PS3 Fanboy review: Haze

Developed by Free Radical, the ex-Rare employees responsible for the excellent Timesplitters series, Haze has been a long time coming. The game has suffered from multiple delays as well as exclusivity confusion over the last year. Haze promised to deliver an immersive story, balanced multiplayer and seamless online and offline co-op play. It was also backed up by some excellent live-action trailers.

Unfortunately, it becomes apparent whilst playing the game that, while the team at Free Radical may have reached for excellence, they have either fallen short or made some bad decisions with regards to the execution of many aspects of the title. Haze isn't a bad game and, despite some shortcomings, can be enjoyable and thought provoking. But is it as good as the hype suggested? Frankly, no. Read on to find out why.

Haze was pegged as a story-based first-person shooter that would deliver a clever, satirical story that showed war from both sides. A live-action trailer gave would-be players a taste of what was to come and demonstrated the overall story of the game. As a child, Sergeant Shane Carpenter's parents were killed and so he commits himself to Mantel's private army. Armed with the performance enhancing drug Nectar, Shane was transformed into an elite soldier, until the day he got ambushed by Rebels and is "reborn."

A great premise, I'm sure you'll agree. Unfortunately, very little of this narrative makes it into the game itself. We hear almost nothing about Shane's life pre-Mantel and we care very little for him as a result. The moment Shane changes sides is also very different than is advertised in the trailer. In fact, Haze marketing is permeated with the image of a smashed Mantel helmet. An excellent piece of symbolism that's used in the trailer as a metaphor for the moment of Shane's "rebirth". Unfortunately, that too is missing from the game.

The story continues to suffer throughout as brilliant premises make way for lackluster or cop-out implementation and resolution. There's a big reveal half way through the game which fails to leave much of an impression for several reasons. The biggest of which is that, due to the lack of narration or exposition scenes, a sense of scale and geography is lost. The game feels like it takes place within a bubble with the rest of the world oblivious to what's going on. With some nice cutscenes or some clever narrative implementation the story could have had a far greater impact.

Moving on to gameplay, Free Radical Design know what they're doing when it comes to first-person shooters. The Timesplitters series has shown us that. As a result Haze controls nicely and the on-foot sections are sufficiently enjoyable. Level design varies in quality throughout and it seems to improve as the game goes on. Early sections of the game are middling, with later parts (the bridge and the hotel, in particular) ramping up the adrenaline and feeling much more fun.

There are a few vehicle sections in the game which are sadly lacking. Poor driving mechanics coupled with dull environments and confusing level design leave you looking forward to the next on-foot section. Thankfully, there are only a handful of these sections scattered throughout the game. Later you'll come across a couple of short sections involving shooting a load of Mantel troopers from a helicopter with a minigun. These sections are far more fun and, in my opinion, should have been longer and more numerous.

Graphically, Haze looks pretty good with a distinct lack of jaggies. Character models (particularly Mantel soldiers) and animations are great. Environments range from "pretty drab" to "quite decent", with the driving sections particularly dull and gray/brown. Unfortunately, there are graphical glitches that pop up later in the game. These are most apparent while sniping, when you will see strobing textures. In no way is this a deal breaker, though.

The hook of the game is obviously the Nectar and the Rebel skills. Giving you two sets of abilities makes it feel a bit like two different games. As a Mantel soldier you'll be using Nectar a lot. Mostly because there's no reason not to. The same can not be said for the Rebel skills, however. Nectar grenades are handy, as is dodging, but most others aren't worth the hassle. The problem is that against AI, they're pretty useless -- particularly playing dead.

Which brings me to my main gameplay qualm. Mantel troopers, who were super tough and powerful when you are on their side, become really easy to kill once you're a Rebel. Also, enemies will rarely use their skills against your team. Mantel soldiers visibly top up on Nectar, but it doesn't seem to make them much tougher and Rebels very rarely use nectar grenades or play dead. No matter which side you're on, the enemies feel the same -- they just look different.

The skills really come into their own during the multiplayer modes, however. Abilities that weren't very useful against AI suddenly become quite potent against human players. The multiplayer (the gem in the Timesplitters series' crown) is good fun and well implemented in Haze. The assault multiplayer mode, in particular, is great fun and allows you to play through small story missions from either side of the conflict. These missions are separate from those in the single player game, but tie into the main storyline. Sadly, there aren't quite as many maps as we'd like. There's potential for some good DLC there.

Speaking of multiplayer, I really wanted to get some co-op play in with a buddy or two before writing this review. One of the game's main selling points was its four-player online co-op, so it seemed like an important aspect to address. Unforunately, there are some crippling problems with the online system which meant that all attempts made at co-op play with people I knew failed dismally. When accepting friend requests from those on my PSN list an error message asked me to install the latest patch to continue. Naturally, there is no such patch. Yet.

It seems that the online Haze community is split into two groups arbitrarily. A cyberspace divide separates them, meaning they can't interact within the game or see the same server lists for online matches. Neither FRD nor Ubisoft has addressed this problem yet, but with an official tournament getting underway soon, we hope it gets sorted quickly. The fact that one of the game's main features is gimped is unforgivable. Co-op with random people , however, was fun and smooth, allowing for easy voice communication. We suspect it's even more fun with people you know -- if you can connect to each other, that is.

Overall, each aspect of Haze can be summed up the same way. "Solid, but not groundbreaking." There's plenty of room for improvement here. Bluntly, Free Radical should stick to what they do best: wacky, arcade first-person shooters with plenty of unlockables and polished multiplayer modes. Bring on Timesplitters 4.

PS3 Fanboy score: 6.5

This article was originally published on Joystiq.