Does 'The Saboteur' Stand a Chance?
Quite literally putting the colour into World War II: Pandemic's Tom French helps us fight, climb, and race our way through a uniquely stylized, Nazi-occupied France.
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The Saboteur faces an uphill struggle for our affections. By the time it hits market (exact dates are still to be confirmed), players will have spent several weeks shocking the surly mouths off brain-washed hoodies in inFamous, elbow-dropping tanks in Prototype, six-shooting steampunk cowboys in Damnation, swatting down Martian mining installations girder by girder in Red Faction: Guerrilla, and crunching their way merrily through Fallout 3's plentiful helpings of irradiated downloadable grit. We may even have got our hands on Brutal Legend, that throbbing open-ended homage to/parody of heavy metal fantasy. The arrival of yet another third-person sandbox action game, however polished, could be the proverbial cup of water for the drowning man.
This one doesn't exactly grab the attention, either, firstly because it's a World War II game, and thus only slightly less ubiquitous than grass blades and Facebook accounts, and secondly because it comes to you courtesy of the studio (if not the team) behind lacklustre big boomer Mercenaries 2: World in Flames.
But hold your horses, Lead Designer Tom French cries (not in those precise words) as he warms up the demo. This isn't just any old World War II game. Rather than a grizzled Allied super-trooper, you fill the boots and don the flat cap of plain-speaking Irish mechanic and good time boy Sean Devlin, a regular contender at Parisian racing tournaments. Sean burns rubber for the fictional Marini team, the Innocent Drinks of 1940s motor outfits, against the dastardly and equally fictitious roadsters of Doppelzeig, who sell weapons to Germany on the side. His interest in politics is pretty minimal till the Nazis manage to kill one of his mates and burn down Marini's HQ whilst conquering France, prompting the poor chap to go a bit postal.
Nor is The Saboteur much like Mercenaries, really, French continues, despite the shared taste for blowing stuff up. Granted, Pandemic took the concept for a test drive using the Mercenaries engine, right after getting shot of Mercenaries 1, but the developer soon realised that it deserved an engine of its own. "They were making a very different game. Theirs is about destroying everything, and ours is about this intimate kind of feeling and the storytelling, and so we separated our tech very early in the process and went our own way. We had to build our own tech and go for that detail."
Fleshing out the protagonist was another early priority. "We were definitely starting to build gameplay," French elaborates, "but for the first year of the project what went into the game from the design side was really just pouring over Sean, iterating on the story, selling that vengeance story - selling that classic kind of rivalry feeling. We really wanted to craft Sean and make Sean somebody we'd like, that we'd want to have drinks with." Colin Farrell, Steve McQueen and Harrison Ford are apparently among the character's inspirations.
Pandemic's occupied France is around five to six kilometres square, reaching from the chateau-infested German border to the streets of the capital. Putting together a virtual Paris was a "huge challenge", thanks to the piecemeal, higgledy piggledy nature of European urban planning, with buildings "cobbled on top of each other". Rather than construct things to scale, the designers have exaggerated key landmarks - e.g. the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe - and thoroughfares for greater coherence. Districts were given personality and detail by a process of gradual revision, Pandemic laying out the entire metropolis first as generic modules - "a bunch of LEGO blocks" - before replacing those modules one by one with more distinctive architectural assets. French sums the results up as a "Disneyland version of Paris", interwoven with eye-catching instances of make-believe like ponderous zeppelins and tower-mounted cannons.