A New Way to Shoot 'Em Up

New first person shooter, Haze promises to emotionally engage its players

Don’t worry though—they’ve brought plenty of guns, drugs and mercenaries along for the ride as well. Fresh from celebrating its eighth birthday in April, Free Radical can boast one of the industry’s finest FPS pedigrees: founded by ex-Rare members who’d worked on GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, the developer has gone on to create the Timesplitters series as well as the critically acclaimed Second Sight

Haze made its debut at E3 2006 and was labeled, amongst other things, a ‘jungle shooter’ and compared to the likes of Far Cry—a full year on and it’s painfully obvious how unfair those comparisons were in every respect, from the range of environments on offer to the game’s innovative narrative line.

The locations alone in this latest build range from the previously-seen jungles and atmospheric swamps to claustrophobic factories, rebel villages and mountain passes. But despite all this loveliness it’s not a game that lends itself to the five-minute pitch, especially given the pretty big and complex claims being made for it. What was most unclear at E3 is exactly the thing that is most important about Haze: do Free Radical’s promises of a new way of doing things stack up?

In the context of the current and future FPS glut, the bare bones of Haze’s story might not initially seem very remarkable. You play as Shane Carpenter, a new recruit to the private Mantel army: set in 2048, the UN and its like have collapsed, and military operations are outsourced to eerily prophetic private military corporations. In the future, the private sector does a fine Lord Kitchener impression, and a trailer shows an excerpt from a Mantel recruitment video with CEO David Bloomfield asking if you want to “make a difference”, offering the chance to “be a hero” and “fight the good fight”.

As much of a character as Carpenter, Mantel is beautifully realised, a corporation with all the smooth taglines and euphemisms we might expect from a globe-spanning operation that dominates competitors and incorporates divisions from pharmaceutical to military. The brand infuses the design of all your weapons and combat gear (redesigned since last year and now significantly cleaner and crisper), and in a genre twist you’ll begin with all of this extremely effective equipment while your enemies have to be more resourceful: after all, a bunch of angry villagers hardly have the production capacity and purchasing power of a multinational.

The game begins with your first assignment: sent against a rebel faction, the Promise Hand, in South America before, Ubisoft promises: ‘Things quickly begin to look a little strange’. Since E3, the squad command system has been dropped in favour of more independent AI teammates, a move that works well thanks to your comrades’ intelligence, quick reactions and Nectar-induced rushes of blood. Dead team-mates are quickly replaced by Mantel dropships, and there are tantalising glimpses (though no in-game use has yet been seen) of several corporation vehicles that will play some role in proceedings.

It’s certainly a good looking game, and the world gives you some spectacular panoramic views of your surroundings before you jump in and begin raising hell. Lush ferns and creeping moss surround a mud path in one sequence, just before a spectacular Mantel airstrike is launched on a distant rebel settlement: as you reach the ruins minutes later fires rage, bodies lie still across the scene and pale flakes of ash float past your visor.

It’s one of those contradictory moments that games do so well: a near-perfect recreation of horrific devastation and yet a moment of awesome beauty. As you move through the game, time passes and the weather moves to reflect the mood of the moment: whether this could be described as pathetic fallacy is arguable but having, say, a sunrise at a climactic moment is a fairly common and effective cinematic device that’s underused in gaming.

But as Derek Littlewood, the project creative director, is at pains to point out, “Haze isn’t primarily about the technology—I’m immensely proud of the engine we have here, but it’s not the first thing I talk about when I talk about Haze.”

And as for the frequent parallels drawn, “the comparisons to games like Crysis and Far Cry—well, Haze is completely different to either of those. We have a fantastic team of artists and our lead artist is one of the best in the world. And because of that, our engine is geared towards the artistic vision rather than a ticklist of features, and that’s something we’re very proud of.”

The incorporation of Nectar makes his point clear: the screen environment seems to dim as enemies become bright orange targets and a previously treacherous sequence becomes much more like a cakewalk, while the music quickens to a gung-ho action tune that synchs with your quickening movement, while sound effects become noticeably more dramatic. It’s an experience that even at this early stage is pleasingly coherent and puts the processing and graphical power of the engine to focused use.

And it’s just as well, because the Nectar mechanic is something you’ll be seeing a lot of. In Mantel’s corptalk, Nectar is a ‘nutritional supplement’ or ‘performance-enhancing medication’, but you’d be closer to the mark thinking of a ‘mood-controlling battlejuice’.

The Nectar is at the core of Haze, self-administered from a Mantel suit directly into the bloodstream, altering completely your perception of the battlefield. There are three key effects: foresight, perception and focus. Nectar foresight helps you identify, avoid and anticipate danger, largely through means of a spider-sense effect on the landscape: a grenade that lands at your feet, for example, will spread visible ripples of its future blast radius in the seconds before it explodes, warning you to move clear.

Nectar perception is about identifying targets: this is the orange highlighting effect (very similar to a muted infrared scope, especially in the aura surrounding enemies) that makes it impossible for the rebel army to hide. And after avoiding danger and identifying targets, the FPS is all about going for the kill. Nectar focus helps you draw a bead and dispatch enemies, as well as turning your melee attacks into bonebreaking killers.

Mantel being Mantel, your Nectar continually regenerates and you’ll rarely be without it, so the downsides are more subtle than simply running out. Littlewood is keen to emphasise that: “When you first start it’s very much: ‘Oh, this is great’ and you pump yourself up—there are obvious flipsides to that, such as overdosing, but also a gameplay element whereby it encourages the player to play in a certain way, to be a bit maverick”.

The overdosing mechanic can come on through your own over-indulgence or external factors but, regardless, a change immediately occurs in your HUD: there’s an alarm flash about ‘bloodstream abnormality’ and you can’t distinguish Mantel from rebel. You might be able to sit that out, if you didn’t also lose control of your firing and become basically a smart bomb in the middle of your own team.

The rebels, of course, have figured this out and use various tactics to make the Mantel troopers overdose and turn against one another, something that comes into play in Haze’s multiplayer modes, where you can play as a Mantel trooper with the double-edged sword of Nectar, or as a less powerful but less bipolar rebel.

The design of Nectar concentrates on enhancing the fundamental and established mechanics of the genre: “The benefits in terms of the gameplay were driven by thinking about how to enhance the FPS experience,” Littlewood explains. “Too many games are built around having a gimmick: ‘What can we call a UPS, what can we put on the back of the box?’—it becomes more about marketing than enhancing the player experience, and that’s ridiculous.”

Nectar’s implementation within the action is seamless, but the integration with the narrative arc of the story promises to be equally impressive, and though Free Radical remains tight-lipped on specifics there are some exciting indicators. It’s at least clear that to describe Nectar as a simple combat enhancement would be wildly missing the mark.

Alongside Nectar, one of Haze’s key gameplay and narrative features is the continuous use of the FPS view, aiming for a seamless immersive experience: no cutscenes, and no loading screens. Half-Life, of course, managed this feat admirably, but arguably at the expense of Gordon Freeman’s (lack of) character. The crux of Haze, on the other hand, is Shane Carpenter’s character. Making the storyline entirely synchronic could be a masterstroke, introducing the irreversibility of tragedy into the narrative without removing the sense of control over how that narrative unfolds (and therefore your reaction to that unfolding).

The unofficial Free Radical tagline is that Haze is ‘a war game that becomes a game about war’, and the nature of war as opposed to the representation of war in games is a major part of that claim: just how entwined are the military and new game technologies, how desirable and dangerous is free will in a war, and how are those situations created and manipulated by forces beyond any individual’s control?

Finding some common ground between the realities of war and a game experience, and tying this into a game narrative, is screenwriter Rob Yescombe’s challenge. “If you shoot someone in a game, what do you feel? Triumph. And how much further removed could that be from reality? You look at soldiers who return from battle having shot one guy, and they’re traumatised. Yet we’ll shoot 100 people and feel triumph: what about guilt, responsibility, even remorse? We’re not saying Haze can deliver those in a literal sense, but it’s something we need to be thinking about and moving towards.”

Haze’s narrative is certainly a move away from the already tired concept of ‘game as interactive movie’ and towards gaming’s great strengths: the twin concepts of influence and culpability. It’s fundamental to Littlewood’s vision: “The interesting thing is that the player’s sense of complicity in events is much higher than it would be in a film,” he explains. “That’s something we explore because you can go back and look at something, then say: ‘Well, look what you did here’—that’s not something that can be done in a movie because, obviously, it’s not you that’s done it.”

Themes of war, free will and obedience don’t lend themselves to easy solutions or party lines but the futuristic setting allows a freedom to draw parallels without controversy or offence. But despite this emphasis, the most important aspect of Haze for the team remains the core gameplay, a balancing act that Yescombe relishes: “We don’t want it to be a game where, if you’re not interested in the discussion, you won’t enjoy it—50 per cent of audiences didn’t get that Starship Troopers was a joke. We want people to play and say: ‘This is a great game’ and then maybe they’ll get the satire and maybe they won’t. Our job is to entertain.”

That said, it’s clear that Haze is responding not just to the technological challenges of the current generation, but a more generalised feeling about games as a whole. “There has been this undercurrent of frustration within certain elements of the industry about the stories you’ve been able to tell for a while now,” explains Littlewood. “It could be about the next gen—but the graphical bells and whistles aren’t the massive leaps we’ve seen in the past—so as developers you have to look beyond the technology to how you change the experience of playing something.”

And Yescombe sees it as a responsibility for the gaming industry to deal with more mature, and even realistic, subject matter: “It’s about what’s happening in the world today—it’s ludicrous, and how can you make something that doesn’t reflect that? Well, you could bury your head in the sand and make Halo 3, but the fact of the matter is there are more important things at stake.” As well as this bigger picture, your own mortality, obedience and control are explored, and to Yescombe it’s clear that the demands made by games are necessarily changing, “because while Halo is brilliant, you’re a teenager—the next gen is about becoming more mature: in Haze you become an adult.”

Frustratingly, Free Radical won’t elaborate on the role of civilians or non-combatants, only confirming that they will feature in the finished game. Whether we can expect some sort of insurgency sideline has to remain speculation, but one of the benefits of the near-future setting will be the experience of modern guerrilla warfare, both psychological and physical, against your better equipped and theoretically stronger force.

But even though you’re powerful, you’re not Marcus Fenix—“It’s one of the game clichés we want to get away from, where you’re the one guy, the super-soldier dropped into the middle of this situation and you win the war,” says Littlewood. The relative powerlessness of soldiers within conflict is explicit: “Because at the same time as all this stuff’s going on in their head, people in those war situations do still fight, either for a cause they believe in.” Littlewood explains. “Or because they do what they’re told,” ends Yescombe. “Confidence in a cause, and an inability to disobey—they’re the two things that drive warfare.”

It’s a world away from what now seem like positively medieval gaming ‘solutions’ to the thorny issue of combat and realism, such as the reprehensible dodge of green blood, as Yescombe is keen to point out: “games are under the microscope for being a contributor towards violence. And yet we don’t even think about it, or have a serious debate other than saying: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t let your kids play.’ That’s no argument at all.”

The war genre in particular has difficulties with the dissociation of games and real life, thanks to the cross-pollination between the industry and the military: if nothing else, the armies that can afford to incorporate variants of commercial game engines in training programmes, and the implications for a real combat situation.

Criticising the depiction of war in the average videogame may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but “there aren’t any answers in Haze, because we don’t know them,” says Littlewood. “Things aren’t binary, you don’t suddenly reach a point in the game where you flip your allegiance or anything: it’s more complex. Reality is deeper than that, and there are grey areas all the way through.”

There are still grey areas with Haze, but if Free Radical achieve what they’ve set out to—if Haze can deliver a first-class FPS experience that invites the player to explore their own motivations and actions within that gameworld—then the rules for an overcrowded and sometimes tired genre will change. It’s a big if, and too many of the game’s innovations yet exist in whispers and behind closed doors to make rash judgements—but with seven to ten months of development and testing remaining on what already looks a stunning build confidence is inspired. Haze looks like it could be very, very big—and you wouldn’t bet against it being very, very clever to match.