Love Poem for Flawed Masterpieces
Posted by Alex Jordan on
I find myself bedeviled by critical darlings that bore the shit out of me or find some other way to turn me off. One would think that I would've shared my opinions on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by now, seeing as how I've had the game since Christmas. Alas, the game's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to sandbox gameplay (I counted 20 different minigames that the game wanted me to play) seriously shortchanged the dense plotting and great characters I'd come to enjoy in the previous game. So, I turned it off, and looked elsewhere.
"Elsewhere" brought me to Dragon Age: Origins, the highly-regarded heir apparent to Dungeons & Dragons style epic RPGs that everyone else had raved about. However, I found the minutiae of the game world and its "gritty" take on standard fantasy tropes to be exasperating. How smart and creative do I expect a game to be if it contains the usual alliances of humans, elves, and dwarves fighting against a world-threatening evil, but with a perfunctory gloss of minor reinterpretations. (The elves are former slaves! The dwarves are agnostics! Oooooh.) Moving on.
I kept turning my back on these supposedly great games until, last week, it looked like Uncle Sam would shut down and I'd be without a job. I decided to pad the forthcoming mandatory vacation with a game that I'd been meaning to play for awhile but had consistently put off: The Saboteur, a World War II sandbox game by a now-defunct developer I liked that got decent but not great reviews.
After the first day of playing the game, I was considering returning it to GameStop. Three days later, I thought it was the best game I'd played in years.
Now, how the hell is that possible? I'll tell you. The game starts en media res, with Irish expatriate Sean Devlin (based on the real-life William Grover-Williams) angrily drinking in a seedy nightclub in occupied Paris, 1940. (The club is the kind of place that specializes in topless women who sing.) As Sean drinks his whiskey, he is approached by a man named Luc who cajoles him into joining the fight against the Nazis. Thus, the game begins with Luc handing you some dynamite, sending you into a barely-guarded Nazi fuel depot, and blowing it right the hell up.
Not a bad introduction, right? You step out of the nightclub and onto the streets of Paris, which are rendered in gorgeous grayscale, a la Schindler's List. The world out there is shadowed but alive, accented with certain bursts of color, like Luc's blue scarf and the scarlet red of Nazi German flags draped from buildings around the city. It looks awesome. But then the game demonstrates the actual, y'know, game aspects, and I found myself gritting my teeth.
This game lacks polish, above all else. The movement is clunky, the driving is clunky (you're driving slow, gigantic cars from the 1940s, remember?), and the unarmed fisticuffs combat is clunky. And those are pretty important things to screw up in a game! On top of that, Luc instructs you to climb a building so you can maneuver around German patrols. Seeing as how climbing buildings has an immediate analogue in the form of the Assassin's Creed series, I was shocked to find that Sean takes his sweet-ass time while ponderously making his way up the face of a building compared to the fluidity of the AC games. More clunkiness.
To recap, I found the graphics and the setting interesting, but all the actual acts of playing the goddamn game were messy and unrefined. I considered returning it right then and there, but I prevaricated. I put another hour or two into the game, and then it went into flashback mode.
And that's when everything came alive.
The flashback throws the player back to May, 1940. Suddenly, the world is awash in color once more: although World War II officially started several months earlier, France and England are warily watching Germany in the runup to the Battle of France and the invasion of the Low Countries, and major war on the European continent has yet to spread far beyond Poland. We meet Sean again, just as cocky but not angry (yet). He lives in France and works as a mechanic for a Grand Prix racing team consisting of the Italian Vittore, their boss and father figure; Jules, their French driver and Sean's best friend; and Veronique, Jules' sister. We join them just as they're heading off to a race in Saarbrucken across the German border, where Sean will be the driver for his first-ever Grand Prix. Across the border, Sean meets rival German racer Kurt Dierker and promptly picks a fight with him (and why not?) The barroom brouhaha gets a little nasty and earns the ire of the local Gestapo. Sean and Jules are saved by the timely intervention of Skyler, a British femme fatale and Sean's sometimes-paramour.
Got all that?
Yes! Characterization, blessed characterization! Interesting people that say interesting things, running the gamut from discussing their hopes and dreams to making smart-assed one liners and double entendres! We go from purely-angry Sean and growl-voiced Luc at the beginning of the game to an honest-to-God flashback that introduces compelling characters in an original setting: the pre-hostilities Grand Prix in Saarbrucken. It's a long, thoughtful flashback, and it had me hooked.
Sean winds up racing Dierker in the Grand Prix and almost beats him, until Dierker pulls out a Luger and blasts one of Sean's tires to shreds. This brings their rivalry to new heights, and Sean and Jules decide to humiliate Dierker by sneaking into the garage at the famous (but fictional) Doppelsieg Autoworks Factory and trashing Dierker's racecar. In doing so, they accidentally stumble into Dierker's other job: moonlighting for the Gestapo, having been recruited by them in the immediate run up to the imminent (and I do mean imminent) invasion of France. Jules is murdered by Dierker (predictably, so I don't feel bad spoiling it), but Sean manages to escape, rescue Veronique and Vittore, and escape to Paris as the rest of the country explodes into open war, and the grayscale curtain falls on the game screen.
A story! Character motivations! A cool setting! Yeeeesssss.
Despite the shortcomings of the gameplay, the depth of the world drew me in. Usually, video game plots are crafted in the spare time of people on the design team. Very few studios have dedicated writers, and those that do have a tendency to ignore them. The result is often video games that are earnest above all else, with developers penning stories that try to convince the gamer about how serious and thought out the game world between all the explosions and gun battles. The writing has gotten better over time, but it's usually employed as the use of $100 dollar words to justify whatever's going on during a cutscene.
The Saboteur is different. Not only does the game bring these people fully to life (and their voice actors are wonderful), they also employ them in a specific, carefully-crafted story. The game isn't trying to be earnest above all else. The earnest, angry Sean is quickly replaced by a wisecracking, cynical Irish expat who's just trying to do the right thing as the world goes to hell around him. Everyone else in the story has their motivations, and the fun thing is, the story doesn't even try to be all that serious! Occupied Paris is a neat setting, and the writers decided to turn it into the atmospheric setting of a story that is more pulpy than anything else. The story revels in Indiana Jones-style archetypes: the Germans are always referred to as "Nazis", the characters are quirky and larger-than-life, and the story takes some tongue-in-cheek twists and turns, from dealing with Nazi obsession with the occult (again with the Indiana Jones feel!), to Sean being hired by British spies. It's not gritty and earnest. It's cheeky and witty.
Better still, the gameplay (slowly) starts rising to the occasion. Although the clunkiness remains obnoxious, the designers throw missions at the player that are more creative than the usual "go there, kill these people" missions often recycled in sandbox games. At one point, I was blowing up a zeppelin. At another point, I was hijacking a Nazi troop train to kidnap a German scientist. And I had to get him off the train before it passed over a rail bridge I was about to blow up. Yeeeeesssss.
The exquisite thing about the game is that all the clunkiness winds up being a good thing. I'm not sure if I credit the developers with doing that on purpose. But what happens is that the player becomes accustomed to the limitations of gameplay mechanics and it becomes a complete hoot to game the system and see what you can get away with. For instance, there's even a disguise system... if you take out a Nazi soldier with your bear hands instead of, say, a bloodier method, you can pilfer his uniform and goose step your way around town. From a respectful distance, other Nazis won't recognize you, and it's hilarious to chuck grenades or fire a silenced pistol when you're not being observed, wreaking havoc and leaving the enemy none the wiser. The stealth system can be abused, but it's never overpowered, and it's hilarious to see what you can get away with.
And when you can't get away with something, alarms start sounding, a la Grand Theft Auto. And not since the vaunted GTA series has fleeing the authorities (or, in this case, the entire fucking Wehrmacht) been so exciting. Never again will I be lucky enough to play a game that allows me to shoot down a zeppelin that has been chasing me around wartorn Paris.
In the end, there will never ever be another game like The Saboteur. Never again will I have the pleasure of taking a prized racecar, loading it up with dynamite, sneaking into a Nazi-organized road race through the streets of Paris, winning, and bailing out right as a drive my bomb-laden vehicle into the judges' stands, murdering a sinister Nazi general. Never again! The studio that made this game is gone now. And despite the fact that the game has a relatively open ending, I seriously doubt we'll ever get to see these characters again.
The game is messy, and the studio was punished for it. Reviews were decent but not wonderful. The gameplay is clunky. But, in my opinion? The Saboteur is a masterpiece. It's got quirky characters in an interesting setting and, for all its limitations, the gameplay throws enough sheer fun situations at you to make up for its shortcomings.
Play this game, now. It goes for $20 these days.
In the end, I found myself excited and refreshed to have milked such enjoyment out of an also-ran. There are plenty of other games out there with huge budgets that slave over every minute detail and give a good experience that still manages to reek of a design-by-committee, overly-polished feel. They come off as antiseptic. I still get excited when I get to play flawed masterpieces like The Saboteur that drop the ball frequently but never waver in their quest to make the player have some honest-to-God fun in a cool setting.