Sometimes, making a name for yourself with a particular genre or subject can come back to bite you. It's more than likely that not every single title you make will live up to this particular reputation, and the ones that are far off the mark will appear as a large albatross on an otherwise sterling record. Haze is such a burden placed on the otherwise acclaimed development team at Free Radical, whose many employees have worked on GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, not to mention establishing its acclaimed TimeSplitters franchise. While Free Radical's previous work was quite excellent, Haze is anything but, coming across as a middling, generic first-person shooter with bland visuals, a weak plot and laughable characters.
Haze is the story of Shane Carpenter, a young Mantel soldier that's dispatched, along with the rest of his squad, to the Boa Region of South America. The largest PMC in the world, Mantel has an army of enhanced warriors boosted with their specialized "supplement" known as Nectar. With a large force at its disposal, Mantel has been asked to go in and pacify the region from the dangerous "Promise Hand", a militant group of rebels headed up by the villainous Skin Coat (so named because he enjoys skinning his victims and wearing them). However, Carpenter finds that his mission to "liberate the hearts and minds" of the indigenous people is not what it appears to be, and after one objective takes an unexpected turn, he finds himself defecting to the rebel cause and fighting against his former squadmates.
At first glance, this appears to be an interesting premise for a title, giving players a sense of both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, its plot is such a hackneyed and feeble amalgamation of concepts that the true impact or commentary that could've been presented in the title is immediately lost. For one thing, the Mantel soldiers are presented as your stereotypical jarhead grunts that have no morality or sense of responsibility, killing people because they have always had a genuine bloodlust for death and destruction. This alpha male broad stroke is painted with comments such as "It's like taking candy from a crippled baby," and "Is there an award for most badass gangsta? Because that's me!" Forget the liberation of people from terror; that concept is immediately thrown out of the window, as is any other sense of humanity.
However, Carpenter isn't ever presented with these emotions, regardless of the action he faces or the amount of Nectar in his system. This makes him stand out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of his unit and immediately weakens the player's connection as to why they want to even play through these sections. What's more, the character of Carpenter doesn't endear himself to the player, especially because he either whines his way through sections of missions or seems perpetually lost, making him come across as exceedingly weak and not someone you want to take through the entire game regardless of what happens to him. It doesn't really help in the middle of battle, when you're dodging bullets or rockets from your former company, to hear Shane complain about not being sure what to do next.
What further widens this disconnect between Shane, the Mantel troops and the player is the deliberate attempt to tie soldier immorality to the blatant use (and abuse) of Nectar, making the war seem much more like a videogame than real life. Supposedly, this explains the behavior of the troops, because they are living in a drug-induced fantasy world that is perpetually extended by their battle armor. In fact, the only time that you do see soldiers crash from their Nectar high is laughable. Not laughable because of what the soldiers do, but laughable in the manner in which it's carried out, which is extremely forced and horribly acted.
That's unfortunate, because the mechanic of Nectar within the game is actually rather striking. It heightens Shane's senses, making enemies stand out from the environment because of their glowing silhouette. This makes it much easier to snipe enemies or pick them out -- even in dense cover. Nectar also manages to reduce the amount of damage that you take, as well as warn you of incoming danger thanks to a rippling pulse of energy from grenades or other threats. Finally, Nectar makes you much stronger, and any melee attacks are radically stronger than ever before. What's more, every kill that you make on the Nectar high provides you with an additional boost of power to maintain your buzz. That gives you somewhat of an incentive to continue blasting any enemy soldiers that cross your path, as long as you don't accidentally overdose on the initial injection of the drug into your system. This will cause you to lose control of Shane for a while as he shoots at friend and foe alike.
However, while the mechanic works well, the implementation of the drug is rather flawed for a couple of reasons. First of all, Nectar manages to make the gameplay way too easy when you're on Mantel's side. Regardless of the difficulty level, it's way too easy to dose yourself up, sit back, and snipe anyone that glows, maintaining the high for multiple sections of a level. This can make these levels boring, but it brings me to my next point, which is that you only get access to Nectar for a scant few stages anyway. Just as you start to feel somewhat of a flow with the Nectar system, you immediately change sides and can no longer inject the substance into your system. In fact, your only use of the drug is to strap a dispenser to a grenade and throw it into a crowd of enemies, immediately making them overdose. If there were more stages where you had access to the drug, or were exposed to the situation, it would seem much more useful. As it stands now, the way it's handled comes across more as a tossed-off afterthought than a key element of the game.
That brings up the third and perhaps largest problem with Nectar: once you've changed sides, you never get a sense that the Mantel troops use the drug against you at all. The fact that you can play dead, steal weapons and perform other rather unique moves as a Promise Hand rebel is supposed to be a way to balance out the incredible benefits of Nectar itself. In fact, the only reason you would need to set traps or perform some of the other abilities that you have should be to balance out the powers given to the troops. Not only do they not appear to be superhuman soldiers with exceptional sniping abilities or able to shrug off large numbers of bullets; instead, they come across like basic grunts with suits of battle armor that are inept with their weapons. All of these issues make Nectar seem like more of a gimmick than a plot device.
Then again, there are some serious AI issues that crop up within the game regardless of the side you're on, such as the fact that your allies will constantly cross your line of fire. This makes it extremely hard to miss firing on them in the middle of battle; on the rebel side, you'll constantly find yourself reviving your troops because of an errant bullet that found its way into their skull because they were stupid enough to run in front of you as you were firing. You'll even find that your allies will shoot you at times, making it a bit harder to avoid taking damage. Enemies aren't that much smarter, however, because there are plenty of times that you can come up on a soldier that's "hiding" behind cover or standing still in the middle of a battlefield. You can clearly see him and vice versa, but he won't fire until you've shot at him. If you have good aim, you'll eliminate him before he even has a chance to respond.
For all of the single player issues that continually crop up within the game, there is one small shining spot, which is within the multiplayer aspect of the game. Haze supports two player split-screen and up to four player co-op play from any point in the game. As long as a player is invited in thanks to the game's easy to navigate "Friends and Invites" option (which ties into your actual friends list on your XMB), they can join with their friends and fight their way through the story. This can sometimes make single player a bit more interesting, because you can rely much more on your friends to watch your back. Otherwise, you'll find yourself playing with up to 16 people through the three multiplayer modes available in the game: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Team Assault. While Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are self-explanatory, Team Assault provides both sides with different objectives that have to be completed, such as blowing up a specific target or reaching a certain area for the rebels while Mantel is tasked with preventing the Promise Hand from gaining any ground. At the end of each multiplayer round, you can receive different merit awards based on which side you were attached to as well as general accolades. They don't translate to anything other than bragging rights for that particular game, so you won't unlock any new weapons or stages, but it is nice to see a mild reward system in the game.
That being said, you are going to have to put up with some extremely weak visuals within Haze. There is a litany of problems with the game, from the odd warping of allied soldiers that blink into view suddenly at arbitrary checkpoints to poor texture work. Many of the environmental textures are generic and weak, and you'll frequently see seams or tearing constantly pop up within the game, which distracts from the action onscreen. The worst example of this has to be the visuals for the flamethrower, the Dragon de la Gente, which vomits a horrid cone of supposed flame that looks visually on par with what you'd find from the 386 PC days 15 years ago. The same could be said of the reboot text for Mantel troops, which looks blocky, heavily aliased and nondescript. Not only will you constantly see render passes over levels or character models, you'll find extremely generic faces on some soldiers and odd detail work on others. Duvall, in particular, frequently looks as though his eyes are going to pop out of his skull (Then again, that's when his hands aren't found with objects blatantly running through them, such as a bar in the helicopter during a cutscene.). Even odder is the fact that many cutscenes will cut to a looped section without any dialogue being said, but characters are continually performing their last seen action for a few seconds before the cutscene breaks away to a new gameplay element.
The sound isn't much better off, with many of the problems traceable to the repetitive dialogue that both sides constantly utter. Earlier I mentioned the ridiculous commentary from the Mantel Troops, who frequently blather stupid phrases in the middle of battle. The Promise Hand isn't much better, although they seem stuck with only a few phrases, such as "Remember the Promise" or "Mantel will fall today." Since the soldiers seem constantly stuck on the same phrases ad nauseum, you'll find yourself muting most of the game. Shane will also have this effect upon you, although you might scream at the TV because his lines come across so poorly. At least dosing yourself with Nectar sounds rather interesting, and while the weapons have distinct sounds (such as the loud crack from a pistol versus the rapid pops from the machine guns), the vehicles all seem to recycle the same generic horn sound, which is rather poor.
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