Haze Week; the PS3 Attitude review
It's the year 2048, and the world is not a happy place.
Mantel Corporation are the Microsoft, Oracle or EA of the future. A huge behemoth swallowing everyone up in their wake, purely in the name of profit and shareholder value. As well as producing a range of half-decent weapons, they have a performance-enhancing drug up their sleeves - Nectar.
As a Mantel Trooper named Shane Carpenter, it is your job to stop the 'ethnic cleansing' being performed by members of a rebel group - The Promised Hand. Nectar offers you the edge you need to defeat the 'evil' rebels by giving you unique capabilities, such as Nectar Foresight which warns you of impending explosions or Nectar Focus; a kind of auto-zoom for your gun sight that helps lock on to your now-glowing target.
In the first part of the single-player campaign, you are introduced to these various drug-induced abilities, only not in the way I expected.
Having been invited to play the co-op and multiplayer modes of the game twice by Ubisoft and Free Radical over the last month, and after experiencing the joy of zero load times during a two-hour co-op session, it was a surprise to me that the flow of the game stopped almost as soon as I had got into it. In front of me was a large black dialogue box with reams of text about how Nectar works.
The fact that you're introduced to the features Nectar offers in this clunky way does put you off your stride. It would have been nicer to bring them in through example and commentary. But the delay doesn't last long (assuming you bother reading it at all) and you're back into the experience.
The 4Gb mandatory install that is becoming so common on the PS3 does actually work in Haze, since the rest of the game streams constantly with no load times. Well, that is until your get your second rude interruption as your Rebel abilities are spelt out for you in a similar way.
There are two things I noticed immediately about Haze when playing the campaign mode, and interestingly both of these items became largely insignificant later, but for different reasons.
The first is the graphics.
Haze is never going to win any awards for graphical prowess. After a mammoth 8-hour session playing the single-player campaign through, I can honestly say I didn't notice any major issues with the graphics - certainly not the pop-ups being commented on in other websites and magazines. The graphics are not remarkable, but they aren't terrible either.
But the reason the graphics become largely insignificant is that they are good enough to do their job, and so after a short while you forget that you're not looking at a work of art, and you get on with the game instead. Think of it like painting a feature wall in your living room - it's only a feature for a few days, and then you don't even notice it is there.
Things do change graphically when you realise 'the truth' about Nectar and switch sides, and it's interesting to note what the real world looks like without honey-tinted glasses, but once again you begin to forget about how things look and get on with the game instead after a few minutes.
The second are the controls.
Free Radical haven't messed around with the way you play an FPS, and with their pedigree and experience, why should they.
I remember the first time I picked up Haze at GameCity in Nottingham last year, I didn't even need to look at the cheat sheet - the controls were so intuitive and the targeting system worked so well, it just came naturally. Of course, to progress you do need to know how to use the specific buttons that operate the Troopers' or Rebels' special abilities, but it all seems to just work.
So consequently, you end up forgetting about the controls quickly too, which helps with the flow of the game and the better-than-average gameplay.
The only problem I found that destroys the illusion of this 'natural gameplay' is when you are required to press a button or pull a lever - often there is a delay between being told to 'press square' and actually being able to press it. The frustration of standing in front of a lever, pressing and pressing until your character does what he's told, can't be ignored.
Something that never quite sits naturally in Haze, however, is the acting.
Did someone say 'Semper Fi'?
I understand why FRD went in the direction they did with the Troopers. Troopers act just like frat boys, and in the UK we just don't have those characters like they do in the US. It wouldn't have been right for a British developer to cast Brits in the role. It's pretty clear to me why the Mantel soldiers all sound like they belong to Kappa Omega Sigma. In fact, the only things missing are beer kegs, toga parties and induction ceremonies.
I also understand that Rob Yescombe went to the additional expense of recording the voice talent all at the same time, like a high-tech episode of The Archers, in an attempt to make sure that the actors fed off each other's lines (no drug-pun intended). Usually, developers record actors separately as it is cheaper and easier to schedule their diaries.
The result, unfortunately, doesn't quite work. And it's not the process that is at fault, it's just the acting isn't that good. The lead character of Shane Carpenter and the voice behind the leader of the Rebels (Gabriel 'Skin Coat' Merino) are the best of the bunch, but the supporting 'cast' often sound awkward.
The storyline itself works well as far as I'm concerned. Many people will look at this game and think that the only parallel here is neoconservatism, with a leader ruling through fear, uncertainty and doubt to ensure his troops take the enemy down regardless of whether they are the bad guys or not, and ensuring the support of the populace. There are nods towards 'pep pills' with the fabled Nectar and references to the politics and psychological strategy of war.
Another way of looking at Haze is that this could also be a game about gaming. The Troopers are the FPS masses who don't care about the morality of the task they're performing - they just see the prize ahead and go for as many headshots as they can. The Rebels are the gamers that think about what they're doing, seeing the game in a different angle and connecting emotionally with the story and the actions they have to perform.
Ultimately, the script just misses the target and I'm sorry to say the campaign does have one of the weakest endings I've experienced in a game of this type. You never quite get that 'light bulb' moment where you actually feel truly bad about killing the Rebels, and you are quickly sent out by your new 'leader' to do exactly the same to the Troopers with a similar lack of remorse because you never quite connect with the cause.
It's not all bad though - there are good moments in the script that do involve you, particularly early on in the game, and it is a shame the momentum of those emotions weren't carried throughout the entire campaign.
Haze's single-player campaign offers competent graphics with well-above-average gameplay that mostly seems natural and intuitive. The multiplayer and co-op elements of Haze are slick and varied and offer longevity to the game. We have written a good deal about both the co-op and multiplayer modes already, so follow the links to hear what we had to say about them.
Haze definitely has enough going for it to keep you involved. I'm not so bloody-minded that I absolutely have to complete a game just for the sake of it, but in the case of Haze I wanted to complete it in one session, and had a lot of fun in the process.
You may not be looking at the future winner of 'Graphics of the Year 2008', but the single-player, co-op and multiplayer experiences Haze offers ultimately make up for that shortfall.