The Double-A Team is a feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
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Dj vu. It happened when I was browsing a clothing catalogue in one of Red Dead Redemption 2’s general stores. Among the abundance of cowboy hats, a lone flat cap. After equipping that careworn burgundy outlier, a decade melted away. I was no longer crotchety desperado Arthur Morgan. Instead I had resurrected Sean Devlin, gutsy Irish racing daredevil, two-fisted scourge of jackbooted bullies and indefatigable liberator of occupied Paris. A memory rose, unbidden, of wild nights in the City of Light, incinerating Nazi zeppelins while yelling: “My toothless old gran’s tougher than you!”
With his distinctive headgear and over-the-shoulder satchel full of gelignite, Devlin was the throwback star of 2009’s scrappy sandbox city-break The Saboteur. Though inspired by the life of English secret agent William Grover-Williams, a former Formula One driver who set up clandestine networks in France during the second world war, developers Pandemic were clearly looking for a more rough-and-tumble Irish lead. The result was a square-jawed drinker, smoker and skirt-chaser with a Sam Worthington-esque avatar and an arsenal of blarney-fuelled insults.
Realism was not the aim here. Despite the 1940s setting, the touchstone for The Saboteur was Frank Miller’s blighted underworld comic Sin City, right down to the arresting art design. Initially this Paris was rendered in black and white, intended to evoke the permanent night of Nazi oppression, with only occasional splashes of colour in the form of arterial red or spotlight yellow. If Devlin successfully removed German influence from a neighbourhood – usually with the help of lots of dynamite – the daylight would return, bringing naturalistic colour with it. It was a striking design choice, even if the abrupt juxtaposition of monochrome and liberated areas could give The Saboteur an air of patchwork unreality.
The comicbook feel extended to Devlin, from the broad brushstrokes of his characterisation to his subtle suite of superpowers. An uncanny ability to soak up gunfire gave players the impetus to steer him into risky firefights without having to fret too much about being wiped out. While he was introduced as a reckless racing driver, Devlin was no slouch as a sprinter either. His juiced-up default running speed made navigating Paris and the surrounding countryside a breeze on foot (the climbing, sadly, was a little clumsier). Stealth was an option, sort of, but the game felt designed to encourage the most swaggering of play styles.
The satisfaction of punching out Nazis, perforating SS officers and carjacking Gestapo Cruisers gave The Saboteur an enjoyably lurid charge. Sometimes, though, it felt a little too eagerly disreputable for its own good. In the game’s opening hours, Devlin’s main bolthole was tucked away in La Belle du Nuit, a fleshpot nite-spot like the Moulin Rouge. If the notorious DLC unlocking the option of fully topless dancers at the club was an attempt to paint The Saboteur as provocative, adult entertainment, it simply came off as opportunistic and sleazy. As an attempt to kickstart a new EA franchise, it fizzled. Pandemic was shuttered as a development studio soon after release.
So why do I still have such vivid memories of Devlin, his cap and his man-bag? Perhaps because a decade ago I was caught up in the sort of completist fever that occasionally overtakes players of open-world games. While the game was desperate to steer me toward saucy burlesque shows and extravagantly staged story missions, I was hypnotised by the countless targets of opportunity visible on The Saboteur’s mini-map. This was a different sort of sabotage, circumventing the overly bombastic plot by methodically taking out propaganda speakers, searchlights and fuel dumps, disinfecting Paris arrondissement by arrondissement. My toothless old gran would be proud.