Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Free Radical
Release Date: May 20, 2008
Haze is not a mess on autopsy. Its game's demise is clear, obvious to in any examiner of spare skills and questionable training: It died of a syndrome, a genetic thing with which it was born and, really, only a few survive very long or very well. Haze had trisomy for the shooter chromosome, perhaps the most common of contemporary gaming disorders. But Haze had an advanced case, and it muddled along through infancy and its juvenile period, finally to succumb to an ailment it was never destined to overcome.
Sometime back, before an originally planned holiday 2007 release, Haze was delayed until spring. This of itself is nothing for games get delayed. More unusually, Haze for PlayStation 3 was delayed, while development of other versions was stalled so, as the publisher stated, "the development team can concentrate all efforts on the PS3 version." This is a worse sign, but it's still not necessarily diagnostic of something really awful. Then those versions for Xbox 360 and Windows PC were "indefinitely delayed," in the gaming trade typically synonymous with "temporarily, if not permanently, canceled." Haze has already had, indeed, acceptable unit sales, but, ultimately, critical response to the title may nix its appearance on other platforms.
Ironically, Haze would have likely fared better in the press at its original holiday release date, even amongst the rabble of Christmastime superstars. With an impossibly long list of great games hanging about, Haze's workaday nature probably would have not been such a disappointment, not the letdown of expecting a wildly superior shooter during the usual dry season for hot video game title releases.
The overarching plot behind the Haze campaign is interesting enough, if mostly stock-and-trade in near future shooters. You're a soldier for Mantel Corporation — later, you get to play as an ex-Mantel, a member of the rebel faction — a purveyor of private army services and military support (Blackwater USA, anyone?). You go to work for Mantel, you go to work for best-paying customers against their enemies — business, politics or otherwise — and ethics be damned. In the context of the Haze campaign, your only client is the opposition to those rebels, and, until the tables turn, your only enemies are those rebels. You're primed and hopped up for battle via mandatory dosing with a drug called Nectar, a sort of super-soldier in a backpack tank, injectable as necessary. Of course, there are problems with Nectar; it's not the pure, safe high our Mantel colleagues are led to believe, and the essential story underlying Haze is motivated by this fact.
The primary problem with Haze — the thing that pulls down the game from a very good FPS title to just another shooter — is not the graphics, which are quite good; the audio or voice acting, which are, respectively, solid and over-the-top but intentionally, appropriately so; and it's not even the glitches, bugs, miserable frame rate, hideous animations, sorry art direction, or inadequate controls. It's that Nectar, designed to be the most influential element of gameplay whether you're dosing up or battling a squad who has, really doesn't do much in the context of gameplay. Nectar's primary influences are causing rebel enemies, otherwise carbon copies of one another just as are futuristically uniformed Mantel soldiers — and, at a little distance, everyone looks alike — to glow with a bright, fuzzy light, undoubtedly the namesake haze. Nectar also slightly improves speed and agility, reduces damage and speeds healing if you're wounded.
To the contrary of the salubrious effects, self-overdosing on Nectar, getting shot in the backpack tank by rebels, or flooding your bloodstream with the stuff results in all combatants being painted the same shadowy black, making everyone who looks quite alike really look alike. You also become entirely disoriented and indiscriminately fire your weapon at friend and foe with equal fervor. Given a few moments, your Nectar serum level will stabilize, or a damaged tank will drain dry, and you're back to normal, without the combat enhancements of Nectar. But again, save some improved identification of the bad guys, Nectar just doesn't do that much. If it did, we'd have a helluva shooter here.
Obviously Free Radical planned and hoped that Nectar would indeed make the game, as the weapons selection and intensity of that arsenal in combat use, is sorely limited. Clearly, having Nectar, waiting a little while for a single dose of Nectar to regenerate, or sidling up to a Mantel solider and holding a button to transfer — read: steal — yourself a more generous bump up, was supposed to make all the difference nearly every inch of the way in each mission. But, lamentably, with decent eyesight or a good pair of spectacles, you can play the game about as well, and about exactly the same, with or without the jolly juice.
So, sans a real boost from Nectar, you'll quickly begin to miss the perhaps ridiculously bizarre techie arms we've come to expect from near-future shooters, the lack of any weapons upgrade system, and the hardly coma-inducing but lackluster character of the mission and level design. Ah, if only that damn Nectar thing, which looked so good on paper, had worked out.
As mentioned, Haze's graphics are reasonably representative of the seventh generation; surround sound audio effects are, well, effective; voice-acting will be read by critics and gamers alike as annoying and ridiculous, but they'll be missing the point, as the brain-damaged, anabolic steroid-abuser behavior of the Mantel squads relates directly to Haze's story elements. It's also clear that the team at Free Radical, with support of publisher Ubisoft — somewhat recently still derided for their weak-kneed ports of existing catalog titles to Sony's latest console — has a clear handle on how to develop for the powerful but complicated PS3. The game looks good, control is smooth, animations are lifelike, and technical bits like frame rate and the nitty-gritty of graphics programming are all in proper order. Also, Haze offers Ma Bell clarity in voice support, and split-screen and co-op seven ways to Sunday, online and off, and LAN — features all either entirely missing or pitiably implemented in a lot of otherwise good PS3 titles.
Again, it's just that damn Nectar thing. There are some competent vehicle driving/shooting sequences mixed in the mission levels to break things up, but some sort of vehicular mayhem has these days become so expected in FPSes that these passages hardly count toward distinguishing Haze.
Haze does have a smooth-running multiplayer component with a nice online interface, and the aforementioned crystal-clear voice chat support, with the indeed fairly unique element of limiting open-channel voice communications to squads you align yourself with before entering a match. But, here again, the entire multiplayer scheme must have been structured around Nectar — and the more common trick behind the rebel's combat, the ability "play dead," spring up and mow down the Mantel maniacs — as there are good maps, but only a few, and a whopping three modes. Go ahead, take a guess. That's right: team assault, the usual single-objective hoopla; deathmatch; and, get back, team deathmatch. I don't mean to make too light of Free Radical's efforts; these simple modes and perhaps a couple of more maps as downloadable content would have been plenty, as they would have been sufficient in many outstanding online shooter titles, had the Nectar design mechanic worked as the developers obviously intended.
The immediate association with Haze as an underperforming FPS with lofty ambitions will be Saber Interactive's TimeShift, where the boat anchor, besides some awkward but forgivable vehicular control mechanics, was an excellent gameplay design hook that worked well, but almost no one got it, so no one used it, and ergo the title was ultimately just another shooter. In Haze, almost all of us will get Free Radical's unique design element, but it just doesn't work.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Haze is that it could have easily been for Free Radical a shooter franchise, but with it clearly questionable whether even previously scheduled ports for other platforms will ever be completed, let alone a sequel, I can't imagine the developer will ever get a chance to take what could have been a fantastic twist on FPS gameplay, dissect its failure, fix, refine, enhance it and present it anew in Haze 2. That's the downside to the protracted development cycle and mammoth budgets of contemporary AAA video games: You get one at-bat, you at least smack a lucky hot-liner double, or you go back to the Poughkeepsie Plowshares to finish out the season in the minors, and then, the next spring, you most likely go hat in hand asking after that "stable" sales job at your father-in-law's life insurance agency, a miserable desk-jockey deal your wife keeps bugging you to take. But that pop-up you lofted out to the Dodgers' left fielder — if it had been a half-inch lower and a half-heart harder, that fat fastball could have been gone.
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