The game that killed Free Radical

Following the PlayStation 2 era, the transition to a new generation of hardware proved to be extraordinarily difficult for some development houses. In Britain, dozens of mid-range studios were shuttered once the PS3 became a market leader: Midway Newcastle, Pivotal, THQ Warrington, Rebellion Derby and others, all ceased operations. Unlike so many others in the region, developer Free Radical was able to survive and launched a seventh generation game – a PlayStation 3 exclusive.

Founded in the PS2 era by the creative forces behind Perfect Dark and GoldenEye, developer Free Radical thrived, piecing together the superlative TimeSplitters series and beloved sleeper hit Second Sight.

Despite its success, transition to a new generation was difficult, but Free Radical endured. Beyond survival, its next game had already become a hotly contested icon in a growing forum war, as the developer of a hyped shooter, exclusive to Sony's new hardware.

Free Radical's next venture was dubbed, by press and fans alike, as game worthy of the moniker "Halo killer."

That game was Haze.

Haze was a first-person shooter that followed the soldiers of a multinational corporation, which were enhanced by a "nutritional supplement" called Nectar. With Nectar, soldiers would fight harder and smarter, but the supplement was also a hallucinogenic that blinded soldiers to the true horrors of war. Like its story, Free Radical's approach to creating Haze was ambitious.

"We were transitioning new consoles and we wanted to do something that would make good use of all of the power those machines would bring," explains former-Free Radical director Steve Ellis, attempting to reconstruct what went wrong with Haze. A new generation property on new hardware seemed like "an appropriate time" for Free Radical to ditch its aging internal engine, which was originally crafted for TimeSplitters.

"Pretty much everything turned out to be harder than we expected, Ellis admits. "The AI system, although great in theory, wasn't living up to our hopes, and creating the new engine required a lot more time and effort than we had in the schedule. The problem was that by the time we realised this we'd already signed a contract to deliver a particular game at a particular point in time."

"We didn't have the luxury of developing the new engine and tools chain to completion before rolling them out for the development team," continues Derek Littlewood, Creative Director on Haze. "We had an aggressive early schedule for Haze – all of which meant that development had to start in earnest using still-immature technology.

"We knew we had these issues to resolve and so wanted a chunk of extra time to be able to polish and refine the game."

These setbacks caused Free Radical's relationship with Ubisoft, Haze's publisher, to suffer. The team got the extra time it needed – Haze went through a number of small delays – but the underlying problems with the game were hardly addressed. Instead, Ubisoft wanted more features, more 'content.' With the dev team's efforts spent on making Haze bigger rather than better, morale at Free Radical started to run low.

"Rather than actually working on the things that the delay was originally intended to give us time to solve, much of the extra time was either used talking about potentially delaying the game further or implementing extra features," says Littlewood.

"There was a similar problem with cutting features or content, something I believe is crucial to the development of any game, no matter how large or small. You always reach a point where you only have the time to fully refine a subset of features and the only way of making the game the best it can be is to take some of them out. But rather than being seen as a healthy attempt to improve the overall quality, cutting features from Haze was always seen as a negative. It was purely a numbers game, as if having less of anything in pure content terms would make the game worse."

The problems caused by that approach are particularly visible in Haze's later levels. What begins as a straight, mostly narrative-driven shooter bloats into a kind of sub-Halo, half-sandbox game, with the climactic stages comprising lots of empty, wide open spaces. Game mechanics, such as squad control, suffered. Other combat mechanics were given little attention. Players can play dead, manufacture grenades, and do evasive rolls, for example, but their use were rarely required or meant to feel important to success.

Though Free Radical knew it had bugs to fix, Ubisoft wanted to focus on production values. Haze became over-produced and eventually Ubisoft took active creative control.

"We had wasted a large part of the first extension not doing the things that we knew we needed to do, and we ended up needing even more time. Once again, it took months to get an agreement from the publisher and again, much of that time was used unproductively," Ellis explains. "By now, in Ubisoft's eyes, we had become incompetent. We could only continue if we gave them much more control over what we were doing. They brought in a couple of inexperienced producers and gave them the power to dictate what we did, to make arbitrary changes, and to withhold our payments whenever we disagreed with anything. They even asked us to fire some people."

Meanwhile, the marketing campaign for Haze was in full gear.

After delivering a string of excellent titles for the PlayStation 2, expectations for Free Radical's next game were high. Much like in the build-up to Guerrilla's Killzone, the term "Halo killer" was thrown around by the press when referencing Haze.

"The 'Halo killer' thing wasn't something the dev team invited," says Littlewood. "I think the idea of two competing developers, making FPS games for rival consoles, was an exciting narrative for some, but it wasn't a thing that had any basis in fact.

"In truth, it was hard to craft a marketing-friendly pitch for Haze, because it was a complicated game that didn't lend itself to easy sound bites. At the time, the big conferences like E3 were seen as vital for the success of a game but it was hard to give Haze the sort of short, punchy sell that works in that context."

In an attempt to sell the game's potential excitement to audiences, the marketing for Haze took to revealing too much. The game that was over-produced had quickly become over-sold.

"All I can say is it would have been nice to have kept the moment where you switch sides, from Mantel to the rebels, secret before release. It's the single most pivotal moment of the game, and telling people about it completely robbed it of punch or excitement. I still wonder how reactions to the game might have differed if that hadn't been revealed in advance," Littlewood adds.

After crunching the game for several more months, during which time a lot of the Free Rad developers had to work weekends to accommodate Ubisoft's requests and patch various bugs, Haze finally launched in May 2008. Critics pulled apart its story and technical shortcomings, comparing it unfavourably with Modern Warfare, which launched a year earlier, and the PS3's first flagship shooter Resistance: Fall of Man.

On December 18, 2008, Free Radical entered administration – the process toward insolvency. After spending ample time and resources on Haze, along with a deal between LucasArts that was publicly canceled at the end of development, the studio was dead.

"We received the hype that we'd earned," says Ellis. "We had done very well up to that point. We had only ever made high-rated games. People weren't wrong to believe us when we described what we were trying to achieve. It was ambitious, but they thought that we could do it.

"But there was definitely a backlash when the game was released. We all knew that we hadn't delivered on our promises, but some of the press marked the game well lower than it objectively deserved. We were penalized for disappointing them."

"Re-reading some of the reviews today, the thing that bothers me more than anything is the real sense of disappointment a lot of players felt," Littlewood continues, "That's more difficult to deal with than any of the other comments directed at the game because it means these people really cared and simply felt let down.

"Most disappointed of all, though, was the team itself. Everyone at Free Radical was proud of the company's reputation and it was incredibly tough for all of us to bring something to release when we knew we weren't happy with it."

While the narrative in Haze pre-dates similar story beats found in Spec Ops: The Line and BioShock Infinite that examine the affects of war, the reputation of Free Radical's final game has not improved half a decade later.

Despite the game's final quality, Haze featured an impressive story concept. Nectar, the drug at the center of the game's plot, which keeps soldiers that use it blissfully unaware of their atrocities, can easily be read as a stand-in for propaganda, marketing. Like the firebrand rhetoric which leads people into real-world wars, and the explosive trailers and promises of perks and level-ups that drive the sales of war shooters, Nectar is a lie pumped directly into people's heads. Dig deeper and Haze is a satire on gaming conventions. Nectar users are unable to see the blood or bodies of the people they've killed – those things just vanish, in typical video game fashion. It's only when the player has come clean off the drug – when the game's protagonist is disconnected from its sanitising influence – that the cost of war is finally on display in the world.

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It has the same affect as The Line's white phosphorus scene, where, finally, the player is confronted with the consequences of his cavalier attitude to killing. Haze then goes further. At the end of the game, the outwardly heroic rebel leader reveals that he plans to steal Nectar and use it on his men. The game isn't a window-boxed good team and bad team story. Rather, it occupies a cynical middle-ground, where plucky iconoclast aren't necessarily noble.

In the context of six years of war shooters, Haze has vital points to make.

"I've had a range of feedback on the game," Littlewood adds, "from an A4 page with nothing but the words 'EPIC FAIL' in big red letters on it to more nuanced responses from players who enjoyed it in places and thought it asked some interesting questions. I understand completely the players for whom it just didn't deliver, but I hope some people were able to appreciate the themes we were trying to explore, and the experience we were looking to create."

[Images: Ubisoft]

Edward Smith is a freelance writer based out of the UK with work appearing on New Statesman, Eurogamer, The Escapist and more. Follow him on Twitter.