We've already brought you our hands-on impressions of the single-player and co-op modes in Haze, so now it's time to sink our teeth into multiplayer in Free Radical's upcoming PS3-exclusive shooter.
Given how often the - perhaps unwelcome - comparisons with Halo have been pulled out of the bag in the past year, it's to Haze's immediate credit that its multiplayer is distinct from Bungie's opus. Helpfully, it's also got very little in common with the present occupant of the FPS throne, Call of Duty 4. In a genre that's crowded with far too many me-too games, that's a huge plus point.
Much of Haze's distinctive flavour comes from the two opposed forces in the game - the Mantel Troopers (who you play for the first part of the single-player) and the Rebels (to whom you defect for the rest). Rather than simply having different models and weapons, these two sides actually come with radically differing abilities, strengths and weaknesses.
Mantel Troopers are arguably the more conventional of the forces, in FPS terms. They're armoured, so they take some killing, and they have a fairly powerful, useful zoom mode built into their helmets, and a strong melee attack. In addition, they can dose up on Nectar, a drug which makes them faster, stronger and tougher, and makes enemies glow bright yellow on their display.
The weaknesses of the Mantel Troopers are, in general, where the strengths of the Rebels lie. Mantel players need to be careful not to overdose on Nectar - you have a slowly replenishing supply, which you inject by holding L2. Ideally you'll just fill your Nectar bar, but inject too much and you'll go crazy and start shooting wildly, even at your team-mates. Many rebel abilities focus on using Nectar overdoses to gain the upper hand.
So, for instance, Rebel players can shoot the Nectar pack on a trooper's back for what isn't just a one-shot kill, but actually an opportunity to cause some collateral damage with the cloud of Nectar that sprays out. Similarly, if you kill a Mantel trooper conventionally, you can steal the Nectar pack from his back, stab it with a knife and strap it to a grenade, and throwing this grenade will create a cloud of Nectar. Any Mantel player stumbling into that cloud will run the risk of overdosing and going berserk. Helpfully, you can achieve the same effect by hitting someone with the throwing knife you used to stab the pack.
Arguably the most interesting of the Rebel abilities, however, stems from the fact that Mantel Troopers see a slightly edited version of reality - where blood stains don't exist and, more importantly, where corpses fade away after a second or two.
Rebels can take advantage of that by feigning death. When taking fire, you simply tap R2 to throw yourself to the ground and stay perfectly still - and on the screen of the Mantel player who was shooting you, your "corpse" will disappear. It's an extremely powerful ability for the rebel side - although the game doesn't allow you to leap up and get straight back into the fray, as you'll be momentarily disoriented as you stand up, which should hopefully prevent rebels from simply bouncing up and down from feigned death constantly.
Obviously, with sides this different from one another, the question of balance is of supreme importance. Indeed, according to creative director Derek Littlewood, much of the extra time afforded to the team at Free Radical by Haze's delay late last year has been spent on tweaking and polishing that balance, to the point where the team is satisfied that it's created a level playing field between the two very different styles.
Some of the fruits of that balancing can be seen in the quirks of the various abilities - for instance, there's the few moments of disorientation after getting up from a feigned death. But on the flip side of the coin, the team has also balanced out the Nectar ability to make enemies glow brightly by giving Mantel forces neon yellow patches on their armour, which means the rebels can pick them out relatively easily. It's very much a skirmish-heavy, balls-out shooter as a result - there's not much sneaking and hiding to be done here.
One rather unusual - and potentially annoying, although obviously essential - piece of balancing is that Mantel troopers can't hurt anyone they can't see - so you can't just shoot at the spot where you saw someone fall down just in case they weren't really dead. Without this, of course, the Rebel feign death ability would be near-useless - but it's still frustrating, as a Mantel soldier, to know that someone just feigned death (it's fairly obvious, since if they were really dead their weapon would have dropped) but be unable to do anything other than wait for them to get back up.
All in all, however, Littlewood is satisfied that his team has built a game that balances nicely - and one which has plenty to offer for fans of two entirely different play styles. "Different players always like slightly different things," he says, "and the thing we tried to cater to with the two different sides was two major archetypes of FPS players."
"With the Mantel troopers, you've got the very straight-up, action-based kind of player who likes to go for the headshots, get in close, do some melee and get out. Mantel troopers are very direct-action oriented. The Rebels are more about flanking, about using indirect tactics to get one over on your opponent - and, again, there's a set of FPS players who definitely prefer playing like that."
One group of players who may find Haze a little harder to get into are those who have become enamoured with the extremely quick, realistic kills of games like Call of Duty 4 and Counter-Strike. Despite its near-future setting and vaguely realistic weapons, the game is more of a traditional FPS where enemies must be worn down with multiple shots to kill them - but with CoD4 already dominating the one-shot-kill market, this may well be to Haze's advantage, of course.
Whether Free Radical likes it or not, Haze will definitely also end up being a flag-bearer for the PS3's online gaming capabilities. It will help if the rumours of an early summer launch for the in-game XMB menu system turn out to be true, and who knows, if Haze lives up to its potential, it might even help to drive people to actually pick up Bluetooth headsets for the console.
All of that's an "if", however, and much depends on Free Radical's balancing. Then again, few development studios have its depth of experience with multiplayer FPS titles. We'll let you know how it turns out as the launch date approaches.
Haze is due out exclusively for PS3 on 23rd May.