Deep in the Los Angeles branch of Electronic Arts there is an office where developers fear to tread. And in that dark, fearful room sits EA's vice president of in-game boob representation. It was here that Pandemic must have been ushered when Saboteur was in the planning stages. They would have sat in front of this impassive and unreadable man, and explained what they wanted to do. Create five square kilometres of Nazi-occupied France, rewrite history so that an Irish racing driver kick-started the Gallic resistance, adopt a beautiful art design in which German occupied areas are rendered in black and white with patches of primary colour shining through in vibrant Sin City style... all the good stuff. Then the vice president of in-game boob representation would have lent heavily on his desk, rested his chin on his hands, and shut his eyes as he made his decision. "Your game..." he'd begin, pausing for dramatic effect. "... must have boobs." As so it was decreed, and as so it became form.
I'm being facetious of course. There is no such post within EA. Just an in-built fear that slightly off-kilter settings won't appeal to teenage boys (see also: The Godfather Part 2), and the distant chorus of worried executives pointing at God of War and yelping like sealions. So it is then that in The Saboteur your first base of operations is a knocking shop called Belle de Nuit, and that your initial accomplice in resistance is an upper-class Brit called Skylar who's a bottomless pit of innuendo. Subtle it ain't. Genuinely though, when given a play the game does raise its head above this - while even the most prurient of gamers would be hard-pressed to deny that the seedy underbelly of The Saboteur's fledgling resistance does give it a feeling of Rick's Café in Casablanca or the Kit Kat club in Cabaret. Albeit with markedly more exposed flesh.
The Saboteur's hero is a chap called Sean Devlin, a racing driver caught up in bad Nazi business after a race-gone-wrong in Germany. Very loosely based on real-life driver and resistance hero William Grover Williams, he's a likeable Irishman with lines like "You tell Bishop to go and shite" and an incandescent hatred for Nazis. He hates those guys not only because of their dubious morals but also because the game opens with his best mate dead at their hands, and him tied up and captured by evil car and arms manufacturer the Doppelzieg - who, again, are very loosely based on what the Mercedes corporation got up to back in the 1940s.
As the game proper begins, then, Sean escapes from the Doppelzieg factory - introducing you in turn to the frenetic machinegun spray combat and Devlin's notable climbing prowess. You can scramble over a remarkable number of surfaces, and as you make your way up the outside of the building and past the dark, forbidding company logos and swastikas, any lingering trace of scepticism over The Saboteur's stark art-style evaporates. By the time you've stolen a car and are gunning back towards the French border, ploughing through German roadblocks, driving sidecar-motorbikes off the road and watching your boot disappear in a mess of bullet-holes, a real taste of Indiana Jones has kicked in. There are Nazis everywhere, many of them crushed beneath your wheels admittedly, but they're not all after Devlin. The invasion of France has kicked off, and with it the green and lush fields that you will have seen in the game's opening sequences have become coated with a dreary yet beautiful mottled grey.
In The Saboteur's sandbox world it's up to you to support, arm and fight alongside the resistance - simultaneously bringing colour and the sound of birdsong back to patches of countryside and city. Much as in the Mercenaries games there are countless places to visit and destroy - fuel dumps, sniper nests, AA batteries (everything Adolf holds dear) - while you can also break up street executions should you come across them in Paris and rig Nazi cars with explosives. Successfully fight back in an area, restoring colour and normality, and the resistance will set up shop, holding out the Nazi threat and helping you on your travels should you pass through with a Panzer or two on your tail.
With story missions, however, the mantra being followed is that of 'quiet in, loud out': having Devlin sneak into danger, but not punishing the player when cover is inevitably blown. To aid in, for example, the lacing of a wooden railway bridge with explosives you can steal a Nazi uniform, but behave out of character by clambering up and over its struts and the enemy perception gauge will start to climb. If you continue to behave oddly and the perception ticker hits its limits, a whistle will be blown and bullets will start to fly. It's a less refined Hitman disguise system, essentially, mixed in with hiding spots around the play area (sheds, brothels etc.) that you can dash to if you don't want people goose-stepping after you for a while.
This particular bridge mission though is an intriguing one, and also something that highlights Pandemic's desire to get away from 'kill these five guys' mission objectives. Having driven to the bridge with sexpot Skylar (not the most authentic of 1940s names - what's wrong with Hilda or Margaret?) and secured the bombs, Devlin must do all sorts of exciting things on a moving army train before it reaches the bridge and tumbles into fiery calamity.
For a start, he's got to sneak into the train station and battle his way on board, but he's also got to fight his way to the back of the train to knock out the comms station at its rear, battle Nazis on the train's various carriages and in the nearby countryside, reach the front and jam down the throttle and rescue someone before the train explodes. All because the defecting German scientist loves Milk Tray. It's a rip-roaring mission that's made all the better for the gun-turrets that allow you to take out the more notably Nazi parts of the scenery. You only hope The Saboteur's other missions can match it. Standing next to the wrecked train as colour bleeds back into the scene and the birds start chirping through the speakers is an excellent reward for a job well done.
There's been a spate of turgid World War II action games since Infinity Ward decamped to modern times, most recently Codemasters' baleful Fall of Liberty and the similarly 'loosely based' premise of Velvet Assassin. Even World at War wasn't really up to sniff if you look past the zombies. So it's refreshing to play a game with a different approach to Nazi-blasting, alongside that vital cheery lack of respect for historical detail. It's Allo' Allo' the game, and for that we may be called upon to celebrate.
The Saboteur is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 4th December.