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After a few months' extra wait, Haze is finally set to dose you up with Nectar. We have the definitive preview...
Haze has been a long time coming. It was originally delayed from last December into Q1 2008, and then, for a second time, into Ubisoft's 2008/09 fiscal year. Free Radical's first next-gen shooter was then given an ironclad release window of May by Ubisoft late last month. Now, as Haze becomes more than just a vague dot on the horizon and bares more resemblance to a ship that's coming into port, it's time to see what FRD has been doing with the game over the last few months of added development time.
We have had some prior hands-on experience of Haze over the last year or so, but recently the opportunity arouse to get the game out on the open road and really give it a run for its money. This expansive hands-on featured four of the game's 13 levels (Salva Region, Dientes De Vaca, Mirador Del Aguila, and Falcon), as well as some experience of the 4 player co-op mode that the game proudly boasts.
The four levels were taken from assorted points in the game's storyline. Salva Region is at the beginning of the game where you play as a Mantel trooper trying to track down the crash site of a downed Mantel plane. Falcon takes the perspective of the Rebel where you must escape from a sinking ship, dealing with reams of Mantel soldiers along the way. Here you meet one particularly disturbed Mantel guy in one of the games many dramatic cut-scenes, but we won't spoil the plot for you at this point.
The final two levels, Dientes De Vaca and Mirador Del Aguila, are towards the end of the game. The former is a vehicle section where you must ascend a mountain (pummelling Mantel road blocks along the way), while the latter takes place directly after this ascent. Here you must get to the mountain's peak where Mantel Corp. has renovated an observatory to house a Nectar plant (or perhaps hive is a better word). After dealing with hordes of enemies, as well as some particularly quick and Nectar grenade immune Elite Mantel troops, you'll also have to take out a few artillery/missile emplacements before downing the plant's computer systems.
One of the much touted features in Haze is the different gameplay styles that are offered when you play as a Mantel soldier or, conversely, a Rebel. The drug Nectar heightens the performance of a Mantel soldier all-round. As a Mantel soldier who's been dosed up with Nectar you can run faster, aim more precisely, endure more shots, and Rebel soldiers glow like target beacons on a full dose (just be sure not to OD). The L2 button controls your Nectar intake, filling up a bar that gradually depletes at the bottom left of the HUD. The fuller the bar; the more wired on Nectar your Mantel trooper is.
Rebels can then use this against Mantel troops with Nectar grenades, booby traps, stained knives, and well targeted shots on an enemy's Nectar pack, all of which have the effect of making a Mantel soldier overdose. If this happens, they start behaving very oddly, shooting members of their own side and generally causing a lot of havoc.
We're glad to say that in the hands-on we've had of the game so far, this feature does live up to its billing and looks set to provide a solid gameplay dynamic come Haze's release. Playing firstly as a Mantel soldier in the early levels, and then as a Rebel later on, the various perks of each side are both original, and tricky to master. As a Rebel, for example, you can perform swift weapon steals and play dead to avoid Mantel soldiers noticing you. Getting the timing and technique right for these features is a nifty little side task, a bit like learning to reload your weapon swiftly in Gears of War.
Unfortunately, it's other areas of the game that don't quite fit the bill at this late stage. On the builds that we've played, the AI has been a touch flaky at times. On quite a few occasions we encountered Mantel soldiers who refused to acknowledge our presence, looking blankly into open space as we stood five feet away from them. There is still a good portion of time for FRD to rectify these niggles with the AI, and we certainly hope they will, but it's a little worrying that they haven't been ironed out already given the added development time.
Then there was the scripting of the four levels we experienced, which was a little too formulaic in places. This included an overuse of drone gun emplacements to break-up play, which tended to irritate rather than challenge. Then there were objectives that failed to add much panache to the basic 'got to A; do B' gameplay of a standard FPS. Examples include moving from one artillery emplacement to another and whacking them to smithereens, or uninspired vehicle sections where you move uneventfully from one Mantel roadblock to another while gradually ascending a mountain. That's not to suggest that these sections don't have their moments, it's just that we have high expectations for a developer that has, in Timesplitters games of the past, lightly mocked such formulaic scripting in FPS games.
The weapon set in the four levels of Haze we played is certainly conventional. There were Mantel pistols, rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. The Rebels also boasted alternate styles of rifles and shotguns. The resulting gunplay isn't exactly going to break any new ground in the FPS genre, but it's well integrated overall to provide some rewarding crack-shot gameplay that finely compliments the Mantel/Rebel perk system.
Perhaps the most significant disappointment we experienced with Haze was the graphics. What with the phenomenal power of the PlayStation 3, we were hoping that Haze - as the PS3's first exclusive shooter - would be a graphical feast to match something like CoD4, for example. On the builds that we played, the game doesn't even come close to Infinity Ward's acclaimed FPS. Some aspects of the visuals impress, such as the facial expressions of NPCs, smoke clouds and various showy filters, but a few of the environments we saw were distinctly sub-par for the next-gens in terms of geometry and texture detail. The Jungle sections, in particular, looked closer to Ubisoft's original Far Cry game than the luscious jungle environments we've seen from Far Cry 2 so far.
Beyond the gameplay, the story behind Haze is exceptional. It is one of the few FPS games where you're actually transfixed by the cut-scenes and on tenterhooks to find out where the plot leads as the game develops. We only saw snippets of what the full story has to offer in our hands-on, but even at that we noted some genuinely harrowing and quite relevant subject matter, which is actually quite rare for a game.
Another thing that will certainly help the game's appeal is that it caters for up to 4 players in co-operative Campaigns, either online or via LAN. Additionally, you can also have a friend play locally on split-screen, and then fill the other two spots with online buddies. What's more, we've been assured that the difficulty levels have been specifically catered to the co-op campaigns. In other words, playing on Hard in a co-op game will be more difficult than playing on Hard in a single-player game. However, having human squad mates of course ensures that this is balanced out to a degree. Either way, we certainly found that our co-op hands-on play was just as hard, if not harder, than our single-player experience. Flip over to our Haze Q&A for more details.