What happened to you Free Radical? You used to be cool. Seriously, some of you contributed to the groundbreaking
Goldeneye and original Perfect Dark while at Rare for the N64, while the rest of you gave us TimeSplitters 1, 2 and Future Perfect. Hell, I even enjoyed that non-FPS thing you did, Second Sight (to a degree), but with Haze, you’ve really let yourself down. There really is no excuse for lacklustre performance here - you’ve had ample time on the game, you have huge backing from one of the biggest publishers on the planet and your platform of choice is one of the most powerful gaming systems ever built.
Why oh why then is Haze a pile of crap?
It’s a legitimate question. Your track record is gold, your credentials through the roof, and your tools are all-powerful. But Haze, through its entire campaign and then online, never once
amazed me. So much so, instead of throwing the controller away in disgust, I played right through to the end, just to make sure there wasn’t something
I was missing. But there wasn’t, was there Free Radical? There’s almost nothing here worth singing praises to. Haze will go down as a big red cross on your permanent record Free Radical, I hope you’re proud of yourself.
Why is it so bad? Let’s start with the story. You play the role of just-out-of-college now turned soldier, Shane Carpenter. Born in the year 2023 (to tell us it’s the future), Carpenter is just one of many soldiers fighting the good fight for Mantel. Mantel is a pharmaceutical company who, for whatever reason, are powerful enough to have their own army. You’re fighting against The Promise Hand
, a terrorist band who’s very leader, Gabriel "Skin Coat" Marion, embodies fear, because apparently he wears a coat made from the skin of his enemies. As Carpenter, we’re introduced to the Mantel way of life as the story sets us off in chase of a band of Promise Hand who’ve hijacked a cargo of Nectar, the very cornerstone of Mantel as a company, and the reason its army is so badass.
I say "badass
" because you'll immediately hate every character around you (this is deliberate though). Each of the soldiers that make up your unit are essentially futuristic jocks with weapons. They say stuff like "that's the most fun I've ever had with my pants on" during firefights and generally just suck at life. In short, they're meatheads. But they’re essential when the moral implications of what you’re doing come into play, which is where Nectar also comes in.
Nectar is an enhancer used with every Mantel soldier. It essentially makes each soldier more powerful, faster, resilient and accurate and is administered from a pack in your suit directly to your helmet. In the game’s HUD (Head Up Display) you’ll see a meter on the left hand side that represents your Nectar Administration level (the meter on the right is your health). You give yourself doses by simply pushing the L2 button which will then give you the Nectar boost for a short time, however, you can keep its level of dosage high by killing enemies more consistently. Once it runs out (you have six doses you can administer), you can either take some from another soldier’s suit, or just wait as it eventually replenishes itself.
Nectar also hides
the truth from its users (though this is all plainly obvious from the start, which I’ll rant about shortly). When you kill the terrorists, their bodies will disappear while the world around you constantly looks bright and shiny. Butterflies flutter about and everything just *looks
* more appealing. However, your supply and administration of Nectar can oftentimes fail, causing brief glimpses at a far more bleak reality. These glimpses, however, are less than frequent, and because the soldiers are used to a more appeasing view of the world, seem more like ‘side-effects’ to Nectar than the harsh reality they actually are. As with any drug also, the Mantel soldiers rely heavily on it (shakes-heavy, if you know what I mean) which comes into play reasonably early in the game.
After a few skirmishes with The Promise Hand, your luck changes and you’re dropped into an area where its leader, Skin Coat, is literally just below. Time to give chase. Eventually you catch up to him, and through the miracle of gameplay-driven narrative, you, Shane Carpenter, are his sole captor. Your other team-mate, Morgan Duval, who has been progressively riding you since you started, has ordered you keep Skin Coat alive until he gets there.
Duval is a sergeant just like you (though you’d think Free Radical know nothing about how rank works as your subordinates address you as “sir”), but has been taking the upper hand since you joined the unit. Skin Coat takes advantage of this and questions why you respond to Duval’s orders if you’re the same rank. With only a few minutes with you, the kind-looking terrorist leader has managed to undo all of Mantel’s propaganda, and soon enough, when Duval attempts to cut off Skin Coat’s hand, you turn your weapon on him and everything hoes haywire. Plot thickens (or curdles, really), and now you’re on the side of supposed “terrorist” group, The Promise Hand, fighting against the now-revealed-to-be-evil Mantel Corporation, and all within around five minutes, no less.
So the plot sees you seeing
the truth and fighting against the evil corporate war-mongers who have apparently started the war against The Promise Hand to ensure no one else can ever get their hands on the plant used to make Nectar, which just happens to be the rebels’ home-land. That’s it, and the way in which it plays out and the ease at which you change sides is laughable. What makes it worse is the obvious effort Free Radical have invested in making this a poignant reason to play the game. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll hate the soldiers after only a few minutes with them, and this is just
the beginning of making you see the truth. You’re brainwashed by a huge company and their overload of propaganda but after asking only a few questions, find it really easy to jump ship, which in itself is very difficult to digest.
In theory, starting out as a powerful soldier and shifting to a freedom-fighter (sans Nectar injections) should offer a reasonable variance in gameplay. And to a small degree it does. But none of it washes over in the end. As a rebel you can create Nectar Grenades from fallen Mantel soldiers by combining the Nectar off their suit with your grenades which, when thrown at a couple of baddies, will overdose them with the stuff and have them blind-fire in any direction not knowning who the enemy is and who is on their side. But it's not enough to make it compelling. The meat here is using your weapons, and it's the same regardless of side. It's true you rely on Nectar a fair bit in the early throws of the game, but even when you're off the stuff you're still pretty much invincible, whether it's because you can miraculously regenerate health, or because the AI is truly
terrible, it's actually quite difficult to die offering up almost no challenge in the end.
Speaking of challenge, did I mention Free Radical had involvement in both Goldeneye and the original Perfect Dark? Both games arguably upped the first-person shooter ante in the way of objectives. Before Goldeneye, FPS objectives revolved around finding a blue key and moving from room to room. But when Rare released that game there were all kinds of compelling
things you had to do, whether it was escorting a NPC, constructing devices, destroying mainframes or any other awesome thing Rare could think of, the FPS landscape was changed forever. Or so I thought. Haze’s objectives have gone all the way back to original Doom and Wolf 3D styles of challenge, except instead of having to find a blue key, here you have to pull a lever. No seriously, a lever. And it’s the same fucking lever every time. I thought this was meant to be the future
… I guess I thought wrong.
To add insult to near-death, the other thing Haze gets terribly wrong is its use (or lack thereof) of next-generation hardware. Make no mistake, no matter how pretty you think these screens might look, this game is anything but next-gen.
Textures more often than not look GameCube-ish, and sometimes not even that good, and when free Radical do
use normal or bump mapping, it’s so incredibly low-res it hardly seems worth it.
Water effects don’t look like water (there’s almost no water movement to speak of and it’s apparently impenetrable, even by bullets), while particle effects and the like are only *just
* passable. I really can’t say there’s any point of Haze that looks good, even in terms of art-direction you’re looking at the most unimaginative, uninspired imagery seen in games this side of licensed products.
Finally, to top it all off, the team at Free Radical have even moved backwards in the control department. The TimeSplitter series was/is renowned for its excellent control styles but here controlling Carpenter is anything but enjoyable. Precision aim is not free, it’s fixed with a button push which makes things annoying in fire-fights, while for some reason weapon fire tends to bend
to the left. It’s likely an effect of the camera system but makes aiming at targets not conducive to this style of game. That and it’s just lame and unwarranted. You can map your controller however you want, but it doesn’t make anything easy. No matter how high you aim, grenades seem to have a default distance they can be lobbed at, and they’re marginally useless unless combined with Nectar, anyway.
So there must be something
here to like, right? Well, the four-player (online) coop is okay. Frame-rates remain intact and I didn’t notice any lag, but when you’re playing with three other people through an already marred game, it doesn’t make a difference. Just go out and buy a 360 and play Halo 3 coop on Legendary, it’s a far better use of your time.
Multiplayer is what it is, maps with the same control issues, weapon crappiness and general let-downs of the single-player game, only now at least you’re fighting enemies with some intelligence. It’s tough to talk about because the multiplayer stuff in TimeSplitters was so compellingly good I feel like crying every time I log into this to let out some frustration. But then I remember I have Call of Duty 4 and the pain goes away, as does my copy of Haze.
I wanted to like this game Free Radical, I really did. I wanted to believe
. I even defended you when Korn came on board to write an original song for Haze. I held out to the very end to find out for myself if this was the next big tick on your resume. I hoped it would be, and having played right through the entire three-day campaign and tried all the online multi stuff Haze has to offer, I am praying this game is quickly forgotten and at least TimeSplitters 4 is not, in any way, influenced by what transpired on my TV over the last two days. I can forgive Free Radical, but I will never forget.