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It was the late 2000s and Halo ruled the decade. Beginning with Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 and ending with Halo: Reach in 2010 no other console game would reach the level of success the Halo franchise achieved. Even Call of Duty only got really popular towards the end of the decade. That’s not to say that plenty of games didn’t try. Perhaps the most famous of the try-hards was Haze and that’s only because of how hard it tried and how tragically it crashed and burned.
Haze was a mish-mash of everything from Predator to Halo to Apocalypse Now and despite this myriad of influences it achieved none of what it set out to do. Focusing on a soldier called Shane – a sergeant in the Mantel Corporation’s private military – the game sets out to tell the story of how Mantel’s abuse and manipulation of it’s soldiers turns Shane over to The Promise Hand rebels. One of the key gameplay components was the use of the drug Nectar which drove Mantel soldiers into a killing frenzy while alleviating the brutality of their butchery.
Power-ups were nothing new to gameplay. They’ve existed ever since Mario started doing ‘shrooms. Even the quasi-invincibility Nectar gave the Mantel soldiers had been done before with the likes of the stars in Mario or even the far more effective Spartan Rage in God of War. Haze tried desperately to capture the feeling that Halo had been mainlining to players ever since 2001 but it never even understood what that feeling was let alone how to administer it to people that were still riding the high that was Halo 3.
From the very moment players filled the size 12 armoured boots of the Master-Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved they knew what they were getting. For the first time players were unkillable. If they played right with the tactics and tools Halo encouraged them to use they could feel like the emotionless, over-powered ubermensch they were playing as. As basic as it sounds and as crap as a name Master-Chief was it worked. Halo’s open levels, meaty gameplay mechanics and hard sci-fi story attracted gamers like flies to honey. No one could hope to compete and the gaming industry was left reeling for years.
Developer Free Radical Design looked at Halo and seemed to ask: “What if we did that but worse?” And they did. The player starts out the game as a mechanically powered, psychologically rewritten super-soldier. The Master-Chief but in black and yellow instead of green and gold. Halfway through the game Haze strips you of these powers. No longer are you the armoured, towering behemoth tearing through rebel outposts while high on a wonder drug but a meek rebel creeping through the underbrush. At least you’re supposed to be but that doesn’t work. That’d be like mixing Halo and Splinter Cell which sounds very interesting but why bother with stealth when you can turn the jungle you so often fight through into a smoking ruin using only two grenades and an assault rifle.
Haze was supposedly designed as an anti-war game which makes about as much sense as saying Burnout warned against dangerous driving. A mission in the game has the newly minted rebel Shane destroy the Nectar control centre. This causes many of the Mantel soldiers to go crazy. Many suffer mental breakdowns, others commit suicide after realising the extent of their atrocities. The game then has the gall to send Shane to kill his former Mantel commander. In the ensuing gunfight Shane and Sergeant Morgan Duvall argue about right and wrong as well as the nature of war. No there isn’t a cow sacrifice scene interspersed with the shootout.
Plenty of shooters have claimed to be anti-war. Of course the thing is that games where you play as soldiers fighting in a war can’t really claim to be anti-war by their very nature. They can show off the horrors of war and even force the player to participate in these horrors but that’s not being anti-war it’s at worst gratuitous and at best an example of cognitive dissonance. A game such as This War of Mine where you play as a group of civilians trying to survive in a city under siege is anti-war but these games rarely do well because at the end of the day there’s very little to shoot at.
Speaking of shooting things Haze was abysmal. Whatever about trying to give off an anti-war message or tripping over in boots that are too big for it Haze could never get a hold of what made a first person shooter fun. DOOM and Wolfenstein gave us the basics back in the early 1990s but by 2008 gamers were looking for more. They wanted the verticality and colour of Halo or the grey grimness of Resistance: Fall of Man or even the living history of Call of Duty. What they didn’t want was a seven hour campaign that gave them nothing new or even tried to present itself as something that could take down a leviathan franchise like Halo. Had Ubisoft exercised greater creative control or even invested more time into bug fixing and polishing maybe Haze would have been a worthy competitor.
A decade on and so much has changed. Speed is the name of the game in most mainstream FPS’ these days. DOOM and Wolfenstein both came back and Call of Duty never left. Halo however stumbled and is currently dormant although this year’s E3 may change all that. Occasionally I look back and think “What if…?” and then I remember that Haze gave us nothing worth salvaging from its buggy, poorly textured and forgotten corpse except for a semi-decent Korn song.