction of failed actors.
But it’s not just the game’s characters that fail. Cars occasionally tumble through the streets, bouncing off of buildings like racquetballs. Fire fails to cast any meaningful light and often seems to forget about emitting smoke. A videogame doesn’t need great graphics, but it does need graphics that are up to the task at hand. The Saboteur not only fails in representing Sean’s actions and the activities of the resistance, but it also botches up one of the most iconic cities in the world.
Yes, The Saboteur is set in and around Paris. But aside from a few obvious landmarks and a citizenry with snooty accents, it could be any videogame city. Where are the famous palaces? The iconic statuary? The neighborhoods as distinct as night and day? The game’s glossary defines the “pasties” that the strippers wear, but omits “pastries.” A bland Paris without pastry —what’s worth saving?
THE GOOD: Paris, with its crooked gables and climbable landmarks, is a beautiful setting for a videogame. Someday, some game will do it justice.
THE BAD: Those same executives at Electronic Arts who thought The Saboteur was a good idea have helped lead the company’s stock from $60 per share a few years ago to below $20. They’ve approved costly duds like The Godfather II and Brtal Legend, have laid off hundreds of workers and have the awkward distinction of owning the Tiger Woods videogame franchise. Even their core titles — Madden, Rock Band and The Sims — are more marketing schemes these days than works of interactive art. As a long-time fan of the company, I hope it makes some severe changes before it sabotages its own success.
THE BOTTOM LINE: In The Saboteur, Paris is burned.