Review: Haze (Sony PS3)

Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Free Radical
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 05/20/08

Haze is the sort of game that, right from the get-go, is generally going to be difficult to appreciate; it’s been hyped for about a year or so as one of the guaranteed can’t miss exclusive titles the PS3 has been clamoring for since release, with more than a few people anticipating that it would receive more than a few end-of-year award nominations when it came out, and judging by the general failure of several other “can’t miss exclusive titles” on the PS3 (Heavenly Sword and Lair being the biggest examples), it was pretty inevitable that even if Haze was a truly strong piece of work, it was more than likely to be underwhelming in the face of all the hype. This combined with the fact that numerous delays undermined faith in the product and, in a somewhat unfortunate bit of bad luck, ended up placing the release of the game directly between the release of two of the hottest profile games this year (if not ever) in Grand Theft Auto 4 and Metal Gear Solid 4.

So, yeah, right off the bat you’re competing with the two biggest reasons to own a PS3 by dropping in right as they launch. That’s not so good.

Of course, any good game can still manage to scrape out its own niche, even in the center of two gigantic releases; it’s not like there’s a whole lot coming out in the month of June, for instance, aside from MGS4, and it’s certainly feasible that many PS3 owners would certainly be more than willing to drop the cash on a second “great” game if the situation permits. This, unfortunately, makes Haze all the sadder; were it a great game, it might be able to inspire gamers to give it a go while they wait or after they finish with what most consider to be the biggest system selling games this year, but unfortunately, even with numerous delays and a solid hype campaign behind it, Haze never really manages to be anything but “okay”.

The story pretty much embodies the “meh” feeling the game inspires from the get-go: you take on the role of Shane Carpenter, Sergeant (in name only, it seems) in the Mantel army, a private army hired by the pharmaceutical firm of the same name to kill a horrendous dictator named “Skin Coat”, who is believed to perform all sorts of hideous acts (with a nickname like “Skin Coat” you can probably imagine some of the acts he’s accused of), with your group being tasked, essentially, with helping to stop his horrible atrocities.

Generally speaking, this sort of story is either going to be played straight (with “Skin Coat” being a horrendous beast of a man who rapes and kills people for fun and is like Hitler on steroids) or with the “who’s the bad guy” message (where your side is a bunch of filthy liars and the people you’re fighting are really the good guys), so you will perhaps be unsurprised to know that in this case, the story takes the second route; the “Manos de Promesa”, or “Promise Hands”, are really a rebel faction fighting on the side of good and Mantel’s forces are a bunch of drugged-up crazies fueled by Nectar, a performance-enhancing drug that makes the characters stronger, faster and more resilient in battle, at the cost of any sort of morality or proper perception of events, effectively buying whatever morality-based propaganda they’re fed about “greater good” whether they’re really performing things for the greater good at all.

So, y’know. Poignant social commentary and whatnot.

The actual plot is one-part Starship Troopers meets one-part Brainwashing Empire With a Dark Secret meets one-part Heel Face Turn meets one-part Star Wars; it’s generally wonky about the actual combination of this sort of thing, mind you, but you can see where it was trying to go. The bad guys are drugged-up frat boys and killers for hire in dark imposing armor while the good guys are moralistic “save our homeland” sorts who are made up of the ethnic majority (Hispanic, complete with the occasional Spanish phrases and oddly named weapons, like the “Oso”, IE “Bear” shotgun) and strive to save their land from the evil invaders, you know the deal. As it is, the story is generally pretty mediocre with a couple of presentation-oriented flashes of brilliance; the effects of the detox from the drug are solid and involved in a well-designed scenario, a few of the speeches here and there are decent enough, and the ending is morally ambiguous enough to make the situation work for what it is, but most of the script is heavy-handed pap that’s hard to swallow or take seriously, and some elements don’t entirely make sense. All in all you won’t feel any stupider for playing through this, but it won’t stick with you after you’ve finished it, either.

On the same note, however, the subtitling is pretty bad; I can understand condensing a sentence or eliminating certain words for time/storage constraint purposes, but how in the hell does “junkie” translate to “jackneck”? Apparently no one actually proof-read the subtitles, which is… pretty sloppy, given the nature of the product.

Visually, Haze looks pretty decent; the character models are mostly quite solid and believable, and the environments, while not great, are serviceable enough and work within the context of the game to reasonable extent. There’s plenty bad here, of course; the fire effects are not very acceptable in this day and age, many of the character animations don’t seem to actually work as expected (watch as an enemy fires, comes to full stop, then dives out of the way of a grenade, and it all looks awkward), and the environments, despite being pretty sometimes are flat and lifeless in others, but there’s more good than bad. Aurally, well, Haze is okay-ish; the ambient music tracks work well enough without being great or awful, the voice acting is generally okay in most respects, and the guns sound spot-on as they should, but on the other hand, the Korn track for the game is absolutely god-awful (and I LIKE KORN, for the record) and the repetition of the same six vocal samples ad infinitum kills any sense of interest the voice acting might have in the first two hours of play.

Which brings us to the deja-vu inspiring gameplay of Haze, which plays in an odd sort of fashion that is one part “things you’ve seen in every other FPS, ever” and one part “stuff that’s new to Haze, because it really doesn’t work so well and no one else really would have ever wanted to do it if they valued sales”. This is not to say that Haze plays badly, as it doesn’t, so much as it is to say that many of the gameplay elements honestly don’t work in a way that makes them functional or interesting, or there are design elements that make certain sections of the game less enjoyable than others. The core gameplay, of course, is FPS 101; left stick moves, right stick looks around (though in an odd feature, you can actually switch that if such a thing appeals to you), you can shoot, melee and throw grenades at foes as well as change grenade types, switch between weapons, swap for weaponry on the ground and reload your equipped weapon and jump all with simple presses of the buttons or triggers. The game works off of the Halo school of FPS gameplay, meaning that healing damage is a simple matter of stepping away from the enemy from a brief period and you can only carry two weapons at any given time, save for your grenades. Insofar as the basic gameplay mechanics work, the game is reasonably simple to work around, and this goes for driving vehicles as well; acceleration, reverse, hand-brake, all are simple to figure out for anyone who’s been playing this sort of game for a while (and a helpful tutorial explains how things work for those who haven’t, making life easier in any case).

Where Haze tries to differentiate itself involves the two factions (Mantel and the Promise Hands) and their different styles of play, as this is also the basis for multiplayer, so the game makes their differences apparent in the campaign as well. Mantel soldiers have access to Nectar, the aforementioned performance-enhancing drug; each dose of Nectar improves your ability to deal melee damage, makes your enemies pop out in bright Predator-vision, and makes you less capable of death. They have one distinct drawback, however; Nectar overdose, AKA “Ëœroid rage. In essence, a Mantel soldier can OD in one of two ways: if they are shot in the Nectar distribution panel on the back of their armor (which, admittedly, is not a huge target) or by self-administering too large a dose of Nectar (to administer, one holds down a trigger to fill the bar, ALA something out of Mario Golf; fill it too low and the effects wear off faster, fill it too much and OD, though it’s easier than it sounds in practice to work with). When in an overdose state, Mantel soldiers fire at anything they see (or, more accurately, just start firing wildly) and can confuse friend for foe until the OD wears off. In comparison, Promise Hands soldiers lack the boost of Nectar, but can dodge, plant grenades as traps, scavenge ammo for their weapon from the weapons of others (no mean feat when you’re finding shotgun ammo in a machine gun) and “Play Dead”, which works exactly as it sounds and allows you to draw the heat from yourself and thus pop up later in proper ass-kicking shape. Aside from lacking the super rush Nectar gives, they lack any other significant weaknesses.

Now, as noted, Haze is generally simple to play and work with, and offers online and offline multiplayer to keep things fresh enough for the casual fan. You can play through the campaign co-op with up to four players online, via LAN, or through split-screen play, which is really easy to do in all cases, which is a definite plus. You can also jump into versus online play, in ranked or unranked matches, in various Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and mission-based team matchups, all of which can be played online, through the aforementioned LAN play, or offline (though you can only use Bots in DM and Team DM). The maps, though a bit on the small side, are fairly easy to navigate, and there are various different weapons and such to fool around with in all of them, which should keep online play interesting for a while, in any case.

And that’s the good. Now let’s take a deep breath and slog our way through the bad.

Well, the core storyline missions are generally not very fun. This is something of a surprise, coming from Free Radical; I mean, with the folks behind Goldeneye and (as their own company) Timesplitters making your FPS, you’d think “instant classic”, right? Not so much, unfortunately. Everything that’s bad about the game can neatly be summed up by discussing one of the later storyline missions that takes place on a bridge where you’re tasked with escorting a Mobile Missile Platform across. First off, the weapon variety is nil; you’re given two kinds of machine guns, two kinds of shotguns, a rocket launcher, two sniper rifles, a chain gun, a flame thrower and throwing knives coated in Nectar, and even accepting the sets of duplicate weapons as individual weaponry, ten weapons is kind of-sort of weak when compared to its contemporaries, especially considering that yes, there are duplicate weapons (I understand the need to have different weapons for both sides, but that tends to work better when the weapons ACTUALLY SEEM DIFFERENT), and this becomes somewhat apparent when you’re basically running around, switching up weaponry on the bridge, and aside from the Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, everything basically feels the same. Second, death is frequent on any difficulty, and while difficulty is a wonderful thing if done properly, shooting your own troops because they bumble in front of your gun, being run over by the platform because you’re occupied with other things, and being pistol-whipped by Nectared-up Mantel soldiers and DYING INSTANTLY is less “challenging” and more “annoying”, especially since it takes thirty to forty-five seconds to reload from your last check point.

And as an aside: to any developer who insists on making a game go through a ten or twenty minute mandatory installation prior to playing (as Haze does), I DO NOT WANT TO WAIT THROUGH A MINUTE OF LOADING EVERY TIME I DIE IN THE GAME IF I HAVE TO INSTALL THE GAME. I don’t care if there’s ten seconds of loading between levels if it means I don’t have to wait almost a full minute to reload when I bite it, okay? Dying is a constant in all FPS titles from Halo to Half-Life and beyond, this I accept, but come on, other games are capable of dropping you right back into the action upon your demise, work with me here.

And speaking of getting run over by your own allies, the AI sucks. Thrown grenades won’t always trigger a response in the enemy forces, and many times if there is one it’s seconds AFTER the grenade lands. Enemies will often be at close range to one another, shooting blindly, and even if several of your own troops have one enemy cornered they have odd problems dealing with him (and, while we’re on the subject, everyone’s really a him in this game, which is… awkward). This also becomes even worse during this particular scenario, as you’re tasked to remove all of the mines on the bridge to allow the missile to continue; as you’re figuring out how to best do this, the missile JUST STARTS MOVING FORWARD AGAIN, RIGHT INTO THE MINES without waiting for you to finish… um, okay? No, that’s fine, go ahead, I wasn’t really going to get rid of the mines anyway, you get yourself blown up. Rock out.

The campaign battles, also, aren’t structured in a way that’s very fun or enjoyable or strategic or, well, anything but tedious. The game has its flashes of brilliance, certainly, and it’s impossible to deny that (the battle sequences after the bridge section are actually scripted well enough as you come closer to the endgame, though by that point it’s kind of too late), but those are few and far between; most of the stages are uninspired in design, and the battles themselves amount to “go here, shoot these guys, go there, shoot these guys, and so on” with no real sense of adrenaline rush or excitement to speak of. Games like Halo, Gears of War, Half-Life 2 and F.E.A.R. (and, for that matter, Timesplitters and its sequels) generally made the firefights pitched, intense affairs in their own separate ways, but Haze doesn’t do this; almost every mission is a slog from one fight to the next with little to no actual investment in anything beyond sticking some dudes out in front of you to shoot. Oh, and speaking of single-player battle structure, whoever came up with the idea to have segments of “Nectar Disruption”, while I wholly appreciate the effort, with the black and white screens and the screaming and all, and while I TOTALLY thought that was an AWESOME way to do things insofar as showing the negative effects of addiction and the “real world” as it were… disabling the only abilities a Mantel trooper has in the middle of battle against multiple foes? This is a bad idea. Doing it while I’m on a moving platform and I have to shoot at distant foes and making it so that Nectar Disruption makes you unable to zoom in? THAT’S just ignorant.

Multiplayer is, as noted, an amusing diversion that mostly removes the downsides of bad AI and such, but it too has its flaws, the single biggest one being that the Mantel soldiers, for all of their positives in the strength and aiming departments, are SERIOUSLY screwed in comparison to the Promise Hands forces. Mantel troops are offered better damage resilience, stronger long-range weaponry, and the benefits of Nectar giving them improved aiming and such, yeah, but the Promise Hands rebels can play dead (invaluable in multiplayer where players don’t bother to check if you stay dead), dodge, use TWO KINDS of weapons that cause Nectar overdoses (and can take lucky shots that can cause the same thing), and have some heavy close-range firepower to boot, and aside from being a little less hearty in combat suffer from no crippling drawbacks. By itself, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but combined with the limited modes (while, yes, each map has a separate mission that can be accomplished within it, that doesn’t instantly mean that you’re not just playing Team DM in it otherwise) and the limited weaponry, online becomes tiresome in a hurry.

Oh, and in three separate occasions I ended up either loading into the game with no geography (one of which locked the game up) or driving/walking into a zone where the in-game geography simply disappeared, which is… not normal, and not good.

Basically, it comes down to this: Haze is like hanging out with a rock collector… occasionally, he’s got some sort of polished piece of iron pyrite or quartz or what have you that’s pretty and cool, but most of the time he’s showing you boring rocks you don’t care about and you have to feign interest in to see the cooler ones. Now, maybe he’s a nice guy, and maybe he’s fun to talk to sometimes, but most of the time he’s dull and you wish you were somewhere else, hanging out with someone else, because the five minutes of genuine entertainment he gives you isn’t worth the four hours of boredom you have to go through for it. Now, okay, yes, that’s a bit labored, but it’s a fair analogy: as FPS games go, there are and will be better on the PS3, and even if you’re heavily into the genre Haze doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before that it does so well as to make the experience worth playing through. Most of the adjectives one could use to describe it (passable, tolerable, acceptable) are words that describe things you DON’T enjoy, and coming out on a system with better FPS games… and, more importantly, coming FROM people who have made better FPS games… it’s just not a worthwhile experience.

The Scores:
Story: POOR
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: POOR
Miscellaneous: BAD


Short Attention Span Summary:
Haze is a somewhat disappointing next-gen effort from usually solid developers Free Radical. The story is acceptable for what is, the game is certainly playable, the visuals and audio aren’t BAD, and there’s some online and offline multiplayer modes to play around with that are certainly not without their charms in their own special ways, if you’re looking for ANY FPS title to play. For those looking for a great experience or the next hot new thing, however, you won’t find it here; an uninspired campaign, unintelligent AI, a dearth of variety across the board, unbalanced teams in multiplayer and the distinct sense you’ve done all this before keep this from living up to its potential in spades. Haze might be worth renting if you’re curious, but it’s not really worth anything beyond that.



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