The members of Free Radical Design proved that they were the talent behind the famous Nintendo 64 adaptation of Goldeneye when they released TimeSplitters 2 in 2002. Considered a major improvement over the original, it’s often considered one of the greatest games of the sixth console generation. As it drew to a close, Sony, the company that dominated the generation with its PlayStation 2 console, hit a stumbling block upon launching the PlayStation 3. Though lauded as a versatile piece of hardware with the ability to play Blu-Ray discs, there was one major aspect holding it back: it had very few games to speak of upon launch. Indeed, the best games available for it in 2006 could also be played on the PC or the Xbox 360, making it difficult to justify paying $599 USD for it.
Nonetheless, Free Radical Design decided to take advantage of the new hardware offered by both Sony and Microsoft to demonstrate their continued relevance in this new generation. Their new project, Haze, was unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2006. Notably, they elected not to purchase a game engine, instead choosing to create their own. The idea behind this decision was to have more freedom when implementing gameplay features. Haze was billed as a third-person shooter, but halfway through development, the game’s publisher, Ubisoft requested for it to be changed. They wanted Haze to be a first-person shooter to compete with other bestselling action titles such as Call of Duty and Halo.
Haze was slated to be released in the summer of 2007 whereupon it would see a simultaneous release on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the PC. The release date was then quickly pushed back to that year’s winter. After much speculation, it was eventually announced at Sony’s 2007 E3 press conference that Haze would be a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As even one year later, the console had a notable lack of exclusives, a game made by the people behind Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and TimeSpitters 2 seemed like the perfect solution to Sony’s conundrum.
The game garnered a lot of attention from the press prior to its release. In the wake of the dual release of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, some of the most anticipated games in the medium’s history, Free Radical Design had their work cut out for them. In October of 2007, Ubisoft announced that the nu metal band Korn had written and recorded a song inspired by the upcoming game also entitled “Haze”. Some outlets went as far as calling it a “Halo killer”. Sadly, the final product didn’t come close to making a dent in Bungie’s venerable franchise. Indeed, the only thing the game killed was Free Radical Design themselves, as its poor performance received ensured the company’s demise. In a spectacularly ill-advised move, Free Radical Design employees Rob Yescombe and David Doak boasted that making a game like Halo was “child’s play” and their other projects were to use the Haze engine. Once Haze failed, the bottom fell out, and the studio shut down in December of 2008. How does the final game Free Radical Design developed fare in hindsight?
Analyzing the Experience
The year is 2048 and a 25-year-old man by the name of Shane Carpenter is a soldier in the employ of the private military corporation (PMC) Mantel. He was enticed by the constant advertisements issued by the company, which detailed the dangers abroad that were a threat to his homeland. In order to make a difference, he enlisted after dropping out of college. One of his missions sends him to the Boa region of South America. Mantel troops have been dispatched to liberate the country from a rebel group that call themselves Promise Hand. They have been informed that the group has been waging a violent campaign involving ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity.
Shane soon meets his squadmates. Sergeant Morgan Duvall is the squadron’s leader. The other members are go by the names of Teare, Peshy, and Watchstrap. Fueling the Mantel soldiers is a special medication dubbed Nectar. Before the mission even begins, Duvall berates and dismisses Teare for neglecting to take his prerequisite dose. The remaining four soldiers leave Mantel’s mobile fortress and are dropped into the jungle where they can crush the Promise Hand.
Those who have played Halo will find a recognizable interface in Haze. Fittingly, the gameplay is also quite similar. From the onset, Haze presents itself as a first-person shooter. The bar on the left side of the screen represents your health. As you take damage, it decreases accordingly. Though Shane’s armor does prevent him from being killed outright in a gunfight, it’s a mistake to assume he has the same level of survivability as a classic first-person shooter protagonist. If his health gets too low, you must find a place to take cover. You don’t have to worry about finding a medical kit or any similar item to restore it. Simply remaining out of gunfire for a sufficient length of time will cause the meter to restore on its own. Once it does, you may carry on as normal.
Shane is capable of toting two weapons at a time along a set number of grenades. You can either fire from the default view or through a scoped mode that allows you to pick off distant targets more easily. When you defeat an enemy, you may swap their weapon with the one with which you’re currently equipped. Grenades are useful whenever you’re being fired upon by multiple sides and it’s too risky to pop out from cover.
All of the Mantel soldiers utilize a drug called Nectar, and Shane’s own use of it factors into gameplay. Soldiers’ fighting capabilities are enhanced when using it, permitting them to run faster, jump higher, and react to potential threats far more quickly. Moreover, it reduces recoil and the player can zoom in further with a scoped view. It’s best to take caution when administering it, for an overdose can cause any number of side effects. If you overdose by accident, Shane will rendered vulnerable to enemy gunfire. Should you throw caution into the wind entirely, a bad enough overdose will outright kill him. Whether it’s due to enemy gunfire, falling from too great of a height, taking too much Nectar, or any number of hostile factors, Shane’s death will result in you getting sent back to the last checkpoint.
The 2000s was something of a golden age for first-person shooters. The decade saw the debut of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises. Much of the genre’s injection into the mainstream could be attributed to Goldeneye, which allowed these types of games to shake off the stigma of being mere clones of id Software’s Doom. It would seem fitting that many of the same people who created Goldeneye would band together to compete against the properties they indirectly helped guide to success. There was one slight flaw in this premise – Haze is a horrendously bland game that was absolutely no match for Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3.
The source from which I personally take the most umbrage concerns its level design. In a stark contrast to Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, Haze is entirely linear with no meaningful chance to explore the environments and very few set pieces existing for any higher purpose than to advance the plot. This by itself isn’t a problem, as Half-Life and its sequel enforced a linear level design mainly for the purposes of telling a story entirely through scripted events. This doesn’t work in Haze because where to go next can be amazingly difficult to ascertain.
It’s as though the designers couldn’t decide whether to have their levels akin to those of Goldeneye wherein the player was made to fulfill multiple complex objectives which necessitated exploration or create a metaphorical rollercoaster ride similar to the average Call of Duty installment. What Haze manages to be is a grotesque hybrid between the two styles that gives us the worst of both worlds. There were numerous times throughout the game in which I spent at least ten minutes trying to figure out where to go next. There is a compass on the top of the interface with a symbol meant to show you the direction in which you’re supposed to head, but it’s not always helpful. The compass only considers the age-old axiom that the shortest route between two points, in Euclidean space, is a straight line. Though a useful piece of information to bear in mind during calculus class, it doesn’t translate to giving cohesive directions in a video game. This is because the compass doesn’t take into account any barriers, natural or otherwise, between you and your intended destination. Bringing up the pause menu will likely prove useless, for the list of objectives only inform you of your overarching goals – not how you’re supposed to reach them.
A more subtle problem with Haze stems from the use of Nectar. Theoretically, the real risk of overdosing and killing Shane by accident is meant to be a failsafe intended to prevent players from using it constantly. In practice, once you learn exactly how it functions and when to administer it, you can have the advantages it bestows more or less indefinitely. It’s to the point where some players may deliberately forgo using it just so the game offers some kind of meaningful stimulation.
As it stands, one of the only reasons why the game presents any kind of challenge is because the checkpoints are so erratically placed. Sometimes, the game saves your progress every other minute while on other occasions, you have complete several objectives in row just to reach a new checkpoint. This makes it especially bad should you wish to quit the game but can’t because you have no idea when the section will end. I also feel that this shift in design may have contributed to the less-than-stellar level design. If you have to complete an entire level in one sitting, the programmers need to make sure it’s reasonably challenging and make the appropriate adjustments when necessary. With a checkpoint-based system, they would only need to make sure the portions between them are possible to clear at all, making them less likely to examine their levels closely and give them polish.
If it’s one thing that could be said in the defense of Haze, they did try to add some variety to the proceedings. Every now and again, you will get to commandeer a war vehicle with AI-controlled squadmates shooting at nearby targets. Halo had this feature long before Haze was even an idea, but it didn’t mean Free Radical Design couldn’t put a unique spin on the concept. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as good as any similar portion in you’ll find in Halo franchise. The controls in the rest of the game aren’t exactly great, but they are serviceable. The same can’t be said when it comes time to drive the vehicles. They’re slippery to the point that you will be crashing into walls every time the road curves slightly. Ironically, despite taking place in an unnamed, tropical country in South America, the vehicles handle as though they’re on ice.
With its narrative, Haze doesn’t exactly put its best foot forward in the first act. Peshy and Watchstrap speak with all the intelligence and grace of a foulmouthed frat boy. In fact, their dialogue wouldn’t have felt out of place among the innumerable, bigoted insults hurled in the average Xbox Live session at the time. Having to deal with that when playing games online is insufferable enough, but such stupidity being carved into the narrative of the single-player session is even worse.
Though Duvall isn’t as blatantly obnoxious, he isn’t any better. He takes every opportunity to berate Shane despite being the most competent person in his squadron by far, and his speeches are reminiscent of an annoying fatalist who regularly posts their viewpoints on forums, mistakenly believing them to be wise and profound.
Running out into the battlefield proves these three unpleasant people are not outliers. Much like Peshy and Watchstrap, every Mantel solider also act like the stereotypical, boisterous hobbyists who fancy themselves valiant soldiers despite their only pedigree being the number of points they’ve accumulated in a video game. Specifically, your teammates will incessantly brag about how proud their mother would be and likening Nectar to a power-up. One might even yell “Pwned,” a term that was thrown around quite often in the mid-to-late 2000s on the internet. This ensured the game had no chance of standing the test of time. Indeed, I originally played Haze in 2018, ten years after its release, and by then, I had completely forgotten about that word until I saw it spelled out onscreen. Then again, even if you liked their reference to dated 2000s slang, it won’t matter; you will be annoyed hearing the exact same lines repeated over and over again. I’m only barely exaggerating when I say the characters are incapable of remaining silent for more than ten seconds.
If it’s one thing I will give Haze some credit for, it’s that the sheer amount of revulsion one would feel interacting with these horribly unlikable characters is the impression you’re meant to get. From the beginning, the actions of Mantel cast the company in an incredibly dubious light. They remorselessly gun down rebel soldiers as though they’re playing a video game. In case by some remote chance you assumed they were on the level, Duvall’s squadron massacres civilians working at a factory, reasoning that “an empty hand is just a grip away from holding a weapon”. To hammer the point home further, Shane will periodically be subjected to nightmarish imagery when his Nectar administrator malfunctions, suggesting that things might not be as they seem.
The game’s major turning point occurs when Shane and his squadron are sent to apprehend Gabriel “Skincoat” Merino, the leader of the Promise Hand. Shane is told that he eats his enemies and wears a long coat fashioned from their skins. When Shane successfully captures him, he discovers that Merino is an old man wearing an ordinary sweater vest. Merino even assures Shane him his apparel is 100% cotton. After asking Shane if he’s truly on the right side of this war, Duvall arrives. The Promise Hand attempted to cut Mantel off from their medication, and Duvall believes that an acceptable price to pay for this transgression is to sever one of Merino’s fingers. Utterly failing to acknowledge that Shane was singlehandedly responsible for the mission’s success, Duvall brands him a “wuss” on the helicopter ride back to base. When Duvall threatens to cut off Merino’s hands, Shane pulls a gun on him.
The ensuing shootout causes the helicopter to crash. Emerging from the wreckage, Shane finds himself in a swamp in an unknown location. He experiences severe withdrawal symptoms as his administrator fails to supply him with Nectar. His attempts at contacting Mantel prove futile. As he searches for his comrades, he overhears the Mantel forces. As he is not taking his required dosage of Nectar, they believe him to have gone rogue, marking him for death by labeling him a “Code Haze”. In Mantel’s lexicon, this means the marked soldier must be terminated with extreme prejudice. They send in their black ops, who are professional soldiers not reliant on Nectar, to kill him.
To Shane’s amazement, a Promise Hand scout leads him underground. However, as they make their escape, Shane collapses due to the Nectar withdrawal. When he regains consciousness, he meets up with Merino. It is here that Shane learns everything he had been told by Mantel was propaganda meant to absolve their troops of the guilt of gunning down innocents. Moreover, Nectar was administered in their soldiers to lend them a feeling of invincibly as well as masking the atrocities of war, further assuaging their guilt. This reflected in the gameplay when, not unlike Goldeneye, the corpses of fallen soldiers would vanish after a few seconds.
Almost immediately upon discovering the truth behind Mantel, the Promise Hand’s stronghold is accosted by Peshy and Watchstrap, leaving Shane no choice but to kill his former squadmates. A crazed Duvall escapes from the village, telling Shane he’s just an animal. Shane, fully comprehending what he has just done, calls himself a traitor. Merino assures him he is now on the right side. Knowing he cannot erase the past, Shane vows to make up for the atrocities he committed as a member of Duvall’s squad and joins the Promise Hand.
For the second half of the game, the interface changes dramatically. Shane’s health is no longer measured by a meter, and he is decidedly less survivable outside of his Mantel suit. If he takes damage, a red, visceral border surrounds the screen in an oval-shaped border. He will die if he takes any further damage in this state. He recovers in the exact same fashion, however. All you need to do is have him take cover and wait for the screen to return to normal. Because to a Mantel soldier, fallen enemies disappear from their view, you can take advantage of this fact by playing dead. This allows Shane to make a recovery in plain sight of enemies. It can be useful if cover isn’t readily available, though it won’t work under certain circumstances.
This is where the true nature of the game reveals itself. What you thought was an ordinary first-person shooter with an unlikable cast is actually an anti-war piece. Indeed, creative director Derek Littlewood stated that the game’s concept was heavily inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film, Apocalypse Now. This is reinforced when Shane answers a distress signal emanating from a wrecked Mantel cargo ship. There, he confronts a severely wounded Teare. He had intentionally sabotaged Shane’s Nectar administrator to give him a taste of reality, thus explaining the nightmarish imagery he was subjected to in the first act. The cargo ship itself is filled with the corpses of past Mantel troopers the company was secretly disposing of. As it turns out, prolonged exposure to Nectar is fatal, and the black ops have been burying the evidence the whole time. Mantel’s humanitarian campaign is, in actuality, an attempt to destroy all of the Nectar plants being grown by the local population so they can have a monopoly on its production.
On the surface, it would appear that critics didn’t give Haze enough credit when it was released. Their game started off as a by-the-numbers Halo clone before pulling the rug from under the player by showing that its inanity and shallowness was intentional. It makes the case that a typical action-game plot rarely holds up under scrutiny. Peshy and Watchstrap in particular are parodies of the kinds of comic relief characters you would have as allies in Western, mainstream releases from around this time. Their ridiculous displays of insecure machismo would be enough to test anyone’s patience – and that’s the point. The Mantel troops have not a single shred of maturity among them. You’re not meant to find that aspect endearing; it only serves to highlight how puerile they are.
With the deception revealed, one unfamiliar with this game might get the impression that Haze is an underrated gem unfairly ravaged by critics. It wouldn’t be an unfair assumption to make, as video game critics were notorious for failing to finish the games they intended to review. Mainstream outlets also had a bad reputation for being too close to publishers, reducing the chances of finding a balanced opinion among them while increasing the likelihood that a great title could slip beneath the radar. This is not one of those cases, however, and I can assure you they were completely correct to lambast Haze.
To begin with, those going into the game have no particular reason to believe Shane would defect from Mantel – unless they read the synopsis on the back of the box, that is.
I can’t imagine why Free Radical Design elected to divulge such information when it would have been far more powerful if players were left to discover it on their own. It could’ve been a lack of faith in their audience or an attempt to stand out from the crowd, but either way, this was an unwise decision. This is akin to a magician revealing how their magic trick works seconds before preforming it.
From this, one gets the impression that the writers were far too eager to drop this bombshell on players, leading to its sloppy execution. This problem manifests in a number of ways such as the fact that Shane’s tenure with Mantel is remarkably short – only encompassing the first act. Most players could easily reach the section where he fights Peshy and Watchstrap within their first session. His decision to defect would have had a lot more of an impact had he, and by extension, the player spent more time with the PMC. Shane can’t believe what he has done when he kills Peshy and Watchstrap, but it’s difficult to take seriously considering he only had about five conversations with them.
On that note, the writers made Mantel’s malevolence far too apparent. It would’ve been far more effective had Shane’s squadmates acted like normal soldiers at first before succumbing to the Nectar and acting like irreverent Xbox Live users. Instead, you will realize things aren’t on the level upon completing the first mission. Naturally, this feeling is exacerbated when your squadmates brazenly commit heinous war crimes followed up by Duvall justifying them with a rhetoric that would make a Social Darwinist proud.
There is also a more subtle problem with Shane’s defection that concerns its effect on the gameplay. One admittedly great moment occurs when Shane is on a Promise Hand helicopter. The dilapidated aircraft is a far cry from that of Mantel’s own futuristic model. This showcases the difference between the resources available to the two factions. Appropriately, it’s implied through the narrative that the Promise Hand is a guerrilla force. After all, they don’t have access to the cutting-edge technology Mantel could easily afford. They couldn’t possibly hope to match such a foe with sheer brute force. If these thoughts crossed the developers’ minds, it doesn’t show in the final product.
Though not exactly invincible as a Mantel soldier, Shane and his allies were more than a match for the Promise Hand. When Shane is a member of the Promise Hand, the roles are simply reversed. Suddenly, Mantel’s advanced weaponry proves useless in the face of Shane and his ostensibly underequipped allies. The only logical conclusion to draw from this development is that the Promise Hand can’t possibly lose because the protagonist is on their side, preventing such a fate from coming to pass. The narrative tries to partially justify this by introducing a secret technique that allows Shane to instantly convert clips from different guns meant for the one with which he is currently equipped. On top of such a mechanic being a nightmare to explain how it could possibly work, it undermines the idea that the Promise Hand was completely helpless before Shane joined their ranks. Not helping matters is that your allies will still constantly yell the same two or three lines. Mixed with the enemies’ repeated lines, which were the obnoxious, grandiose boasts of your former allies in Mantel, you would be forgiven for wanting to play this game with the audio muted at all times.
A large part of why Haze ended up being as disastrous as it is can be attributed to the publisher’s interference. As you may have gathered by this point, the writers treated subtlety as an anathema, subjecting the audience to an unwieldy narrative about how war, not Nectar, is the real drug and an individual’s addiction to it results in an unavoidable self-destruction. Those who believe Ubisoft forced Free Radical Design to include this diatribe that wouldn’t feel out of place in a PSA may be shocked to learn they asked the developers to tone down the heavy-handedness. It was originally to be set in present-day Iraq. As that would’ve placed it during the real-life armed conflict between Iraq and the United States, such an idea would’ve been shockingly tasteless.
The engine also proved to be poorly optimized for the PlayStation 3. In the early phases of development, Free Radical Design paid for a task-based AI only to realize it wouldn’t work on the new hardware. It’s also easy to spot the seams in the design in the final product when one reaches a boundary of the map only for the camera to jump all over the place. It carries over into cutscenes as well. Dialogue isn’t always at a consistent volume, subtitles often don’t match what is being said, and you will see character models clip through each other at certain points. One could only imagine how horrible it must have been actually programming this game. In the words of the audio director, inserting sounds into the game was like “papering a wall while the rest of the house is burning down”. In what was possibly the final nail in the coffin, the development cycle happened to coincide with that of Far Cry 2, causing Ubisoft to pull their support. This meant Free Radical Design had to divert their resources to ensure the game could ship at all.
Some productions can seamlessly change halfway through without the audience ever knowing of it. Haze isn’t one of those works, as it is riddled with plot holes on top of everything else. The idea of bodies disappearing like they would in an old-school first-person shooter sounds interesting until you realize the Mantel soldiers should be tripping over them all the time. That they can’t see them doesn’t make them intangible. You will also see Mantel soldiers calling for medics when they believe themselves to be invincible. Furthermore, Mantel has a business strategy that would make those of the Umbrella Corporation seem sound. The narrative for all of its childish metaphors never really explains why they would want to corner a market on a drug they know kills its users. In the original drafts, would-be soldiers were given more of a motivation to join Mantel, being a force for order in a violent, chaotic world.
Mantel’s mobile fortress is also a relic from the game Haze was intended to be. The upper deck is made from the parts of a Nimitz-Class aircraft carrier – complete with the catapult control pod. Quite curious considering the final game lacks any CATOBAR aircraft. When Shane and the remaining rebels are launching their final assault on the fortress, you’ll find the lower areas to be far less detailed. This suggests the original finale was intended to have them approach the carrier in boats. If there was any remaining doubt, the keen-eyed players will notice small boats onboard the carrier, which is obviously unnecessary for a land vehicle.
This game didn’t have anything practical going for it, but the third act pulls out all the stops to ensure you don’t walk away from the experience with a positive attitude. Before the finale, Shane succeeded in sabotaging the Nectar supply. This caused the soldiers to see things for what they were, and the enormity of their actions hit them like a train. Some couldn’t live with the guilt, causing them to take their own lives. In the final stage, you may see some soldiers in a catatonic state, unable to move. Nonetheless, Duvall retreated to the land carrier and intends to make a final stand.
If you were expecting a climatic showdown between Shane and Duvall, you will be sorely disappointed. Duvall is only slightly more durable than any other Mantel soldier you’ve gunned down by this point. You can end the battle instantly if you brought a rocket launcher to the confrontation. It’s probably the best method of winning the battle, for Duvall’s normal pistol is somehow capable of felling Shane in two shots. I have criticized games in the past for taking away your weapons whenever the protagonist is in the same room as the antagonist, but the alternative Haze offers doesn’t fare much better. While the former is an artificial method of preserving drama, the latter fails in the opposite way – it’s anticlimactic.
When the battle has reached its conclusion, a tearful Duvall begs Shane not to tell his mother what he has done. Given the Nectar withdrawals, this line makes sense, but it doesn’t prevent this scene from being the single most laughable moment in the entire game. Without any context, one would be forgiven for thinking that Shane just caught Duvall walking out of the screening of an R-rated film without his parents’ knowledge.
With Mantel toppled, what is your reward for all of your hard work? Merino expresses interest in using Nectar on his own people. He then proceeds to give speeches that mirror ones Duvall gave throughout the game, suggesting the two weren’t so different at the end of the day. Before the game allows Shane to give a proper response, the credits roll. We don’t get any closure on this plot thread, and we’re just to assume that everything turned out alright. In other words, Haze doesn’t really end – it just stops abruptly. Then again, with the treasure trove of problems weighing Haze down, the ending being terrible is merely par for the course.
Drawing a Conclusion
It seems fitting that Apocalypse Now was a primary inspiration for this game. Not only was Haze overt with its anti-war themes, the creators behind the game had to deal with extenuating circumstances that forced them to constantly edit their work. In both cases, it was a miracle they were even finished. In the case of Apocalypse Now, it seemed even more of an impossibility that what Francis Ford Coppola and his team created would go on to be considered one of the greatest films ever made. Haze, on the other hand, is a more realistic result of a troubled production insofar that while it was incredible the project saw its completion, it’s equally unsurprising it turned out so poorly.
Speaking purely in terms of the medium of gaming by itself, the story of Haze is eerily similar to that of Daikatana. Both games had development teams composed of talented people who revolutionized the first-person shooter genre. They had extensive marketing campaigns with the media and staff members hyping the game before its release. Perhaps the most striking similarity is that in the interim between their announcement and their release, they had new competition which managed to accomplish what they set out to do far more competently. As a technical achievement, Daikatana was no match for Half-Life while Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare utterly trounced Haze with its own anti-war message.
Even if one were to take these and any other possible comparisons out of the equation, no possible conclusion they could draw would end with recommending a playthrough of Haze. With its complete lack of polish, terrible level design, and characters that range anywhere from insufferable to practical nonentities, Haze is thoroughly unenjoyable from start to finish. I have to admit it’s not the most broken game I’ve ever played, and I could picture somebody having fun mocking the horrible dialogue, but I feel playing it is not worth the effort. In a lot of ways, Haze is one of the most tragic games out there. With a game such as Ninjabread Man, one couldn’t expect much considering the company behind it was notorious for pushing out shovelware. Free Radical Design, on the other hand, were a genuinely skilled group of individuals with a vision of providing the kind of experience gaming needed to grow up. In the artistic world, fewer things are more disappointing than when talented people fail to live up to their potential.
Final Score: 2/10