If you still view Free Radical Design as “the guys who once did Perfect Dark and Goldeneye”, then their game catalogue might seem fairly weak. Second Sight was a successful experiment, and with the Timesplitters games they carved themselves a nice niche in the shooter market with their blend of Goldeneye inspired design and offbeat humor. To be frank, this is a very good situation to be in.
For those that would assume that Free Radical’s output is a failure should it fail to match Rare’s classic shooters, I would remind them that having David Doak and some friends start up their own studio does not automatically mean that the entire Goldeneye team was ready to rock. Goldeneye and PD were lightning in a bottle, something that can’t be easily replicated. Compared to most upstart devs, Free Radical’s output has been more than acceptable.
With the arrival of Haze, however, I begin to question this judgment. For lack of a better term, Second Sight and the Timesplitters games feel comfortable in their own shoes, while Haze is yet another heaping on the FPS pile, which by now is a mound of shit and compost made from scraps of Halo, Half Life and Gears of War. Almost everything in Haze is unremarkable, something you have seen before, while all the new ideas it tries to sell you on are a scam.
Going through the list of names that Haze borrows from is like a Who’s Who of action games. The biggest offender is Halo, which is par for the course, while the tropical setting is eerily reminiscent of Far Cry, right down to the abandoned Cargo Ship washed ashore. The final stage, featuring a massive land carrier rolling across in the dusk might give you flashbacks to the finale of Gears. Surprisingly, Haze also has a major crush on Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid series.
As you may have read elsewhere, Haze’s big selling point was the ability to use a combat enhancing drug called Nectar which allows for more health, speed and accuracy. You will come to quite enjoy Nectar, only to have it torn away from you when your character decides to join the guerrillas he was once fighting. This occurs after an hour of play, and while it isn’t quite the same as the change from Snake to Raiden in MGS2, it is done with the same purpose: to allow the story to prove a point or two. Said points are the same ones that Metal Gear Solid 4 tries to make – “no matter how much technology changes, war never does”, “Private Military Contractors are evil”, “there is always a different face to war than the one you see”, etc.
To be fair, Haze was out a month before MGS4, and Army of Two also spills its guts about these themes. Whether or not MGS was inspirational, it doesn’t help for Haze to be one of three games in the span of four months to philosophize on war.
In any case, Haze’s previews and advertising campaign all revolved around Nectar. Not only is it taken away from you, but it doesn’t noticeably affect your new found enemies who are using it. As a game mechanic, it vanishes after the first chapter. Haze tries to make up for it by giving you a few new tools as a guerrilla, such as the ability to set up landmines and feign death. While the latter is a great feature that may save you from a few extra restarts, these abilities aren’t what I came here for, and more importantly, they aren’t enough to change how the game is played.
As a PMC, you regenerate health, have a bitchin’ scope, and drop rebels like flies. As a rebel, you regenerate health, aim with iron sights (to the same effect), and drop PMC soldiers like flies. Haze’s world is one with little internal consistency, unless you are willing to believe that the main character is enough to change how an entire army fights (and that he has mutant healing abilities). There is no internal consistency, no sense of checks and balances. The better thing to do would be to make the changes between each side more dramatic, and allow you to play as both for an equal amount of time. Perhaps this would help better drive home the game’s moral posturing, and it would certainly add some variety to the campaign.
Alas, the word “campaign” is the answer to this dilemma. The two armies are balanced the way they are because it is the optimal solution for multiplayer, which are carried over to single player, since every game since Halo believes that the path to a good game is to have both modes play by the same rules. There are some that believe that the mark of a true game is to have game mechanics that work well in both single and multiplayer. I think it is a great idea, but it requires that said mechanics are viewed distinct from the modes they will inhabit. This is almost impossible in a market where singleplayer, multiplayer, and co-op are not options but requirements, where any one weak link is enough to elicit negative reviews of the game.
As it has shipped, Haze is mediocre. The driving, firefights, and everything in between feel old hat. Its graphics shift between Doom 3 era 3d with horrid pop-in, to pretty vistas with beautiful lighting (the game also has one of the best “shaky cam” aiming systems I have ever seen). Its story sometimes manages to drive the point home better than its ilk, but most of the time it is muddled by poor acting and animations. You can be done with the campaign in five to six hours, after which your only option is a multiplayer mode that won’t be taking the world by storm.
Make no mistake, Haze is unoriginal and uninspiring. It was also clearly rushed, and was labeled as a killer app for the PS3 after only a few previews and clips. Never before has a Free Radical game felt so unpolished and lacking in spark. If you need any proof that the quality of games is affected by the current gaming climate, this as good as you can get.