At this point, the first person shooter genre has been explored thoroughly enough that in order to set itself apart, a new title must not only be presentationally top-notch, but must also bring something unique to the table. English developer Free Radical Design certainly has the pedigree to do just that. Not only were some of its talented programmers contributors to the classic N64 titles Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, but Free Radical itself was responsible for the well-regarded series of Timesplitters games. It seems clear that the developers at Free Radical, then, are well familiar with the fundamental concepts that make for a unique and fun first-person shooter experience.
As development costs rise, console exclusivity is becoming less common than it used to be. It is simply becoming more economically necessary for developers and publishers to put out the same game on multiple consoles, particularly given how quickly titles fall in price or move to the secondary market. As such, from the perspective of the console manufacturers, exclusivity is arguably more important than ever in terms of what console people choose to buy. With a smaller percentage of titles separating the available games on any given console, the importance of the quality and mass appeal of those titles that are exclusive increases.
The massive popularity of the Halo franchise has certainly been a boon to Microsoft. Indeed, it seems clear that the first Halo drove sales of the Xbox to begin with, and was pivotal in Microsoft’s rise to becoming one of the major console players, an incredible feat given how late they entered the game. It makes perfect sense, then, that Sony would attempt to secure the rights to its own popular and exclusive first-person shooter. The first real attempt at this was Killzone (though it can be argued Resistance: Fall of Man was an effort in its own right), which generated massive buzz before its release, but was met with an overwhelmingly mediocre reception. The newest title tasked with attracting FPS enthusiasts to a Sony console is now here in the form of Haze, and given its promising science fiction premise and the talent and creativity at Free Radical, it seemed as though it stood a legitimate chance of being well-received, if not necessarily the proverbial Halo-killer. However, the release of Haze is quite reminiscent of that of Killzone, given how underwhelming its reception has been.
Haze disappoints on a number of levels. It seems to want to tell a story as powerfully as Call of Duty 4, a title that demonstrated as well as any that intense first person shooters don’t have to be completely mindless. Topics at the heart of Haze include the futility of war, torture, enhancement drugs, and the notion of private military corporations. But while the topics themselves and the outline of the plot here may be interesting, the way in which the narrative is executed makes it entirely uncompelling. At its best, Haze is heavy-handed, but much more often it is ham-fisted.
Where Call of Duty 4 had subtle touches addressing the moral complexity of the issues at hand, like the casual way in which chopper pilots refer to targets that have been eliminated from afar, Haze goes quite far over the top in its effort to address the issue of enemy dehumanization. It’s a fundamentally less mature approach. The marketing choice to have the band Korn record a song apparently inspired by the game seems to only add to the perception that Haze is not as mature as its thematic aspirations would imply. Better writing alone may have made great strides towards overcoming many of its other shortcomings.
Who’s up for a little hand-to-hand?
Graphically and aurally, Haze is not in the same league as the titles it so desperately wants to be. Presentation need not be technically top notch for a game to be enjoyable. But unfortunately for Haze, these are extremely important issues for much of the demographic to which it is trying to appeal. The level design, important for single player and crucial for competitive multiplayer in first person shooters, is fairly bland. Really, there simply isn’t anything that compellingly sets Haze apart. Even its main conceit of a drug that gives you a temporary boost in abilities has been explored in countless other places.
Given Free Radical’s experience with all of these elements, in particular multiplayer play, it’s interesting to wonder what exactly went wrong with Haze. On paper, it looks great, but its problems all seem tied to its execution. This leads to the impression that it was either rushed, or else bended too much to try and emulate other titles. Certainly, it has elements of Halo, Call of Duty 4, and Gears of War. Perhaps many of game’s problems could be hammered out in a sequel, but unless its sales overshadow its critical reception, it seems unlikely that Free Radical will get that opportunity.