"We didn't want to make a World War II game," says Tom French, lead designer on The Saboteur. Things don't appear to have gone according to plan. The Saboteur is set in the early 1940s, in France, and is mainly about killing Nazis. If they meant to deliver a tennis game or an an innovative new twist on the Cooking Mama genre, a rethink may be required.
But French's point, as is obvious to anyone capable of not being facetious for more than four seconds, is that Pandemic didn't want to make a typical World War II game. The Saboteur isn't about running up the beaches of Normandy or crawling through the trenches or providing cover for your fellow soldiers. In fact you don't have any fellow soldiers, as you're not even one yourself.
"We came up with several concepts to separate ourselves from the World War II space," says French. One of these ideas was to create a personal story that's "a lot more intimate" than the ones usually found in WWII games. "We didn't want to tell the soldier's story we've seen so many times before. We looked at classic heroes who really inspired us," French explains, listing Indiana Jones, John McClane and Bullitt as examples.
"We wanted somebody believeable but larger than life. Somebody who fought the Nazis but wasn't a soldier. Somebody who was classically cool and could drive the Hell out of a sports car, who could take a beating and laugh in the face of danger." That somebody turned out to be reluctant hero Sean Devlin - "A daring race car driver who has a taste for straight whisky and a way with women." (Why aren't reluctant heroes ever IT support managers called Rob who have a taste for Chilean Shiraz and a way with long-term relationships?)
Devlin is also Irish, though you might not guess by his accent. "At first we found really Irish-sounding actors, but nobody understood them," says French. Instead they went for an Irish actor who's been living in the States for a few years - "Otherwise we'd have to subtitle the whole game, which would be kind of terrible." Indeed.
At the start of the game Devlin is a mechanic for the fictional Marini racing team. Marini's big rivals are the Doppelzieg, who build war machines for the Nazis on the side. Devlin heads off on what's supposed to be an innocent adventure with a friend, but Things Go Wrong, and his friend ends up dead. Meanwhile, the Germans have started rolling in the tanks and beginning their occupation of France. So there are two narrative arcs to The Saboteur - the story of the occupation, and the story of Devlin's fight for revenge.
The challenge for Pandemic is telling those stories within a sandbox environment. The player has the freedom to go anywhere in world of The Saboteur, but Pandemic also wanted to include distinct set pieces and keep up the pace of the plot. So how have they managed to blend linear elements within the openworld?
"The main trick is something we picked up from working on Mercenaries," says French. "All of our missions, the goals and the objectives and the points, all feed into Sean's story. I learned with Mercenaries to really pull the players into an area, give them a specific objective, then kick off an event furthering the story." Plus, at some points - such as when you're inside buildings - the game will have "a more level-based feeling, so in those areas we can do more point-to-point storytelling".
While The Saboteur may have taken inspiration from Mercenaries' narrative structure, its visual style is quite distinct. In Pandemic's version of World War II France unoccupied areas are depicted using rich, warm colours - think the vibrant colour palette of films like Amelie and Jean de Florette. The areas where the Nazis have taken control are shown in black and white, with just a few touches of colour; scarlet Swastika armbands and spurts of blood, bursts of orange light as barrels explode, bright yellow gun blasts and so on.
Sometimes objects in the environment will be coloured to give you a hint as to where to go next, as seen in Mirror's Edge. But more obvious influences are Schindler's List (remember the girl in the red coat?) and Sin City ("I was a fan of the comic books even before the movies came out," says French).
"The unique setting of occupied France presented a unique challenge. We knew just taking this vibrant city and plopping Nazis down wouldn't really sell the concept, so we wanted to create a stylised world," French explains. "We looked a lot of film noire, and it's definitely a darkly inspired kind of game. It's grounded in reality, but at the same time it's dramatically enhanced for effect - and that helps make the action and the big moments feel believable."
But producing the black and white sections has been no easy feat. "Honestly, it was extremely hard to pull off... If you just turn off colour you get this flat, grey, monochrome world, which is really hard to navigate in a game like this. That's why we brought colour in."
It's also why they came up with the concept of Will to Fight. When you commit an act of sabotage in a black and white area, the colour will seep back in. The Nazis will disappear and civilians will come out onto the streets, inspired by your bravery. This feature can also be used to track your progression, according to French - climb up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and you can see which areas are in colour and which are still black and white, and therefore how much work you have left to do.
But the Will to Fight isn't only there to look pretty. "We didn't just want it to be a visual gimmick. It also ties into the gameplay," French says. "We're not going into too much detail about that right now, but when you inspire an area you encourage the Resistance to enter that area. So as you work through the game you build up the Resistance, and arm them, and they'll take to the streets and join you in fighting the Nazis."
Other gameplay details are being discussed today, however, such as the emphasis on the "big, blockbuster action" Pandemic is known for. "We give the player a lot of different tools to handle every situation. From races and chases to sneaking and climbing and ziplining, to fighting to shooting and of course sabotage, we wanted all kinds of action," says French.
In other words, expect quieter, stealth-based sections along with the big set pieces. Having carefully sneaked into the heart of a Nazi base, you might set off an alarm and have to run and gun your way out. "The player's never really forced to use stealth, though," French is keen to emphasise. "You can go guns blazing through every situation. But it's not advised."
Devlin is an acrobatic chap, able to climb ladders, hang off window sills and shimmy up drainpipes with ease. He can also perform huge jumps - "The kind of jumps you couldn't do in real life, but you could picture Bruce Willis doing in a movie and surviving." It's all designed to be simple, fluid and intuitive, as is taking cover.
"We have an automatic cover system - you just move into walls and Sean will adhere to them," says Devlin."We've been very careful because we're all gameplayers, and we want to make sure you can glance off walls without getting stuck and it becoming a nuisance. But it definitely helps Sean look cool."
Also helping with the cool factor is the huge range of weapons at Devlin's disposal. There are plenty of classics here, such as MP-40s, pistols, Lugers, rifles, flamethrowers and rocket-powered grenades. You can take control of artillery cannons, anti-aircraft guns and other stationary weapons. And of course, as Devlin is a saboteur, he's a dab hand with explosives; expect lots of opportunities to blow things up. There are also what Pandemic is calling the "extreme weapons", which are fictional by design but grounded in real-world physics. They're not being shown off yet; French will only describe them as "hoses of death".
As if having flamethrowers, dynamite and lethal gardening implements at your disposal wasn't cool enough, Devlin also gets a selection of stylish 1940s racing cars to play with. Sounds like they'll be fun to drive too. "We wanted pick-up-and-play controls, but because Sean's a driver it was really important the player felt like a driver when they got in the car," French says. "So the controls are really easy to learn, and there is some learning to be done to master them. What helped us is the streets of Paris are crazy, all twisty and turny, so you can drift around a corner nice and easy and look like a champ doing it."
There are also zeppelins in the game - yes, in real life they were decommissioned before the war began, but Pandemic's decided to take a bit of artistic licence. Most of the time they're floating around in the background, providing a platform for yet more Nazis to shoot at you from. "They're kind of like our helicopters," says French. "At one point we talked about making them pilotable, but ultimately it's not very interesting to pilot a big, slow-moving flying vehicle."
Still, there's plenty of other interesting stuff in The Saboteur: stylised visuals, an openworld environment, a rich storyline, stealth missions, shootouts, rooftop chases, classic car races, old guns, new guns, bombs, dynamite, Resistance fighters, racing drivers and Nazis. Also, Sean Devlin wears an excellent hat. Here's hoping a chance to go hands-on arrives soon so we can find out how it all fits together.
The Saboteur is in development for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. A release date has yet to be announced.