The protagonist of The Saboteur, Pandemic's latest sandbox adventure, is based upon William Grover-Wallace, an unlikely English/French race car driver turned member of the French resistance during World War II. In the game he's called Sean Devlin and is Irish. "We don't stay entirely accurate", declares lead designer Tom French. All in all, it's probably for the best.
On the screen Devlin is blazing around occupied France with his accomplice in arms, a blonde British bombshell named Skylar. Devlin's a sturdy chap, with a barrel chest, ludicrously defined shoulder muscles and a voice packed with so much friction it could light a match. According to French, he's a mix of "John McClane, Steve McQueen and Indiana Jones." Devlin's not at all impressed with what's going on, having lost his best chum to dastardly Nazi hands after a race gone wrong, forcing him out of his occupation of choice to clash with their disagreeable morals. His new cause is to grind up the entirety of the Axis force underneath the wheels of his race car. Or just pummel them to death with his giant fists. He's not picky.
In the mission I was shown, Devlin's objective is to yank a defecting scientist off a moving train, whilst also causing an explosion big enough for everyone to presume said scientist didn't make it out alive. It's a brilliantly convoluted, multi-part job that's immensely satisfying in its grandeur. It's also the perfect showcase for Pandemic's focus on creating missions that are more interesting than driving to a spot on the map, shooting ten targets and driving back. "We didn't want typical sandbox missions", says French.
It also shows how Pandemic are handling The Saboteur's aesthetics. As you drive out of the lush, saturated environments of liberated France and into occupied territory, the colour bleeds from the screen and leaves the game an assortment of stylishly dank greys. The Nazi war machine chugs by in full force, swastikas lighting up the landscape by being one of the only things of colour - other than the crimson blood of your enemies - in these desaturated zones. It's a bold art style, resonating more Okami than a World War II shooter, but it's been well utilised and effectively realised.
As you progress in the game, Devlin is given opportunities to further arm the resistance. Feed the currency back into the French struggle and colour will slowly seep back into the game's 5.5km square area. Driving the Nazi occupation out is clearly a good idea; liberated areas will provide Devlin a safe haven as well as back-up when situations get tough. Back in the mottled patches of Nazi land, though, there's plenty of stuff to explode, and plenty of hazardous barrels scattered about to assist you in immolating anything that so much as thinks German. French cheerfully reminds us that "since Doom, everyone likes explosive barrels". And he's right: channelling the same ethos as Pandemic's maligned Mercenaries 2, The Saboteur loves to go boom. Most steely Nazi fortifications can be blown apart, with most areas staying destroyed from mission to mission - destroy a few pesky sniper nests and they won't be able to harangue you when you come screeching through on an important mission twenty minutes later. French forces in the caveat that not everything is persistently destructible, but promises us that respawning bases are very much the minority.
The idea to missions is that you'll be "quiet in, loud out". The game sports a competent stealth system that rewards the player but doesn't punish them when your best laid plans go south. Devlin can disguise himself as a Nazi soldier, and by blending in to his surroundings he can usually go by unnoticed, with a 'perception meter' resting happily on the HUD to show if guards are starting to detect something fishy. Devlin's a supremely agile chap, though, and is not one to trudge around with the sluggish Nazis for long. He can climb, leap and yank himself up almost any surface, and it's safe to say the disguise will be quickly rumbled if you scale a bridge to pepper its foundation with potent explosives.
Thankfully, our boy Devlin is able to handle himself in a firefight, and capable of popping in and out of cover at whim - "every third person shooter has to have a cover system now," jokes French. He's also quite handy at sneaking up behind unsuspecting soldiers and dispatching them with brutal stealth kills, with my personal favourite featuring Devlin swinging his AK-47 like a club, easily felling his target and leaving their helmet flying in the air. French promises a wide range of weaponry and stealthy executions in the finished game, and promises an inventory of entertaining fictional weapons alongside accentuated real-life counterparts.
Once Devlin actually gets the explosives planted on the bridge, the stage is set. All he has to do now is drive to the train, board it, fight an incredibly well armed force of Nazis over miles of terrain and navigate across its many carriages whilst it's in motion. Easy. The train's littered with plenty of AA cannons, which helps make the job a bit easier and provides a good opportunity to blow up a little bit of nearby Nazi scenery. The ensuing dramatic raucous is suitably thrilling, very Indiana Jones, and Pandemic's knack for creating explosions is showcased here to great effect. Even after this extended frenetic confrontation, when you'd expect the whole thing to run out of steam, Devlin has to reach the front of the train to drive it over the booby-trapped bridge, and then go on to save the scientist before everything explodes.
Phew. After all the madness dies down we're left ready for a sit down and a cup of tea.
There's very little in the way of historical accuracy in The Saboteur, and after some time with the game we're convinced that's a very good thing. World War II might be the most turgid setting for a video game at the moment, but The Saboteur's slick, Sin City-inspired aesthetics and tumultuous gameplay means Pandemic's latest stands out in an exceedingly bogged down genre. Pandemic freely admit they want Sean Devlin's escapades to feel like Indiana Jones, and at the moment The Saboteur feels closer to Raiders of the Lost Ark than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Our thanks to Tom French for guiding us around the game. The Saboteur is due out on 360, PS3 and PC on December 4th.