E3 07: Haze Impressions

With the incredible work they've done on the TimeSplitters series, David Doak and his FPS experts at Nottingham-based Free Radical have set an overwhelmingly high bar for any forthcoming titles. Currently a PlayStation 3 exclusive--for the rest of this year, anyway--Haze marks the company's entrance into the current console generation, and Ubisoft brand manager Nate Mordo demoed some of the game's newest features for me at this year's E3.

Ubisoft had already unveiled some parts of the game's story, but the company revealed further information on the plot at E3, including a gameplay-influencing twist. It's the year 2048, and you play as Shane Carpenter, a soldier in a private military corporation called Mantel Global Industries. As part of a Mantel troop outfit, you've been sent to an unstable country where a group of rebels called the Promise Hand have been causing trouble and doing all sorts of generally rebellious things.

What Ubisoft revealed is that about a third of the way through the game, you realize you've been fighting for the wrong side and join the freedom fighters in their freedom-filled freedom fight. The ability to play as a rebel isn't limited to the solo campaign, as multiplayer modes will allow players to choose their side as well. Though Mordo wouldn't reveal much about the multiplayer modes, he said a variety of objective-based modes would make use of the story's corporate soldiers versus rebels theme. Mordo assured me that traditional deathmatches and other multiplayer mainstays wouldn't be neglected either. With Free Radical at the helm, multiplayer is guaranteed to be a frantically fervid experience--the company has already confirmed the existence of four-player online co-op.

Unique abilities give the Mantel soldiers and rebels distinctive styles of play, and performance drug-enhanced Mantel abilities especially showcase the game's proprietary graphics engine.

Making use of a drug called Nectar, Mantel soldiers have several abilities to afford them advantages against unlucky uprisers, in addition to mentally blocking the horrors of war. An ability called Nectar Perception highlights enemy bodies among the dense forest for easy targeting, and Nectar Focus takes this one step further by offering headshot-enabling superaim. Nectar Foresight creates a nice looking ripple effect to warn of incoming danger like grenades, and Melee Blast powers soldiers up for close range rebel-ramming smashes.

Where the Mantel soldiers are superpowered and heavily armed, rebels are stealthy and opportunistic. The main tactic Rebels have is to use Mantel soldiers' own Nectar superdrug against them. Overdosing on nectar causes troopers to become confused, resulting in friendly fire or even suicide. If you're playing a Mantel soldier who overdoses, you'll be unable to control your weapon fire, with both friends and foes appearing as black silhouettes. Rebels can make Nectar grenades made from dead Mantel troopers, and they can also smear Nectar on their knives for throwing. The blast of a Nectar grenade or wound from a Nectar-coated knife will cause a Matel soldier to OD on the dangerous drug. Rebels can steal weapons from Mantel troopers, scavenge any fallen armaments for bullets, and play dead to avoid detection.

Using a proprietary engine, Haze has some truly gorgeous graphics, though it doesn't quite reach the zenith of in-game visuals like those of Crytek's upcoming Crysis. Bloom lighting in a lush beach area was readily visible, with sunlight streaming from behind palm trees. Environments in the game aren't fully destructible, though some structures feature destructible elements. Mordo said the team took this approach to make better use of processing power than having bullet holes appear in every rock hit by shrapnel. This makes sense, but just means other areas of gameplay will have to be fairly solid to make up for the lack of realism.

Free Radical still has a lot left to unveil about Haze before the game's expected release this November. If the company can perform up to its own high standards, PS3 owners looking for frantic shooter action may get their holiday wishes granted.