As a first-person shooter in a market that's never been more competitive, Haze is faced with a difficult battle. It never claimed to be a Halo killer or a Call of Duty slayer, but it will still be compared to the ruling champs of the genre. Haze also faces hype-fueled expectations--partly the result of a development legacy that traces back to GoldenEye for the N64. It also carries the burden of being a PlayStation 3 exclusive that's been pumped up as a big release. Haze is in for a tough fight, and you should expect a few casualties.
In Haze's story, you join a privatized military organization in the not-so different future in order to make a positive difference in the world. Instead, you find yourself participating in a drug-fueled, macho power-fantasy alongside a bunch of cold-blooded, frat boy jerks. Since it's clear the corporate-controlled Mantel troopers are the evil bad guys with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, you'll switch sides to join up with the soulful and passionate Latin revolutionaries led by an absolute saint of an old man.
You don't have a choice in the matter, no matter how much you shake your head during the otherwise non-interactive cutscenes. Your only choice is sit back and absorb a story with all the depth and subtlety of your typical Saturday morning cartoon. Unintentional hilarity will be your only hope here. When you do regain control, it's time to say no to drugs and start shooting bad guys. There is some enjoyment in shooting the bad guys, at least.
Haze features a linear, story-driven campaign which can be played solo or cooperatively with up to four players. The first-person shooting comes with a bit of third-person driving, which serve to break up the standard action with high speed and loose physics. Team-based online play is the other major component of the game, with three competitive multiplayer modes including standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and the objective-based assault mode. Overall functionality is good and the 16-player limit feels right for the maps. Empty spaces can be filled with computer-controlled bots, which is also a plus.
Whether the six- to eight-hour campaign meets your personal criteria for game length, being able to play through the main game cooperatively, online or offline, is a huge credit to the game. Level design is hit or miss--hitting wherever the massive land carrier is involved and missing wherever wide-open spaces are the setting. The multi-player options offer three ways to play, but assault mode is the only clear winner here. It's nothing original, but having an objective, like burning out patches of Nectar-producing plants, fits in with the game's two opposing sides, and is much more compelling than straight-up deathmatch.
Building the game around two different factions is one of Haze's defining choices. Mantel troopers are the guys wearing the honey-bee yellow suits and juicing on the performance-enhancing drug known as nectar. The Promise Hand rebels can play dead, set grenade traps, and inflict nasty overdoses. Giving each side its own unique abilities adds to the game's depth, but in multiplayer the balance just isn't quite there.
While the two sides have access to different tricks and one or two unique weapons, they share the same basic, generic arsenal of assault rifle, shotgun, sniper-rifle, and rocket launcher. You could argue that the game is sticking with what works, but the lack of unique weapons and alternate fire modes make Haze's arsenal disappointingly straightforward and forgettable.
On a basic level, Haze plays pretty much by the book. You can crouch, zoom in with your weapon, chuck a grenade, bunny hop, and whack a guy with a melee attack. Apart from instances where you're clearly supposed to be using a vehicle, the game is largely focused on man-to-man combat. Either faction's assault rifle will get you through almost any situation, sniper rifles and shotguns are regularly available to spice things up, and different enemy types will have varying levels of armor and different types of weaponry.
Playing for the Mantel side, you'll definitely notice that nectar makes your enemies easily visible, helps you aim, and puts some extra punch into your melee attack. You squeeze the left trigger to dose yourself up, and killing rebels during your high rewards you with more nectar. If a trooper overdoses thanks to getting shot in the back or walking through a nectar grenade, he'll turn red, lose control of his trigger finger, and be unable to tell allies and enemies apart. Strangely you'll appreciate the effect more when it happens to you. It's genuinely disorienting and those team kills clearly weren't your fault, right?
Rebels have a few tricks up their sleeve, including knives and grenades to overdose troopers, but together with a bullet-dodging roll, being able to play dead is their biggest asset. In a single-player game, the bad guys will forget about you instantly and focus on your friends, letting you pop back up and surprise them. In multiplayer it can often act as a get-out-of-frag free card, although it's easy to be put right back down if there's an enemy around.
The campaign has a couple of decent set pieces, but the challenge is primarily to engage and eliminate foot soldiers and continue to move forward, making firefights the real meat of the gameplay. While the mechanics are solid, the computer-controlled soldiers on either side raise a few eyebrows. Enemies don't seem to benefit from their unique abilities, and allies are dodgy, unreliable, and prone to jumping right into your field of fire. Other general problems include vague objectives and wonky waypoint markers that leave you wandering around with no idea of what to do. Playing cooperatively definitely makes the game more fun, and having reliable allies makes it an objectively better experience.
It would be reasonable for players to expect Haze to show off the visual capabilities of the PlayStation 3 considering it's only been built for the consoles. These players will be disappointed, as Haze suffers from technical issues, ugly textures, and a poor story made worse by melodramatic acting and endlessly repeating voice clips. You might not remember your promise to Merino, but you'll definitely remember that you've heard the same stupid line a dozen times in an hour.
These surface issues don't have a negative impact on gameplay in the strictest sense, but the game's presentation makes it very difficult to take the action or story seriously. Players are used to much better, and your expectations on what the current generation of games should look like could easily hurt your enjoyment of the game.
Despite bugs that seem to pop up around every corner, Haze isn't an awful first-person shooter. It's just not a very good one. The ham-handed storytelling, melodramatic script, and over-the-top voice-acting conspire up front to turn you off to the whole experience. But stick with it, and despite the generic weapons, the combat is primarily solid, and the different abilities of the rebels and troopers do add something to the game. If you can get friends together to battle through coop, find a few favorite assault maps, or ignore the unimpressive tech, you'll be able to see something on the other side of the Haze. We just can't promise that it will be something good.