We've overdosed on games before, but we don't usually overdose in games. And clearly for good reason: mainline a bit too much of Mantel Corporation's soldier-buffing war juice, Nectar, and you can't tell friend from foe, and everyone who crosses your sights eats lead whatever buttons you're pressing. Fortunately you go bright red, so people can pick you out. "Five seconds ago he was their best friend," says Free Radical Design's Rob Yescombe, chatting along to a four-man demo of upcoming FPS Haze during UbiDays. "But suddenly he's their worst enemy." There'll be tactical issues to consider in these situations: do you kill your squad-mate? Rob Yescombe looks like he'd kill his squad mate.
He's also the man who penned the script Haze is built around - "built around" being the operative phrase. Most games simply thrust you into scenarios; Haze wants to be about a story within that scenario. "All the other things are just like a bigger backdrop to it," head honcho David Doak will tell us later. So, first, the scenario. You are Shane Carpenter. You work for Mantel Corporation. "Mantel are a huge, multinational corporation with fingers in just about everything you can imagine - the rubber in your shoes, the ink in that pen, the gel in your hair. They're involved in it all," says Yescombe. "Of course they have their private military company that goes in because there's no more UN, no more NATO; these guys take care of business." As Carpenter, you're thrust into a three-day campaign in South America. So that's the set-up, but what's the story?
"Thematically Haze is very much related to propaganda and how we view the same event from different perspectives," Yescombe explains. "In war, there may be two sides, but there isn't one side going in thinking, 'we're the bad guys'. Everyone thinks they're the good guys." So it's about the ambiguity of your situation. "We're not doing a John Wayne war movie; we're trying to do Apocalypse Now. It's not a war-game; it's a game about war." Ambiguity indeed.
We ask Doak what sort of techniques FRD will use to elicit emotional reactions that go beyond the typical videogame range, as we've been told is their aim. "We do a lot of the kind of denial-and-confrontation thing where you see characters and you have a relationship with them and that relationship changes because they do unpredictable things, or they do things that make you feel uncomfortable about being associated with them," he explains. "It's a big challenge, and certainly more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be, doing those things in the context of a war-game. Because, you know, who's the murderer in the warzone? It's a hard thing to do, particularly in videogames where life is incredibly cheap. It's an interesting thing to try to actually address the emotions of being a soldier in an environment which is by its very nature sanitised. I think we're going to make some good steps in that direction, and I don't see anyone else trying to do it."
Other things they've done to keep you in the game include a Half-Life-esque determination not to exit the first-person perspective. "Every time you show them a loading screen or a menu, you're pulling them out of the experience and reminding them they're playing a game," designer Derek Littlewood points out. As it happens, there's another good reason that Haze wants to preserve its illusion: it has other ideas about how to use the principles of a videogame. We really get an appreciation of this when "Nectar goes wrong". That helmet you see in the shots - the all-over yellow bumblebee hockey affair - is not just protecting you from the elements, Gordon Freeman-style, but it's actually filtering the world to some extent. During one scene in the UbiDays trailer, Mantel bombs out a village, and when you arrive, the charred bodies quickly disappear. The following day in our gameplay session, the Nectar helmet malfunctions. All of sudden there's pain, and screaming, and suffering. "And the bodies don't fade away; they stay there," says Yescombe. In other words, the Diet Marine world of the Haze helmet is shielding you to Mantel's own operational advantage. The helmet comes back on. "Now you're back in the same videogame world where bodies fade away and there's no blood."
So we can expect Haze to look closely at the issues of morals, of how soldiers behave in warfare. This being Free Radical Design, though, we can also expect a rollicking good FPS to come out the other end, however weepy it leaves us. And there are some neat gameplay innovations flooding out of the Mantel silos too. Nectar's inherent usefulness to Mantel may seem to be laid bare (although we suspect there's more to it), and its inherent strength is the way it allows you to dish out and absorb more damage while in-use. But you can also derive various combat advantages from that handy backpack dispenser. "Perception" allows you to see enemies even through the dense jungle. "Foresight" gives you a "sixth sense" style warning pulse when a grenade's about to go off, or if somebody's about to melee-attack you from behind. "Focus" allows you to zero in on a target and dispatch them with a perfect shot, by tugging the auto-aim a little further into a target. There'll doubtless be other benefits, and over time Nectar regenerates. You can also "leech" it from your team-mates.
Their role in your four-man squad is also a point of interest. Last year, at E3, Doak and Yescombe were promoting the AI heavily, but Doak tells us that things have changed somewhat. "We're not taking it as obsessively far as we were going to. A lot of effort has gone back into concentrating on the Nectar system and things," he admits.
"That said, you're often dealing with four-on-four or four-on-six kind of firefights, and I think the AI gives a very, very good account of itself." Vehicles, which you'll take control of in various places, allow you to team up with a gunner on the back. Foresight helps you pick out mines on the road ahead, the vehicles will accumulate damage, visually, as bullets riddle them and bits fly off. And, to get back to the AI, the bastards can drive. "The driving AI is something that's gone in very recently and you really don't want to be trying to run around on foot when they're driving, because they're sliding the vehicles into you and stuff like that," Doak says. He hopes the vehicles will come across as a natural part of the game.
That's also true of the co-operative modes, where it seems every effort's being made to obfuscate all the backroom calculations. It's "drop-in", which in this case means that up to three of your friends can join your single-player game at any point, and you theirs, and that the overall group can be composed of split-screen, LAN or Internet hook-ups, and indeed any combination. Xbox Live's already shown us, to some extent, how this can be done with games like GRAW and Gears of War. That smooth experience is Doak's hope for PS3, too, which he says is "working really well" for them online. "The four-player co-op is a thing that we really wanted to do from the start. The whole structure of the squad in the game - they've always been there as seats for playing co-op," he adds.
In the scenarios we see - a running jungle battle, striding through a bombed-out village, fighting through a quarry in a pair of co-op-controlled cars, and gunning through a gun-metal grey factory - there's an inevitably heavy emphasis on combat, but it won't be relentless, despite the lack of loading screens. "The pacing is punctuated by things like dropship pick-ups and stuff that take you somewhere else, and then there are talky bits, so that's where we do a lot of the plot development and the character development," Doak says. What's more, the gameplay itself should be as varied as the 12 different but narratively coherent locations the game explores. "What you're doing is not always just going gung-ho, smashing some rebels in the jungle. There are times when you are being pressed by overwhelming numbers, there are times when you have a distinct thing like some escort stuff to do; there are even times when you don't have a gun."
Often when we finish an FPS, most recently Half-Life 2: Episode One (again), the desire is to immediately dig further into events. With Haze' emphasis on story, perhaps that'll be the case here. But replaying the game immediately isn't always the most appealing option when the credits are rolling. Fortunately Haze will let you continue the fight, in some sense. Talking about multiplayer, Yescombe confirms the "24-player" figure for online, and drops more hints. "I can tell you this - we don't just have deathmatch and all the traditional modes. We do have those, but as well as that, the multiplayer missions are narrative-led, objective-based missions. So they will affect your understanding of things that are happening in the single-player. The two are related to each other."
As is development on multiple platforms (I know, I know - what a practised segue). That "leading on PS3" business is mainly a business thing, according to Doak, although while Free Radical's main belief is that a PS3 focus is good for energising those consumers, that's not to say they don't like the hardware. On the contrary, "the machine's a very capable machine" according to Doak, "and I think we're - in terms of development - pretty well placed to take advantage of it, because we've got the history on PlayStation 2, so we're not frightened by the things causing people a bit of alarm." Judging by the Haze demo, they're not worried about deviating heavily from fun-loving TimeSplitters, either. Indeed, we expect Haze's grittier approach to march up your most-wanted lists as Free Radical better articulates the game in the months ahead.
Haze is due out this year on PlayStation 3. Other versions are in development.