After five years of hype, speculation and delay, Ubisoft’s Haze breaks cover - and despite being developed by Free Radical, the team behind the excellent TimeSplitters 2 on PS2 - it fails to better UT3, Resistance and CoD4. Haze looks poor, lacks set-pieces and feels like a novel idea that missed its window of opportunity, frayed by the requests of nervous Brand Managers and cruel demands of next-gen development.
Haze’s fall is, in part, amplified by our heightened expectations, but by next-gen standards, it looks undeniable shabby. While we’re impressed by the scale of the environments (and the absence of loading times), they’re populated by uninspiring terrain and objects. The trees look like they’re made from cardboard, the flat-textured interiors are poor and the pop-up that sees a soldier’s armor disappear when you nudge the left stick toward or away from them is embarrassing. It’s not even on par with Half-Life 2 from The Orange Box, and that was originally made in 2004. To our eyes, the game looked better at E3 over two years ago - but maybe that’s the pace of change. Thankfully, Free Radical’s shooting mechanics are as tight as ever - so Haze, disappointing or not, retains focus.
Haze’s intriguing plot starts off with huge potential - Mantel troop Shane Carpenter (read: you) realizes that the war he’s fighting for is wrong and joins the opposition - it boils down to a predictable twist and an unfulfilling climax. You see, as a Mantel troop you get some lovely little effects when you’re all doped up on a special drug called Nectar. This is what makes the Mantel soldiers tick and gives them the effects of being invincible while also hiding the horrors of war (dead bodies disappear when you’re playing this way).
Squeeze L2 and you’ll send a dose coursing through your veins, which will make you temporarily quicker and more able to pick out camouflaged enemies by highlighting them, and if you click R3 to look down your gun’s sight you’ll zoom in even further. But these neat tricks are taken away within the first hour - far too early, before you get a chance to become really addicted to them - and from then on you switch factions and fight alongside the rebels and their charisma vacuum of a leader, Merino. What you’re left with is a run-of-the-mill shooter with limited originality and a lack of weaponry.
The Rebels do have their own particular skills, though - like being able to salvage any ammo and fit it into your current weapon. Just hold O over some shotgun shells and you’ll cram them into your assault rifle in the blink of an eye. You’ll only get a few rounds with this method but it does help out when you’re running low. Yet when you can just pick up the dropped weapon and have a couple of clips ready, why bother? And as well as being able to roll out of the way of enemy fire (double tap X) you can also use Nectar against the Mantel army by dipping your knife in the yellow stuff and ramming it home with R2. This will make them overdose and try to kill each other. Again, this is another neat idea that’s taken away from you when playing as the Mantel. Too many toots on the Nectar pipe and the screen turns red and everyone becomes a black silhouette. To make matters worse you’ll automatically fire indiscriminately at the shadows until you can wrestle the right stick away.
Like we said earlier, the core mechanics are as sharp as anything TimeSplitters provided, and the way the enemies drop after some accurate shots is more than satisfying. This spells great things for TS4, as it’ll be using this engine, but more importantly, Haze should be bags of fun online.
You can create traps by holding down Square over a downed soldier, ripping their Nectar pack away and then strapping it to a grenade - creating a gas bomb that will confuse Mantel troops who inhale the fumes. You can even bury them in the sand by looking down and holding Square. We really liked these bits early on, but they never develop into anything more interesting and you can easily get by without ever using them. A disarming move has a similar effect - hit R2 to melee, Square to steal the gun and then R1 to blast the fool back to God. This is more of a show-boating move to humiliate foes during online battles than an integral way to survive through the single-player campaign.
So Haze, as a PS3 exclusive, is far from a reason to own a PS3. But there is a certain charm to it. Under the rough exterior there’s an engine almost on par with the perfect Call of Duty 4 mechanics. It’s just a shame that the other ingredients that make Free Radical’s PS3 debut are poorly emphasized (Rebel skills), shallow (the story and lack of Nectar-fueled hours) or damn ugly (just about anything you look at). We don’t doubt that TimeSplitters 4 will be great - well, a tiny bit, but we’re optimistic Free Radical will bounce back - but we just hope that the developers can match their mastery of core FPS mechanics with visuals to match. Haze’s final twist is the cruelest of all: good things don’t always come to those who wait.
May 20, 2008