When we first got our hands on Haze, we were intrigued by the concept of Nectar and its use on the battlefield. Still, we were worried whether this was all Haze had to offer; a game exploiting the concept of exploiting drugs in war. With that confusing thought just escaping our little heads, our mits were on the final version of the game.
I’ve had a lot of Haze play time, giving the game a shot in the fun filled Wembley stadiums of Play.com Live, the technology festooned pad at Sony’s Three Rooms, and finally in the excitable offices of Free Radical outside Nottingham.
It was easy to see the potential of Haze each time: the four player co-op, the creative and addictive Nectar abilities (that shouldn’t be confused with Nectar points), the asymmetric multiplayer combat, and the unusually deep storyline. But it was not until the game was in the comfort of my home that Haze’s failings were more apparent.
It can become easy for the game’s positives to be clouded by a thick haze that some might get lost in, but when you do clear the smoke you’ll still find sizeable nuggets of gaming goodness to enjoy.
Yes, vehicles are in Online Multiplayer.
Upon entering the disc you’ll first be met with a considerable 3.8GB install to the PS3’s HDD. Yes, the worrying trend continues. In the future, we hope Sony will lower their current 5GB allowance to 2GB or lower, because watching a blank screen for 10 minutes (not near the 22minutes of Devil may Cry 4) is incredibly tedious. Pictures, Mantel documentation, or even a controller layout would have made this journey more pleasant. Then again, the install is somewhat justified since there will be no loading in Haze, something which makes playtime fly by.
When you do eventually get to start the game, you’ll enter Haze’s futuristic world. This is a time where governments outsource their militaristic needs to private, media savvy companies like Mantel. Mantel can’t afford mistakes or bad press, so their army must be strong, invincible and their battles morally right.
To meet these goals, Mantel has developed a new tool of war – Nectar. A soldier enhancing drug that not only makes Mantel’s army more efficient in the physical acts on the battlefield, but also turns the horrors of war into a bright and jolly haze. There is no blood. There are no bodies. There’s only you and your comrades fighting on the right side and for the right reasons.
As Shane Carpenter, a new Mantel recruit (though he appears to be a Sergeant), you’re going to face some tough decisions in your fight against a new threat: The Promise Hand rebels.
The Promise Hand. For more information on Haze’s story, characters, weapons and vehicles, please follow this link.
At the beginning of his mission Shane is dropped into a lush jungle, where he’s to grapple with Nectar’s abilities. What’s first apparent is how intuitive the controls are. You won’t find fire-power relegated to R2 and L2 like the FPS games inspired by the Xbox 360’s control scheme. Instead these triggers are lavished with administrating Nectar, or if you’re a Rebel, playing dead.
The message of modern warfare being like a videogame, and war games being devoid of moral responsibility is met with the concept of Nectar, since your foes stand out like Time Crisis enemies jumping into guns sights. When you zoom in on the orange aura of your foes, it’s easy to pop them off one by one.
Since enemies are well hidden in either foliage or against similar coloured backgrounds, injecting yourself with the drug is necessary to succeed. Being dosed up on Nectar feeds the notion that videogames have the ability to bring adrenaline and addictive killing into the living room – a sentiment that might be familiar to Jack Thompson – Nectar makes you feel invincible. But be careful on the trigger. Go too far and you’ll overdose, losing control over your bullet spray, resulting in injuries to your allies. When your AI compatriots do the same it’s not quite as funny, so your best bet is to euthanise.
In truth, Haze’s AI isn’t as clever as we hoped. Friendly AI are generally useless, running around like headless chickens, getting in the way of your fire and not killing that one guy you can’t get to. Sure, you don’t want them to help too much, but you at least want them to be useful, rather than a burden. Enemy AI does fair slightly better, with Rebels diving into cover and Mantel troopers storming their way towards you.
Watch your back.
However, these certainly aren’t the most intelligent enemies. There are points where they’ll stomp straight past you to your ally, allowing you to simply turn around and pump bullets into them. Worryingly, much of the AI’s activity appears to be triggered by passing a certain predefined line, so until you do so they’ll be camping behind barriers, allowing you to shoot them with no reaction if you haven’t passed that point.
Before long, with Nectar dripping from your veins, you’re out of Mantel’s shoes and you’ve joined the Promise Hand. This plot twist was never a secret, but it is surprising how early in the game this happens. Just as you’re starting to enjoy Nectar abilities, the drug is thrust from your hands and left leaking in the jungle scrub. Haze’s most original innovation won’t be used again.
That’s not to say being a Rebel doesn’t have its own innovations. Without Nectar you’ll have to be a bit more cunning and agile. Abilities include a handy dive to get behind cover and the ability to strap Nectar packs to your grenades. These can either be thrown or set as a trap and result in an eruption of yellow gas that causes troopers to overdose. Your knife can also be dipped in the drug, for you to splice the stuff straight into a trooper’s back.
The most creative Rebel ability is playing dead. Nectar sensors dead bodies, so if you act like one you’ll become invisible. Sounds like it could make the game a cake walk? Don’t fear – it’s tougher than you think. You can only play dead when you’re nearing death by tapping L2. Once your enemy turns his back, press X to start coming up and again to jump to your feet quickly. It takes some getting used to, but once mastered, can save your life.
However, for all the Rebel innovations, Nectar was always Haze’s king. Even if Free Radical intended a reluctant and premature withdrawal from the drug, exploiting your enemies is common to all shooters and so spending most of your time as a Rebel makes Haze’s originality sparse.
Moreover, during Rebel play it’s noticeable Mantel troopers aren’t nearly as effective as you were on Nectar. They aren’t incredibly good at getting head shots and they don’t destroy you with a powerful melee attack. In fact, they are mostly dumb brutes. Free Radical may argue this is a conscious balancing decision, but it does almost destroy the Nectar advantage Mantel troopers are meant to have in both story and gameplay.
Level design is creative, seeing you traverse a hilltop hotel, travel by cable car, fight on a sinking ship, and shoot your way through the corridors of a moving transport carrier. Nonetheless, apart from the final chapter, levels are lacking a certain grandeur expected in modern shooters. Some levels even feel old fashioned, employing a “pull switch to continue” policy, and peppered with floaty vehicles that are prone to toppling or spontaneous combustion from hidden explosions.
This isn’t helped by the game’s graphics, which sport low texture resolutions and a general soft facade. There’s also a helping of pop-in on Mantel trooper’s armour – a graphical error you wouldn’t expect from a high-profile title. It’s easy to point to excuses, such as no loading and large levels, but when you look at other first-generation PS3 games doing similar feats with much more impressive engines (such as Heavenly Sword and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune) it’s easy to see Free Radical haven’t really got to grips with Sony’s hardware.
Moreover, levels become visually drab and uninspired; brown barren landscapes compliment empty gray corridors. In truth, Haze’s most stunning visuals can be found in the bright forests of the demo level – saturated blue skies, vibrant foliage, and interactive grass (a feat even Call of Duty 4 couldn’t match). Of course, the world is meant to become more drab after you’ve gone cold turkey, but it makes me wonder whether this order is wrong. That is, the visual progression and even the story would be helped by starting the game as a Rebel, to then be enslaved by Mantel. Thus, Haze’s most innovative feature would be in the second half of the game, the visuals would become more vibrant, and the plot could touch upon how an ordinary man is deranged by the drug.
“Don’t forget your promise to Merino!”
The latter is needed, because the morality of fellow troopers is sorely missing from Haze. Fellow Mantel are stereotypical American jocks obsessed with killing. Though this is meant to show the power of the yellow drug, it’s impossible to relate to characters who say “It’s like taking candy from a crippled baby.” Naturally, this makes it all the easier to change sides and take pleasure in killing the Mantel troopers, but there’s another problem. It’s also very hard to relate with the Rebels, who are obsessed with repeating intense lines like“Don’t forget your promise to Merino”, making you wonder if you’ve really made a promise to Merino (Skin Coat).
Merino does happen to be Haze’s most convincing character, sporting the best voice acting in the game (sadly not matched by facial animation), but when he begins to submit orders you question whether you should follow them. You don’t feel obliged, because you were never really on Mantel’s side and you’ll find it hard to relate to Shane’s guilt, because you’ll never relate to him. Shane shows no strength as a Sergeant and pony’s from one side to the other.
The game does eventually touch upon the moral dilemmas of using enhancing drugs in war and the issue of murdering “people” in videogames. You may even kill remorsefully in the final stages, illustrating that when Haze presents its story well, it does succeed.
The story is engrossing enough to hold its own in co-op, not interfering with what you really want to do – kill the baddies with your buddies. The single-player campaign can be played cooperatively via splitscreen (2 players), LAN or online (up to 4 players). This is where Haze shines.
The ease with which you can join a quartet of friends (or even strangers) is so seamless and simple, even allowing access to your PSN friends list, that you’ll wish all your games had the same ability. This certainly makes the campaign more engaging, with many of the levels owing themselves to cooperative play. Plus, if you’re having trouble in the single-player, why not invite others to help you out?
As seamless as the co-op is, there are some niggling problems. The game cannot be manually saved, saving automatically upon passing checkpoints. This worked perfectly well until my teammates passed a checkpoint while a gun turret had me pinned down. After we all eventually died I was loaded in front of the turret that would kill me in a few shots. I suffered this until I was eventually able to escape and complete the level. A manual save system should be in place, or you shouldn’t be placed in an unreasonable position upon reload.
Co-op can annoy when you’re bumped without warning to join your comrades after lagging behind. This is sometimes helpful, but you’re often thrown into a room of enemies without time to orientate yourself. Moreover, it would be helpful if each player could get their own save game instead of just the host, since as it stands non-hosts have to begin anew when they play alone.
Online multiplayer consists of 16 player Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Team Assault on 6 maps. The asymmetric gameplay really shines here, since each team can choose to play as either Rebels or Mantel Troopers. Though you might find yourself doing well with only one play style, the more you get used to each of the mechanics in this fast paced multiplayer, the more you’ll recognise how well Free Radical has balanced the teams.
Playing dead is one surprising success in the multiplayer, resulting in invisibility to all troopers. You’d think troopers would just shoot the ground to kill you (which is of course possible) but the fast paced action and the fact that the kill will actually display itself on the screen (eg. Name1 killed Name2) means playing dead is a great addition.
It’s a shame there are so few maps when we’re used to bigger offerings from the Time Splitters developer, but Team Assault does add variety in the form of different map objectives. These do a good job of promoting team play and slowing down the pace of a generally frantic multiplayer experience. Haze also welcomes the return of bots, allowing you to boost up the numbers in online and splitscreen. We wonder why new gen games got rid of them in the first place.
Free Radical’s latest offering does a good job of implementing asymmetric play in both online and single player and treads new PS3 ground with its seamless online co-op. Nevertheless, its potential isn’t quite reached elsewhere. Haze’s most interesting innovation is relegated to the first third and questionable voice acting, poor cutscene animations, and uninteresting characters turn the story into a melodrama rather than approaching any real seriousness. Haze set out to transcend the shallow shooters on the market, but in the end its major attraction is found in “gimmicky” Nectar abilities.