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After 5 months extra wait we have the final verdict on HAZE, so sit back, take some Nectar, and brace yourself...
- Original Mantel/rebel combat styles.
- The story has depth.
- Extensive options for co-op.
- Very few multiplayer modes.
- Bland gameplay.
- Over indulgent cut scenes.
Free Radical Design has a lot of hopes riding on HAZE. It's their first next-gen title, it's certainly their most ambitious project to date, and it's a much delayed title that the developer has been tweaking for nearly half a year more than was originally scheduled. We were lucky enough to secure quite a lot of preview coverage for HAZE over the last year or so, and at one point we even gave it a Pre-Order Now! anticipation rating here on TVG (a rating that only Bioshock, GTA IV and Super Mario Galaxy have also achieved over the last year). Unlike these three titles (which all went on to score 9 or 10/10), the final product of HAZE has been quite a large disappointment for many reasons.
We know that Free Radical can make very good FPS games. Timesplitters exhibited multiplayer gameplay that was nothing short of brilliant, while the single-player game had some interesting gameplay dynamics as well as a humorous spoof storyline. Having lightly mocked the FPS genre in Splitters though, Free Radical is now under greater pressure to get it right with their other FPS games. With HAZE they've dived into the deep end of serious FPSs by creating a story-heavy game that aims for cinematic levels of presentation. Unfortunately it misses.
In a lot of ways it's great to see an FPS game with some substance behind its story. Too many FPS titles throw hours of repetitive gameplay at you and tie-in a shallow story that feels like an afterthought. Conversely, there were times when we were playing HAZE that it felt like a standalone story with gameplay wrapped around it. While the game takes between six and eight hours to complete (depending on difficulty setting and player skill), we estimate that 30 minutes to an hour of this is filled with cut-scenes.
This is particularly the case during the early levels, where the game's protagonist Shane Carpenter is still a Mantel trooper, and there are certainly some positive results of this. It means that the characters in the game are developed to the point where they're actually interesting and there's some pretty immersive storytelling going on as well. In many ways HAZE is quite a damning commentary on American foreign policy, with the Mantel Corporation representing the US military juggernaut that brutalises its soldiers, ties overseas war with financial gain, and spreads propaganda like a bad cold.
The other faction in the game, the Promise Hand rebels, use Guerrilla tactics to fight the Mantel troopers and Carpenter defects to their side about a third of the way through the game. The rebels are led by the charismatic Merino who, to Carpenter's surprise, doesn't live up to his Mantel nickname of 'skin coat' (because he uses the skin of those he's killed for a coat) and actually seems to be a fairly good bloke.
However, once the Promise Hand bring Mantel to their knees by destroying their Nectar supplies, Merino shows his true colours by ordering a final attack on the defenceless Mantel troopers (much to the protestations of Carpenter) and their oppressive land carrier. His morale boosting speech before the final battle has shades of Mantel's Sergeant Duvall where he talks about fear as nothing more than chemicals in your brain; an animal instinct that should not be allowed to influence your decisions. The moral of the story being that although Mantel are clearly the bad guys, even the Promise Hand have lost their humanity through the brutality of war by exacting their revenge on helpless Mantel troopers who are crashing on Nectar withdrawal.
Clearly this is a well built story with some interesting thoughts behind it, and it's a far cry from the shallow offerings of many other FPS titles on the market. The problem is that the way it's delivered to the gamer is over indulgent. It is, after all, a game rather than a CG film. The perfect cut scene for an FPS game lasts for a short period of time so that it doesn't take you away from the gameplay for too long, but also has some well placed and cutting dialogue that drives the story forward. The cut scenes in HAZE go on for far too long at times, taking you away from the action and force feeding you sprawling dialogue that hovers over the same point for minutes at a time. As a result they're often frustrating and a bit boring and what's worse is that you can't even skip them if you want to get on with playing the game.
Of course, perhaps the overly indulgent cut scenes would have been more enthralling if the gameplay between them was good, which it's not. We will applaud what Free Radical has done with the differences in combat style between Mantel troopers and Rebel soldiers. This is the key gameplay feature that Free Radical has been championing in a big way and if you haven't heard about the nuances of each style by now, then you must've spent the last year in a coma.
Anyway, for those select few miraculous coma patients who happen to be reading this, here's a brief explanation of the features: Mantel troopers take a drug called Nectar which improves the strength, speed, health, and targeting of the soldier (targeting is improved by highlighting enemies with an orange glow and increasing the zoom of a gun's scope). Rebels then use the side-effects of Nectar against the Mantel troopers by making them overdose using a few strategies: 1) making Nectar grenades; 2) shooting the Nectar packs on troopers' backs; 3) stabbing Mantel soldiers with Nectar stained knives. Additionally rebels can perform swift weapon steals, set booby traps, and appear invisible to Mantel soldiers by playing dead (N.B. Nectar makes dead soldiers appear invisible).
These features do work very well in the game. They're thoroughly original for an FPS game and are probably the best thing in HAZE. However, the strength of these features isn't enough to carry the mediocrity of the game's basic design. Given that we know what Free Radical is capable of, it's surprising that the FPS fundamentals of HAZE are so bland and generic. Your objectives follow incredibly basic 'go to A and do B' principles. Far too much time is spent finding a lever to pull, or a panel to activate, or a computer terminal to melee and destroy, or 3 Artillery guns that need to be put out of action. While these are the foundation of objectives in FPS titles, a good game these days will dress up these tasks so that they aren't quite so clichéd and formulaic. There are very few if any moments where HAZE manages to achieve this and because the basic gameplay is so uninspiring, it stops the more complex Mantel/rebel combat styles from being as appealing as they should've been.
This blandness has even snuck into the gunplay, as you'll rarely be holstering anything more adventurous than a rifle or shotgun. Occasionally you'll come across a sniper rifle, while there are also flame throwers and mini-guns in a couple of the game's sections, but that's about it. HAZE is, after all, a sci-fi game which gives its developers quite a lot of poetic license when it comes to weapons. After all, FRD's David Doak was on the Rare dev team responsible for Perfect Dark, which had an imaginative sci-fi weapon set to rival the Quake games. The most creative that Free Radical gets in HAZE is the Nectar grenade, which is a lot of fun to use but not enough to keep things interesting.
On top of this, there are some parts of HAZE that appear to be unfinished and this is after two delays since the game's originally projected release date of last December. In one of the game's later levels you have to defend the rebel village from a Mantel onslaught and Merino tells you to plant landmines in a courtyard. Your objective list is updated with the new task and Merino has the land mines in his hand, although he never actually gives them to you. With no land mines you're left to sit around twiddling your thumbs until the Mantel soldiers enter the courtyard. Then, without any land mines or booby traps being planted whatsoever, a message on your HUD flashes up alerting you that the objective has been completed.
Another example of an unfinished part of the game is the rebel land carrier attack during the final level. You're being escorted to the land carrier, armed with a mini-gun in the back of a rebel truck. Upon reaching the carrier you're told to take out the gun emplacements on its sides. However, rather than having a nice continuous flow where the car drives over to the other side of the carrier once you've taken out one of the guns, the game simply cuts to another scene where the truck is magically on the other side of the carrier. It's not a necessarily a big deal, but it just feels a bit slapdash and unfinished.
Then there's the AI which, for Mantel troopers at least, is somewhere between okay and pretty bad. While the rebel soldiers in the early levels have fairly solid routines, and your squad members throughout the game are also pretty sharp, the AI Mantel soldiers will sometimes fail to clock the fact that you're right in front of them. Sneaking up behind them is perhaps a bit too easy, while they often behave erratically in cover as well as they'll fail to advance on your position or even fire out of the cover.
Unbecoming Of Multiplayer Experts
Another surprisingly shallow part of the game, considering Free Radical's pedigree in this area, is the multiplayer. It caters for up to 16 players across a variety of maps taken from levels in the single-player game, utilising the same standard weapon sets you come across in the campaign as well. There are individual and team deathmatches, which make good use of the different combat styles for rebels and Mantel soldiers. Additionally, there is an objective based Team Assault mode that Free Radical has described as the deleted scenes from a DVD. The Team Assault on the land carrier map, for example, tasks the rebel team with disabling the SubQuoLux missile defence system on the land carrier's bridge. To do this the rebels must obtain a keycard first and then, once they've disabled the system at the bridge, they have a certain amount of time to stop the Mantel team from overriding the command.
You can also expect other Free Radical trimmings to the multiplayer such as some pretty capable bots. However, the three modes mentioned above (and that's counting team and individual deathmatches as two modes) are all that's on offer. When you consider the array of multiplayer modes that the Splitters series had on the previous-gen consoles, HAZE's offerings look a tad pathetic. Surely some capture the flag and base capturing modes would've worked quite well with the differing Mantel and rebel soldiers and it'll remain a mystery why Free Radical didn't include these.
In some good news for co-op fans HAZE will have 4 player drop-in, drop-out co-op. What's more, you can even go online with 2 players locally using split-screen. The difficulty levels for co-op games have also been specifically tailored so that Medium difficulty on co-op has harder settings than Medium on single-player etc. Of course, this has the effect of balancing the difficulties out because playing with 3 other human players on your squad makes things a lot easier.
Graphically, much of HAZE looks like a game straight from the middle of the previous generation of consoles. There are a few visual aspects that have a next-gen feel, such as character models and some of the smoke effects with Nectar grenades for example. However, the textures in the game's environments are far from what you'd expect to see on a PS3. Some of the foliage in the game's jungle levels, for example, would look distinctly average on a PS2.
HAZE's soundtrack has the feel of an action film for the most part. There's the usual intense orchestral score that provides a fair degree of atmosphere to the proceedings, but where the sound really falls down is with the chatter system. A chatter system basically constitutes the one-liners that you'll hear NPCs shout from time to time and, so help me, if I hear one more Mantel trooper say "You've got a problem, I'm gonna solve it," or a rebel soldier shout "We fight for Merino!" Then I might just OD on Nectar myself.
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