GC 2007: Haze Preview
We shoot up and ship out for some exclusive early hands-on time with Free Radical's forthcoming FPS.
UK, August 21, 2007 - Normally when you get four people in a room armed with guns and stuffed to the eyeballs with mind-altering substances, it's a recipe for disaster. However, if those people are blasting through Haze and the drug in question is the mysterious Nectar, then it's more a recipe for intense four-player co-op action. Of course, while we already knew that co-op is a massive part of Free Radical's upcoming futuristic shooter, we've finally managed to get our trigger fingers twitching for real, with an exclusive hands-on with Haze's multiplayer.
Before we dive into the gunplay though, let's have a quick back story recap. Playing as Shane Carpenter, you're recruited into a corporate army owned by a massive corporation called Mantel. Although the company is meant to be a global peace-keeping organisation, it's fairly obvious there's something dodgy going on. Mainly, that's because its soldiers are kept pumped full of a synthetic enhancement drug called Nectar. This can be injected at any time, giving the user increased reactions and better fighting skills. However, our hero Carpenter realises there's something not quite right about Mantel and defects to the side of the rebels, previously his sworn enemies. As a result, you get to play through two very different portions of the game: the first as a drug-taking super shooter and then as a tactical but poorly-armed rebel.
Kicking off our multiplayer hands-on, we jumped straight into the Mantel levels, getting a taste for Nectar and a feel for being a high-tech trooper. The high-tech aspect is immediately noticeable thanks to the futuristic HUD that surrounds the screen. The view of a Mantel soldier includes flashing health bars and your Nectar reserves - but we'll have more on that later. Throw in sufficiently futuristic-looking weaponry, plus drop ships that look like they've come straight out of Star Wars, and you definitely feel like you're fighting in 2048.
Needless to say, thanks to all this cutting edge equipment, when playing as a Mantel soldier the action comes thick and fast. Our first mission provided us with an introduction to combat, going through the basics of Nectar use. This took place in the jungle level that's been seen a lot since Free Radical began demoing Haze to the world. However, what doesn't come across in screens or even videos is how beautiful and lush the environment is. Poppies are dotted around grassy fields (which billow as you run through them) and mildew-encrusted rocks provide handy cover during fire-fights. Plus, the explosions that send clouds of black smoke billowing into the air look amazingly realistic. The guys at Free Radical were keen to point out that Haze doesn't just take place in a jungle but, after playing through several levels in the rainforest, we're certainly not complaining if the rest of the game looks this gorgeous.
Anyway, enough talk of flowers and smoke - onto the fighting. During Mantel sections, an icon at the top of the screen (shaped like the Mantel logo) indicates the direction of your next objective. Initially, this doesn't come into play too much, given the linearity of the jungle. However, this should be handy for later levels featuring multiple objectives. Alongside this, during co-op, other icons appear display the position of your team-mates - you'll also have these when playing as a rebel warrior. These are especially useful when planning flanking attacks against foes, making quick tactical strikes beautifully simple.
Admittedly, as an early stage in the game, there wasn't a great need for tactics. However, we did get to experience the excellent gunplay: aiming feels extremely tight and sweeping over enemies to pepper them with ammo is a doddle thanks to the responsive controls. What's more, despite the rumble-less PlayStation 3, each weapon manages to convey a real sense of force and you can practically feel each round making impact with your target. In another nice, subtle, touch, all guns are weighted meaning you can see them physically lean as you change your direction. It's extra layers of polish like this that really add to the overall Haze experience.
After getting to grips with the arsenal, it was time to sample a bit of Nectar. You can take the drug by holding L2 for a short time - however, unless you get your dose exactly right, it'll either only have short-term effects or you'll overdose and go crazy. Happily, despite initial reservations, after playing the game we can report that Nectar manages to sidestep 'gimmick' and actually offers something new in the FPS genre. For starters, once you've shot up, your speed increases and enemies glow so you can spot them easier. This means you can thunder through areas picking off rebels in rapid succession. Furthermore, Nectar also improves your auto-aiming, making it that much easier to bring opponents to their knees. Of course, the effects of Nectar are only temporary and you'll need to replenish your stock, either by sharing doses between team mates or, alternatively, by killing enemies. That means the kills come heart-poundingly thick and fast, if you want to keep your supplies plentiful.
Once we'd played through several stages as an elite Mantel soldier, we had a chance to look at later rebel gameplay. These stages offer a significant switch in tone because playing as a rebel relies more on tactics and stealth, compared to running in all guns blazing as a gung-ho Mantel trooper. There's also more the sense of being part of a team playing as a rebel - without your Nectar or meaty arsenal, it's just you, a gun, very little armour and comrades desperately struggling to stay alive. Here, you can also heal downed team mates, if you get to them quick enough. As a result, we found we were much chattier during rebel co-op stages, constantly updating our fellow players on the whereabouts of both ourselves and enemies. It's a sharp contrast to Mantel stages wher we felt practically invincible thanks to the effects of Nectar.
Despite the fact you're technically inferior in rebel mode, you do have a number of tricks up your sleeve to use against Mantel squads. Firstly, by plunging a hunting knife into the corpse of a dead trooper, you can coat it in Nectar, ready to be lobbed toward an enemy. A direct hit instantly makes your target overdose, meaning they go crazy, shooting wildly at their allies. Similarly, you can strap Nectar packs to grenades - when they explode, they shower all Mantel soldiers in a yellow cloud of Nectar, causing chaos on a major scale. These are merely two of the tactical elements at your disposal during rebel play, offering a welcome change from a reliance on brute force.
Our first rebel experience was played out in a level set around an abandoned block of flats, overrun by the Mantel Corporation. It's a complete contrast to the lush jungle we'd played previously and looked more like something from the debris-heavy Ghost Recon. As the complex is full of corridors, empty rooms and balconies, you never know where the next attack might come from, meaning you're constantly ducking behind cover just in case an enemy is camping round the next corner. As with all rebel stages, progress is extremely tense thanks to your extremely powerful Nectar-fuelled opposition. In fact, in many ways, we actually preferred the taught, terrifying atmosphere of these sections compared to the free-for-all gunplay earlier in the game.
Ultimately though, there's no denying Haze is shaping up to be something special. Not only do both contrasting halves of the game hold up well on their own, the four-player co-op mode is instantly gratifying - it feels great to be backed up by a squad of people, rather than AI-controlled bots. Free Radical has a long history of creating great shooters and it looks like Haze could even go one step further than the developer's previous titles.