Reviewed: June 13, 2008
Released: May 20, 2008
I remember the first time I ever saw Haze. It was at the 2006 E3 show. I was walking by the Ubisoft pavilion and two huge guys in army fatigues shoved a tiny black box of energy pills in my hand and yanked me into an indoctrination booth to view a sneak peek at Free Radical’s upcoming FPS. What I saw blew me away. It was the kind of graphics and gameplay technology that overshadowed Far Cry (the reigning FPS champ at the time), and it was being shown on an Xbox 360.
Well, it took nearly two more years for that game to finally reach the stores and during that time some corporate shenanigans (payola) must have taken place because the 360 and PC formats were quietly dropped and Haze became a PS3 exclusive. And while I have no problems with the PS3, especially for first-party games, third-party developers continually prove they don’t have what it takes to develop for Sony’s next-gen console. What blew me away two years ago on the 360 saddens me today on the PS3.
Haze is a traditional and atypical FPS game that tries to mask itself using a single hook; a combat performance-enhancing drug called Nectar. Hey, if our sports heroes can shoot up why can’t our soldiers? Nectar takes ordinary soldiers and turns them into super-soldiers, able to resist damage while improving their mobility, vision, and target accuracy. There are also some interesting side effects, such as viewing a very evil world through rose-colored glasses. Nectar is also highly addictive, causes fits of rage and eventual death from prolonged usage. Where do I enlist?
The single-player campaign deals with Shane Carpenter, a fresh recruit for the Mantel army who joins up with a group of hardened soldiers as they invade South America to fight a group of rebels known as Promise Hand. Mantel operates from a giant land carrier (think aircraft carrier that drives through the rainforest). Without giving too much away, you’ll fight for Mantel for a few missions, enjoying all the benefits of being a Nectar-enhanced soldier, but then you’ll slowly realize that you might not be on the [morally] right side, leading you to join up with the resistance and start fighting your former comrades.
It’s an interesting concept, at least on paper and possibly as a story, but it fails miserably when executed through gameplay. As a Mantel soldier you are virtually unstoppable, so logically, once you join Promise Hand you should be getting killed as quickly and efficiently as you were doing the killing a few levels prior. Instead, you are given a new arsenal of tricks to exploit Mantel soldiers’ weaknesses like overconfidence and a reliance on Nectar – weaknesses that were never exploited on you were with Mantel. It’s all too convenient.
The story also falls apart because of stereotypical and often, unlikable characters, poor voice acting, and extremely poor character designs, facial textures, expressions, and animations. Sadly, the final shipping version of Haze looks inferior to what I saw two years ago in it’s early stage of development. I’m not sure if I can saddle the PS3 with all of the blame, since many of Haze’s flaws aren’t all technical in nature. Story and gameplay suffer greatly and seem very last-gen.
The first few levels you will fight alongside Mantel soldiers. You are part of a squad of rambunctious guys that definitely seem hopped up on drugs – like a group of rowdy frat brothers. The game does a good job of making you feel like the “new guy”, so there is really not a lot of mental conflict when it comes time to part ways a few chapters into the game.
Nectar is the huge hook for Haze; the only thing that tries to elevate this standard FPS into something more, but even during the short time you get to use it (maybe 30% of the game) it really isn’t that great. A squeeze on the left trigger will pump you up for a short time allowing enemy targets to glow, steady your sniper aim, and allow you to run faster and withstand large amounts of damage, especially in melee attacks, which you are almost never close enough to initiate.
As with any drug, there is the opportunity to overdose, either accidentally (by holding down L2 too long) or later, when you fight for Promise Hand, by shooting the Nectar injector on their armor or fashioning a Nectar grenade and trapping soldiers in a yellow cloud of Nectar vapor. If a Mantel soldier OD’s, the screen turns red and anyone and everyone becomes a target as you spin around and unload your clip into friend and foe alike.
Playing as Mantel is pretty standard stuff. It’s only when you join Promise Hand that things get slightly interesting. As a resourceful rebel you have the ability to convert ammo from one weapon type to another. You can also remove the Nectar pack from fallen soldiers, attach it to a grenade and create a useful Nectar bomb that can cause multiple soldiers to OD if they are caught in the blast. You’ll see them turn from yellow to red and open fire on everyone until they crumple to the ground and die a slow and agonizing death. Another cool rebel ability allows you to plant grenades just beneath the surface, creating some nice booby-trap situations.
Aside from these minor abilities the entire game is a standard run and gun shooter with a few arena-style battles, a few “defend the zone” sequences, and a few vehicle sequences in buggies and a chopper. With the exception of the final few levels, the entire game is a classic example of “been there done that…and did it better”.
The AI in Haze is problematic regardless of which side you are fighting on. As with most squad-based games, your men are there more as a diversion for the enemy, and you will have to do most of the work and most of the killing yourself. You’ll also be called upon to heal your men when they fall in battle. Just look for the guy crouched over and perform the overly complicated combo of down on the D-pad and square button.
Even the weapon selection in Haze can’t elevate this futuristic FPS. We’ve used these same machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers a hundred times before in a hundred other shooters. Only the models have changed. And even when you switch to Promise Hand you don’t get any cool rebel weapons, and you’ll quickly switch back to Mantel guns because that is the majority of ammo that is lying around.
If there is any promising element to Haze it would have to be the multiplayer, which only saddens me more that the game isn’t on Xbox, because the PS Network is still a far inferior online gaming network and a lacking social experience. Haze offers a nice cooperative campaign mode with drop-in support for a second player locally or up to four players online. There is also support for up to 16 players in three modes; Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Team Assault.
The first two modes need no explanation and Team Assault is an objective-based mission mode much like Quake Wars: Enemy Territory, where one team is assigned objectives and the other team tries to prevent them from completing those objectives. Regardless of the mode you choose, you will still have to deal with poor network response times that get worse the more players you have, and a lack of voice chat making any success more about luck than teamwork.
I take back everything bad I ever said about Resistance: Fall of Man. As unimpressed as I was with Sony’s big launch title, Haze puts everything into perspective with some of the truly most below-average last-gen graphics I’ve seen on the system to date. I had my fears when I played the demo prior to release but told myself that it was just a demo and things would certainly look better on the final disc. Not so.
First, we start off with a 720p presentation which is an automatic deduction considering that 1080p is the accepted (and expected) standard of gaming, especially on a system that touts its Blu-ray player. The game gets worse when you start to break it down and analyze the elements. I was laughing aloud (out of sadness mostly) at the 2D “flat” trees that lined the sides of the path my carrier was cutting down in South America. These are the same crappy trees I saw in golf games in the late 80’s and early 90’s. And don’t even try to do a tropical jungle setting in your game if you aren’t prepared to at least match the visuals we saw in Uncharted.
The draw distance is pitiful with loads of pop-up. If you rush into a room or spin around you can literally witness enemy soldiers spawning into view before your eyes. Enemies spawn based on your location in the current map, so when you trip that invisible activation line soldiers will literally appear and open fire. Surprise! Textures are featureless with no real bump mapping, shadows, or realistic lighting. Faces literally glow, and most of the game is dull and washed out with little contrast or color.
If I had to say anything nice about the graphics it would be more style that substance. I enjoyed the moments when your Nectar injector would fail and you would briefly see the world for how it really is. Sunshine would turn to clouds and rain, empty rooms or rooms with body bags would turn into scenes of indescribable bloody torture and terror. These rare mind-altering and revealing moments actually brought the concept of Nectar to fruition.
The voice acting in Haze runs the gamut from quite good to extremely bad. Most of the Mantel troops have dialogue that is so bad you can’t help but laugh. They all sound like jocks who have all just injected themselves with steroids and are cursing and high-fiving and posturing amongst their testosterone infused peers. The dialogue and battle taunts aren’t quite as annoying or repetitive once you join Promise Hand, but overall, the entire script is poorly written and executed even worse.
Sound effects are decent, ranging from the hissing of Nectar to the realistic reports from the various weapons. The Warthog-style buggy has a nice engine noise to it and a geeky horn, and there are some thunderous explosions. The Dolby Digital mix does an acceptable job of putting you into the game, especially when rockets are whizzing by you in a certain helicopter level.
The score is mostly military themes for the menus and missions played as Mantel, then the music gets a bit more unpredictable and adventurous when you join the rebels. There are moments where the music fuels the action and others where it drops out entirely allowing you to enjoy the sounds of combat and destruction.
Haze is a short game by any standard. Most players can finish it in two or three sittings or about 8-10 hours. On the standard difficulty you’ll get a mild challenge, and you can ramp it up to make things tougher, if not downright frustrating. The drop-in co-op might enhance your enjoyment of the campaign but it’s probably not worth it to replay the entire game just to share the experience. There are better games out there for that. The other online multiplayer modes are problematic and boring and best left unexplored.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I will now that we are wrapping things up. The single most enjoyable moment of this game was the final 30 seconds, with a story reveal that is worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan script. That single moment justified a lot of the uneasiness I was experiencing leading up to that point, but it really can’t justify the uninspired and below-average gameplay experience Haze barely brings to the table.
Haze is just the latest nail in Sony’s coffin that finds me using my PS3 more as a Blu-ray movie player than a gaming system. Sony needs to pick their “exclusive” titles a lot more carefully, and Free Radical needs to step up their game if they want to return to the glory days of TimeSplitters and Second Sight.