The Saboteur is a game of nation-building, in the modern sense of the term: You rebuild a country by blowing it up. The hero in this effort is Sean Devlin, a hardscrabble Irish auto racer who’s inexplicably talented at sneaking around with sticks of dynamite. Devlin is enlisted to ply his trade against the Nazi forces in occupied Paris, and as the anti-aircraft towers and propaganda speakers fall, the resistance coalesces. That addictive dynamic of reconstruction by destruction is what makes this open-world game such a pleasing swan song from the recently shuttered Pandemic Studios.
The game’s rendering of the French Resistance takes extreme libertés with the historical record, but it’s an intentionally fantastical vision of 1940 France, marked by an inspired use of color. Regions under German control are portrayed in black and white; when you liberate a stronghold, the area is colored in, à la Pleasantville. The monochrome effect, with its splashes of Nazi red and Resistance blue, is so striking that there’s a case to be made for ditching the colorization device entirely. By mid-game, though, the colors become a powerful mood-setter as you pass through patches of pastels and oppressive grays on a drive through the city.
The ambience works in spite of the game’s cinematic interludes, which include a laughably bad cabaret vignette dominated by awful, twirling uncanny-valley breasts. (Just because the game is rated “M” doesn’t mean it’s mature.) That’s the opening scene, and while it gets better than there, the narrative always straddles the line between camp and schlock.
Clunky cutscenes aren’t a major flaw for The Saboteur, though, because the heart of its experience is in the city streets. The game deftly blends Grand Theft Auto-style driving and gunfights with stealth tactics. You have access to almost every part of the skyline, as Devlin can scale most of Paris’ buildings. This is key—driving around in a period roadster is nice, yet the real fun is clambering between rooftops to plant bombs on German outposts, then fleeing the resulting alarms.
The nicest touch is that your free-roaming sabotage has a direct effect on the quests that advance the main story. If a mission seems too hard, try bombing some nearby fuel depots or sniper towers, then retry: You’ll find the enemy’s resolve has weakened enough for you to gain a foothold. Surprising a Third Reich warmonger with a bundle of TNT is gratifying enough in itself, but the fact that every little victory makes a difference gives The Saboteur a lasting drive.