Version tested: PlayStation 3
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.
It's possible that at some point in Haze's protracted development the designers intended to flesh out the squad-based mechanics, but the end result is a no-fuss, no-frills system where everyone gets on with what they're doing, which is to say drunken squad-mates frequently stumble right into the path of your bullets, and generally make a complete nuisance of themselves while you do all the grunt work. Hilariously, when they become incapacitated (which is often), you can revive them by wandering up to them and, err, touching their heads. But with so many corners so obviously cut in making a convincing, credible shooter, such moments of clunky nonsense pass you by a blur of farce. There's the side-splitting disco-dancing death animations, the appalling clipping, that flame effect, and the goldfish memory of everyone around you. Having won 2007's most-repetitive-phrase competition with "You dirty thief - I'll have your hand for that!", Ubisoft is back with plenty of new material, like "Remember your promise to Merino!", a promise you're reminded about on a thousand boring occasions but can't recall actually making.
To compound the feeble narrative and utterly sterile gameplay, the game struggles to look as impressive as a late-period PS2 title. It all runs at a native resolution of 576p, and while that really wouldn't have mattered in the slightest if the game world was smooth, vibrant and alive with detail, instead it's encumbered with possibly the worst texturing we've seen on a PS3-exclusive (or a next-gen game full stop, come to that), and blighted by dreadful pop-up, a horrible blur effect and a mystifying glare [surely "Haze" - Ed]. At no point can you step back and admire the view. Not only that, but the generic-looking character models clip into scenery, especially when the pathetic death animations kick in. There's barely anything positive to say about the way the game looks apart from the lack of tearing or frame-rate issues. It's a cigarette paper away from being a total disaster - and this for a company that once appeared to pride itself on great technology and making its games look different from everyone else's. Not only does Haze look generic, but the execution is as half-arsed as we've come across in recent years.
Usually at this point we could point out that, hey, at least it's got decent multiplayer, and to a very small degree Haze does have some features worthy of mention. Drop-in split-screen co-op multiplayer for the campaign mode is certainly something we approve of, but we expect the "drop out" bit will follow pretty quickly: the game simply isn't interesting enough to warrant playing through again with someone else. It's not as if having a buddy in tow makes the dire gameplay any more fun or interesting. Boasting four-player co-op is well worth shouting about, of course, but it doesn't rescue Haze.
Meanwhile, in terms of competitive multiplayer, it's limited to 16 players (not 24 as promised), and, again, barely has enough going for it to warrant any big fanfare. With the regulation Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch in there (with bot-play if you fancy), the basic boxes are ticked, while Team Assault has a little more interest value. Playing on either the Mantel or Promise Hand side, the latter have to fulfill a specific task (such as blowing something up), while the former must simply stop them from doing so. It's hardly going to be tearing anyone away from COD 4 or Halo 3 - put it that way. It'll be surprising if there's an active community playing it a few weeks after release anyway, so it's probably just as well the multiplayer comes across as a little bonus.
You really have to wonder how it all ended up this dreadful, especially after all the time and resource Ubisoft and Free Radical expended telling people the opposite. The combat's weak, the storyline's excruciating, it's technically deficient - Haze really is this year's most significant gaming disappointment. The fact that the creative forces behind this moribund excuse for a blockbuster feel that it is BAFTA-worthy has to be one of the most tragically comic examples of self-delusion we've ever witnessed.
4 / 10