If there's one thing the world doesn't need right now, it's another spirit-crushing first-person shooter, but here it is anyway. And after enduring such teeth-grinding nonentities as Blacksite, Turning Point and Conflict: Denied Ops in recent months, the fact that such a respected, reliable developer as Free Radical Design can turn out such a desperately uninspired effort is not only a shock, but a massive disappointment.
One thing FRD has been exceptionally good at is making games with a style, feel and personality completely at odds with everyone else's. From the original team members' work on GoldenEye and Perfect Dark at Rare through to TimeSplitters (and even Second Sight to a lesser extent), the creative forces at the Nottingham studio were always determined to do things their own way. Be it the art and animation style, the slightly quirky control systems or interesting gameplay modes, you always felt they ploughed their own furrow to great effect. But, after a three-year absence, rather than launching onto the next generation scene with bold concepts and dazzling technology, Haze limps along apologetically - a stark demonstration of a developer completely out of touch with a genre it used to help boss. It's fallen into line with what everyone else is doing in the most depressing fashion possible.
Haze is stultifyingly dreadful from the very beginning. Featuring some of the most excruciating dialogue in videogaming history, it makes Army of Two look like a masterclass of narrative subtlety. The general premise of playing the soldier with a moral conscience is fine on its own, and, yes, we get the fact that you're not supposed to approve of the antics and utterances of your meat-headed bio-enhanced squad-mates, but the ham-fisted execution is akin to being told the same rubbish joke over and over again. It's a shame, because the original concept of fighting on the side of a dubious corporate entity had potential.
What happens is, you're sent into the Boa Region of South America to liberate a nefarious group of militant rebels known as Promise Hand, so you and your squad trek through dense jungle on the trail of their leader, a man known as Skin Coat because he literally wears his slain enemies. Armed with a revolutionary bio-enhancing medication called Nectar, the odds are somewhat stacked in your favour.
By pressing L2 at any time, you're able to dose yourself up and become temporarily smarter, faster and stronger than the enemy. In practical terms, you're not only more resistant to damage, but gain thermo-sensitive vision which makes previously camouflaged enemies and even lobbed grenades show up a distinct orange against the dense vegetation. With recharging health as standard, even relatively unskilled players will be able to routinely carve a swathe through anyone in their way, and generous checkpointing ensures that quick progress is automatic.
But however easy it is, you can only take lines like "He's about to get a hurting on him - BIATCH!" or "That was like taking candy from a crippled baby" or "That's how we do it! BOOSH!" so many times before you wonder whether fighting alongside this bunch of shoulder-butting morons is really worth it. Fortunately, faced with a chance to take out the apparent source of the local evil, instead you predictably switch sides and begin to wipe out all the mouthy imbeciles you've been fighting alongside. But as liberating as this might be in theory, the reality is dull: the absence of your Nectar-enhanced abilities turn the gameplay into a basic run-and-gun trudge.
That might not be such a bad thing if the game's AI was capable of putting up an engaging firefight, but it plainly is not. Enemies are predictable, idiotic, never work as a team, and seem strangely incapable of utilising the massive advantages that Nectar gives them. It's faintly forgivable to make the combat very manageable in the early stages of a game while you're an enhanced super-soldier, but to make it just as boringly straightforward when the odds are apparently against you is a strange decision.
Occasional attempts at giving the gameplay a little more depth and variety with switch-flicking 'puzzles', buggy-driving interludes or on-rails flyby shooting sorties only serve to underline the absence of inspiration and imagination. Not only that, but the handling on the driving sections is ridiculously wayward, and the ease with which you can evade roadblocks and pursuing enemies makes you wonder why they were included at all. Elsewhere, on the rare occasions that you have to destroy a bridge or a piece of equipment, the insultingly basic process of pressing a couple of switches to make it all happen wouldn't trouble a four-year-old. That we're fifteen years on from Doom, and somehow regressing in terms of ideas and execution in a big-budget first-person shooter is slightly incredible.