Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Just an animal."

What have I been playing lately? How about Haze? Yes, Haze.

Surely, you must be thinking, there are better things I could have been spending my time on than this two-year-old turd that was panned by virtually every publication except Famitsu (of all places). Indeed, after playing the demo, I had concluded that Free Radical's swan song was nothing but wasted potential. But, having played shooter after shooter since then, I had yet to come across any other game that dared even acknowledge the questions Haze raised. While Gears of War and even Army of Two were surely more playable products, there was a lingering itch they could not scratch. I honestly never stopped thinking about Haze, and finally I guess I just had to know. More than that, when the game dropped to ten dollars, I figured I owed it that much. I mean, people pay that much for Wii Play. Even if Haze wasn't a success, surely it deserved some credit for trying.

To recap, Haze is the story of Sergeant Shane Carpenter, dispatched by the multinational Mantel corporation to liberate a South American country from a rebel group led by Gabriel "Skincoat" Merino, so called because he supposedly eats his enemies and wears their skins. Carpenter and his fellow Mantel soldiers are aided by the drug "Nectar," which enhances their fighting abilities. For example, Nectar sharpens their battlefield vision, highlighting hostiles as bright orange targets against a gray landscape.

Carpenter's Nectar administrator begins to malfunction, however, causing him to glimpse the world as it really is. Mantel doesn't seem interested in liberating anyone, and the squad's only priorities are recovering stolen Nectar and punishing the rebels who stole it. Far from enhancing his senses, Nectar actually dulls its user's awareness, presenting him with a sanitized view of war. When Carpenter's Nectar administrator goes haywire, he sees unsettling flashes of reality--the littered bodies of those massacred by Mantel, which become just piles of blankets when Nectar vision is turned on. Carpenter begins to have doubts, and when he tracks down Merino, who is not the skin-wearing animal described by Mantel's media, the charismatic rebel leader again offers a righteous cause to the adrift wannabe hero so desperately in need of one.

Going back and reading some of those negative reviews, I find the criticism of the story to be largely off-base. I think a lot of reviewers missed the point in taking it simply as a heavy-handed commentary on war propaganda and programming. To be sure, that stuff is there on the surface and quite shallow, but beneath it is an equally incendiary subtext that perhaps goes overlooked only because we have trained ourselves not to think about it. Haze is a story that could only effectively be told through a video game. It does as so many first-person games purport to do, turning the camera on the players to make the story about them. It is not, however, about what we would do when confronted with some contrived ethical dilemma but, rather, about what we are every time we play these games, before we even realize that the decision is before us. Haze is a game about gamers and how we organize internally the blurring lines between our real and virtual selves.

I don't know if gaming has had its Citizen Kane yet, but it sure as hell has had its Lord of the Flies. It's called Halo. And Call of Duty. And Quake, Counter-Strike, Unreal, Battlefield, etc.--basically every online multiplayer shooter ever released. At least, that's been my experience with these games. I imagine that anyone who has logged on for a round of deathmatch has had the displeasure of getting fragged and then insulted by some foul-mouthed racist hick twelve-year-old. Maybe he was even on your own team. It is, after all, a lawless wilderness of savagery and cannibalism out there. Or is everybody so far gone that that qualifies as normal?

Haze may be the only game I've encountered that actually recognizes that there may be something a little off about the way things are. Taking on the role of Shane Carpenter, players should find fighting as a Mantel soldier to be uncomfortable even before Carpenter does. Your comrades are bloodthirsty, brainless, crude and homophobic. There is no romanticized brothers-in-arms fiction of doing it for the man next to you. Rather, you wish constantly that the man next to you will be the next to die. Perhaps you'll even want to help him along with that.

For many reviewers, these over-the-top meatheads were simply too much. Critics found them so shallow and obnoxious as to undermine the story's perceived attempt at political commentary. There was no depth to the narrative's exploration of the moral ambiguities of war, because the argument was so painfully one-sided. It was too obvious who the bad guys were, or so some complained. I personally think that's where Haze went over a lot of players' heads. You see, your Mantel buddies were supposed to be shallow and imbecilic first, evil second, because of what they were really caricaturing. They are tactless braggarts delighting in how crazy fun it is to kill, announcing to the world how bad they are, and laughing at the feebleness of their enemies. Does none of this ring any bells? Surely you've heard it all before. Why, these virtual cretins exhibit all the wit and complexity of that twelve-year-old's smack talk over the headset (between yelling "BOOM!" every time he fires his shotgun) during a match of Call of Duty. So, seemingly conscienceless hicks, spewing all-too-familiar slur-laden trash talk, as they merrily mow down enemy targets that blink out upon defeat--the story of Haze is the reality of every online multiplayer shooter we play. Now, are the real-life meatheads evil, insane, hopelessly idiotic, as their monstrous fictionalized counterparts appear? Or is that what the rush of gaming--our own form of Nectar--does to us? That is the question that Haze principally wants us to consider. Why do we turn so easily into monsters when consequence is taken off the table? And what if reality could be made more like a game in that respect? Maybe today's FPS fanatics are the same types of personalities that will go on to fight our real wars. If so, then that certainly is a frightening prospect.

Haze poses some tough questions and provides no answers. That in itself is not a failing in my book, but the story does have to resolve itself somehow. Haze does so, unfortunately, through a series of uninspired action sequences that make the back half of the game both a chore and a bore. Really, within maybe the first 2-3 hours (of 5, minus all the time I wasted getting lost), the game seems to run out of things to say about the issues it introduces, and it does settle into more predictable political commentary. It is not without a few twists, however, as it still warns against accepting gameplay and storytelling conventions without question, all concluding with an ending that should leave you wondering, why did we ever think violence was the answer?

You could argue that trying to communicate the horror of war through film is basically a futile endeavor, because any depiction of violence is inherently exhilarating. Going by Haze, I would have to say that games stand a much better chance at imparting an antiwar message. As I played Haze, I was always on the verge of throwing up, not because of any graphic imagery or grotesque concepts, but because the overall experience was just so terrible. Trudging through that first jungle stage was the stuff of my nightmares. I was perpetually lost, running in circles, and unseen enemies were yelling and firing at me from all over. All I could do was shoot blindly into brush, never stopping as I spun 'round and 'round. Sometimes I hit friendlies by mistake. Sometimes they hit me back. Sometimes I would fire a rocket and have it blow up in my own face because I apparently didn't know how to use my weapons. Many 3-D games, shooters especially, have pathfinding issues, but the messy stages in Haze seemingly didn't even have paths. If there was a map or a radar, I never found it, so all progress was me stumbling madly until somehow I found myself at a checkpoint. Playing Haze was simply never enjoyable on any level. I couldn't imagine anyone even contemplating joining the army after a round of this.

So, yeah, the game plays like a pile and, no, I don't believe that is what the designers were going for. Even as he was trying to sell the edgy script, writer Rob Yescombe was also insistent that Haze should be fun to play, which it just isn't. Free Radical was formed by many of the people that developed the legendary GoldenEye 007, and the Haze team included such key GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark staff as directors David Doak and Stephen Ellis, artist Karl Hilton, and composer Graeme Norgate. It's sad to see that such talents, once at the top of the game, apparently could not keep up with where the game had evolved to, or perhaps they only had so many great works in them. Maybe Haze's overall assiness should not have been surprising, considering that the similarly bad Perfect Dark Zero had about an equal number of GoldenEye 007 alumni working on it.

Frankly, it's unbelievable that this came out well after Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, and BioShock and was probably in development for at least as long. Devoid of any cool or original weapons, the gunplay is generically competent, which is practically the kiss of death in this overcrowded genre. Level design is atrocious, AI is laughable, and objectives are tedious and often unclear. There is a literally alarming amount of pop-in. Art is equally deficient, with all faceless Mantel soldiers looking the same in that ridiculous uniform. Maybe the music is okay, but it's all drowned out by the same few battle cries repeated ad nauseam by your allies and enemies. The worst of the many gameplay glitches saw me inexplicably crushed to death by the very truck that I was supposed to provide escort for. Worse yet, the checkpoint would every time restart me practically inside the truck and into the process of being trampled, causing me to always die again on respawn. If I hadn't been playing co-op with a second player who was able to spawn safely, that would have been game over by progression-halting bug.

On the bright side, the Nectar system is initially a neat mechanic that works well with the narrative. As a Mantel operative, you can juice up to boost your senses and recovery. Practically a necessity in those early jungle stages where enemies are so hard to spot, its use becomes addictive, which is surely the point. Use too much, however, and you'll OD and lose control, firing wildly on friend and foe alike, which is again clever, both mechanically and narratively. Then, when your administrator starts failing you during live combat, you cannot help but panic, much as Carpenter does. Finally, when Carpenter is cut off and reeling from withdrawal, there are some effectively trippy (and horrifying) moments. It's all seriously undercut, however, by how little the game really changes once you get clean. Because all the Mantel soldiers are decked in the same bright yellow uniform, they make for glaring targets by default, so, ironically, fighting is probably easier when you're playing off the stuff as a rebel.

Perhaps the one cool moment came when my nameless co-op partner and I were able to drive separate cars at the same time. Like many co-op shooters, Haze has vehicle sections that allow one player to drive and the other to man a turret. Due to the poor driving mechanics, these are all terrible. But I personally had never played a shooter that allowed multiple user-controlled vehicles, and that idea of a convoy really excited me. Of course, because the driving controls are so dodgy, my would-be escort almost immediately fell into a ravine. Then I also fell in.

Haze is not the greatest game ever made. It's not even a good game. It poses some interesting questions that it is not altogether successful in exploring, and a lot of what it does well gets buried under all that it does so poorly. I'm not going to sit here and recommend that you spend even ten dollars and five hours on it. It does touch on some important social, not political, issues that more games ought to, however, and I think we should at least acknowledge the attempt and encourage more developers to try to do it better. For now, I'll just try to spread awareness of Haze by sharing some videos that highlight the good bits. Mind you, non-interactive video cannot adequately capture the full miserable experience of Haze, but, on the other hand, the full experience is pretty freaking miserable. SPOILERS, of course, if anyone gives a damn.

Meet Sergeant Morgan Duvall, your new best buddy:

Of course, there are two sides to every conflict:

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