Midway's record in Europe since it set up a few years back has been patchy to say the least. Full of slick, but US centric sports titles, and playable, but shallow arcade ports, the publishing veteran has realised it needed to start producing content with depth, and a broader appeal than the quick fix gameplay it relied upon before the arse fell out of the amusement arcade market.
Haven is one of the first fruits of its change of emphasis, and has been, unusually, been developed by an unheralded British outfit, the team behind all manner of Disney related titles such as Toy Story (1&2), A Bug's Life and more recently the ok-but-not-great Crash Bandicoot - Wrath Of Cortex. Haven is, apparently, the game the team has always wanted to make and, finally, after years of coding to order it has a chance to establish itself as a British developer to be reckoned with.
The next major development in videogaming?
The PR machine has certainly gone to town to impress the point that Haven is "A game that is all games", featuring multiple genres in the same package, including racing, shooting, combat, as well as the obvious platforming elements that the whole game hangs everything on. The fact that Midway has trademarked "Freeformer™" gameplay tells you that the publisher is either a tad misguided or supremely confident that Haven really is "the next major development in videogaming". But more of that later.
Haven, the star of the game, is haunted by dreams of the "Golden Voice", which is actually a bell that is rung in times of need, and one that needs to be chimed to free the people from the slavery imposed by the evil Lord Vetch. Yes, it's the usual good versus evil tale, and is structured in the traditional level based platform game way, with sub objectives having to be completed in order to move the story on and allow Haven to access the next section of the game.
Marketing spin alert
Haven himself is a bug eyed crusty dwarf with bright red dreads and a Yo Yo for a weapon. Hardly the things that gaming legends are made of, and as such it's hard to find this Trustafarian lookalike endearing in any sense, but hey, if the game's as "revolutionary", "visually stunning", "cinematic", "remarkable", and "virtually limitless" as Midway would have us believe, we wouldn't care if the lead character was a foul mouthed brickie.
Being mainly a platform game with sub sections to add variety, it comes across as being more heavily indebted to the likes of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank than being anything revolutionary. Both the aforementioned have lots in common with Haven, so it's almost impossible to approach it without comparing it directly to these extremely similar titles.
The weapon system, for example, feels embarrassingly limited next to the gadget laden R&C, or even J&D for that matter. The poxy Yo Yo you're given is almost completely hopeless at destroying anything, and you have to position young Haven with frustrating precision to take out explosive barrels. Occasionally you get to pick up a laser gun, but it runs out so quickly it's next to useless. Most of the time you're better off jumping around avoiding everything the best you can, which makes it feel pointless having enemies at all.
Jump! Collect! Attack!
The mission structures are also hardly the stuff of revolution either: find five leaves or cogs or whatever to open up the next obstacle in your way. Occasionally you get to indulge in a spot of shooting or racing to further your quest, which helps break up the jump and collect staple. In one instance Haven gets to use a jetpack and fly around with a water cannon putting out fires, while in another area you're testing out your shooting skills in an on-rails section taking out alien craft. Other sections have you driving around in a speed boat, or a fast car blowing up tanks, and while they're fun diversions they're generally all over very quickly, and as such feel like side shows to the main event.
Meanwhile, the visual side of the game rarely matches the cinematic billing. Despite having art input from "world-renowned fantasy and science fiction illustrator" Rodney Matthews, the overall look and feel is not as striking or impressive as either of its rivals. The character models vary from being brilliantly conceived (for which we assume Matthews input has to take credit), to the lacklustre, especially the mindless NPC drones that wander around the village getting in your way. The cut scenes also hardly inspire much excitement, and in comparison to R&C's Pixar-esque efforts, look pretty lacklustre.
You're taking the mick, jaggie
Meanwhile, each level is big, impressive and delivers a good sense of scale, but they really don't deliver the same amount of character, and simply aren't as technically as detailed or pleasing on the eye. Texturing is limited at times, and the dreaded PS2 jaggie is ruefully present and incorrect.
The linear structure of the story also limits your ability to go to and fro from levels like you can in both J&D and R&C, and thus there isn't the comparable desire to go back and explore later for things you've missed. You can replay any level you've completed at any time, but the incentives to retread old ground just aren't there. The story struggles to establish itself as a cut above its rivals - it lacks the punch and black adult humour of recent efforts, and instead comes across as a feeble good versus evil tale.
The net result is that you never really care about the characters, and instead it's just an excuse to give your thumbs a quick rest before the next challenge. The voices hardly help endear you to most of the characters you encounter, either, with most adopting a sprightly, but irritating yank tone, while the occasional stereotypical Scot or Chinese character pops up to remind you exactly why Rockstar hired the likes of Ray Liotta and co in GTA: Vice City, and not a bunch of jobbing nobodies to do the vocal duties. We're aware that budgetary restraints will prevent to use of named actors, but it really does irk to have to be subjected to poor dialogue in these days of multi million pound development projects.
Sound wise, the presence of surround is a welcome addition, but we had trouble detecting it 'before and after'. The score is typically epic and sweeping, and while it washed over us most of the time, that's probably a good thing.
The controls borrow heavily from, surprise surprise, J&D and R&C, with the left stick for movement and the right for camera adjustment. And even less of a surprise is that the same camera issues crop up as a result, with the player often engaging in a tussle with the CPU over which angle is best for the given moment. The decision to assign the first person view to R3 or L3 is annoying, but for the most part the controls are simple, with just jump and attack being used.
The difficulty level has at least been judged quite nicely, with most tasks never holding you up for frustrating lengths of time (although putting the fires out pushed our patience), and as such you'll be able to make swift, satisfying progress in what appears to be a pretty big game - although how big is hard to gauge in the absence of a percentage complete meter.
Revolutionary freeformer or another platformer?
Haven's pretensions to be some kind of revolutionary product seem sound and exciting on the surface, but scratch that surface for more than an hour or so, and it's apparent that what we're really dealing with is a better than average platformer with cleverly interspersed mini games to present the illusion of expansiveness and freedom. The marketing team has done the best job they can of trying to excite us, but any vaguely experienced gamer will see right through the puff of Freeformer™. If it had arrived 18 months ago it might have been hailed as a breakthrough, but it's neither the best looking nor the most playable platformer out there. That's not to say it's a bad game, or that you won't enjoy it. If you're a real died in the wool platform gamer, Haven has plenty to admire, but it just fails to match or better what's gone before. But for those looking for the benchmark title in the genre, the cold reality is that Haven isn't it.