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It seems a terrible shame that following the recent announcement that Free Radical will effectively be no more, their legacy as one of the best and most loved independent British development studios will be forever tainted by the mediocrity of Haze. It’s beguiling to think how the developers have gone from creating such titles like the excellent TimeSplitters series and the underrated Second Sight to this, which is arguably the most disappointing high-profile big budget game so far this generation.

screenshotMotion blur: disguising poor graphics since 2000

It’s hard to see when, exactly, Haze would have seemed like a particularly good idea. You play an armoured super-soldier, your allies are all dickheads and the game is practically creaking under its own conceit and sobered seriousness. While the TimeSplitters games stood out because of their zany time-travelling plots and wonderfully unique style and Second Sight was notable for telling a good story and trying some original concepts, Haze has neither. There is nothing here to differentiate it from the dozens of other armoured marines first-person shooters, save a badly-told plot and some of the worst scripting and characterisation of any game.

However, the bare bones of the plot isn’t too bad – it’s the near future and national armies no longer exist; corporations run private armies which are contracted out when needed. You play sergeant Shane Carpenter in Mantel’s army, which has been sent to the Boa region of South America to eliminate a vicious dictator called Gabriel ‘Skin Coat’ Merino and his private army, the Promise Hand. However, upon arriving it becomes clear this is no well-established organisation and that Mantel have them seriously outclassed, to the extent that it’s akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Before long – and after a slew of unbearable (and unskippable) conversations – Carpenter discovers Mantel are really waging war over pharmaceutical exclusivity, and he joins the rebels to stop the big evil corporation in their tracks.

Central to Haze is the drug Nectar, which plays a pivotal role in both the gameplay and the narrative. As a Mantel trooper, Nectar is your best weapon – boosting on it will make your health regenerate faster, give you increased speed and strength and illuminate your enemies (which is useful as much of the time they are deliberately hard to spot). Contrary to this, the Promise Hand take advantage of Nectar’s weaknesses – for example it doesn’t allow its users to see dead bodies, and so the rebels can play dead when they’re heavily damaged before surprising and gunning down any nearby troops. Much was made of this contrast between the two forces in the game’s pre-release marketing, but in reality these differences are only really noticeable in the multiplayer.

screenshotGet used to seeing these bright yellow targets – the game almost forces you to rely on Nectar

As you should expect from the developers of TimeSplitters, the controls are smooth and responsive. Aiming and movement feels spot-on, R1 is fire, L1 deals with grenades and L2 deals with shooting up Nectar; it is one area where the game is unquestionably able and competent. The level design is, however, less successful. You begin in jungles which have copious invisible walls and despite looking temptingly open-ended you are quickly funnelled down corridors. The levels rarely get exciting or interesting, and feel more like an exercise in ticking boxes – there’s a quarry, a steelworks, a wrecked ship, a neglected town and even a couple of uninspired vehicle sections; it’s all passable enough but extremely uninspired. There aren’t even any exciting set-pieces, which – as Resistance 2 showed last year – can really elevate a shooter when implemented properly.

The visuals are poor both artistically and technically, which again is very surprising after the superb aesthetics of their previous titles. Textures lack detail and are muddy, and neither character animations nor facial features are particularly well done, which is a shame since you spend a lot of time in first-person cut scenes staring at someone, usually while they give you a lecture or ramble on some pretentious monologue. Effects like smoke and heat haze look okay, although the fire is incredibly poor; worse than in some PS2 titles. The AI is so perfunctory as to barely register – enemies take cover and sometimes run away from you, but they never display any kind of co-operation or tactics.

Mantel troopers are portrayed as unlikeable frat-boy-esque idiots, while Merino and his people are portrayed as peaceful family men who took up arms only in self-defence. The characterisations are so unsubtle that it’s actually embarrassing – this must surely be amongst the worst-scripted games ever made. One particularly laughably bad example is when Merino tells you how a Mantel trooper bit the lip off a baby and threw her in a fire – later you encounter said trooper and he realises what he has done, before shooting himself in the head, followed by his friend running over, asking if he’s okay and putting the gun to his own head. There are Ren and Stimpy episodes with better scripting than this.

screenshotLooks nice, eh? Someone’s been Photoshopping this

And it doesn’t help that Carpenter is such an unbearable streak of piss. Despite being a sergeant he gets bullied by those of a lower rank, and even starts the game by saluting another sergeant. He doesn’t talk back to anyone even when they’re saying or doing something unbelievably stupid, and generally acts like such a spineless coward that you find it hard to like him or believe that a man like this would ever really enrol in the army.

There’s a fairly decent weapon line up, which includes the usual machine guns, shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles, and so on. They feel a bit underpowered in both the visual damage they do and the fairly weak sound effects that accompany them. There are also a few different vehicles you can use, including ATVs and a quad bike. They’re okay to drive, although nothing special. Since the raw shooting never really impresses then a bit of variety is nice, but at the same time these sections feel a bit token and undercooked too.

Undoubtedly the game’s strongest aspect is its online co-op. You can host a game publicly or privately or drop in to anyone’s in a matter of seconds, and it improves the game many times when you’re playing with up to three others over PSN. It doesn’t really change the nature of the gameplay though – tactics are hardly ever required and the number of enemies does not increase, as you’re always accompanied by up to three NPCs anyway. Perhaps some derogatory quip about sharing the pain should come into play here, but in truth it is a great feature which improves the game and ideally all FPSs should be striving to do the same, where applicable.

screenshotTactics are never needed; Haze doesn’t do subtlety

The multiplayer isn’t quite as successful as the co-op, feeling a little too bare and underdeveloped to really stand out next to the likes of Call of Duty 4 or Resistance 2. Matches cater for up to 16 players, across the usual Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Assault game types. At the time of writing there were enough people playing online at most times of the day, although most people don’t try to use any kind of tactics and even in games such as Assault where you have to drive a truck to your base and launch missiles from the back, most people seem more interested in messing around than actually trying to complete the objectives. Nonetheless, online play can be enjoyable and here each team’s strengths and the use of vehicles become much more prominent.

More than anything, Haze feels like an appalling waste; a waste of a talented development team on a premise which never sounded impressive or interesting, and a waste of time and money which could have been put to much better use elsewhere. While its weaknesses such as pathetically bad scripting and uninteresting level design are offset by decent controls and solid co-op, in such a busy and competitive genre Haze is unable to stand out in any way against its peers.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2007.

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