If you played any given 10-minute chunk of Haze, depending on what part of this futuristic first-person shooter you chose, you would be convinced that it was either incredibly exciting or simply dreadful. Dim-witted artificial intelligence and deeply embarrassing storytelling are mixed with some breathtaking action sequences and thoughtful map design into an awkward and messy hodgepodge of shooting and driving that alternates between the entertaining and the downright unpleasant. It's fitting that Haze's gameplay would embrace such extremes, because its entire fiction is built around shallow absolutes. One faction embodies unlikeable and unredeeming lowbrow sensibilities without a hint of irony; the other embraces its ethical, sympathetic cause with angelically high morals. This is a shooter both easy to love and easy to hate, and you'll probably find yourself feeling both emotions within moments of each other.
This dichotomy is fueled by the aptly named nectar, a drug that Mantel Global Industries persistently injects into the bloodstreams of its mercenary soldiers. Nectar gives the soldiers extraordinary capabilities, but it also appears to have some unpleasant side effects. As Mantel grunt Shane Carpenter, you see and experience these effects firsthand: the intense focus, the adrenaline-pumping rush--and the total loss of control that an overdose triggers. Nectar also turns every Mantel soldier into an obnoxious frat boy with barely more emotional range than the average caveman. You'll spend the first hour or so of the game with these unlikeable, overgrown adolescents, who spout abysmal dialogue punctuated with frequent cries of "boosh!" Haze doesn't mean for you to like them, and it succeeds all too well at this task. On the flipside, you're meant to respect and admire the Promised Hand, the South American rebels fighting to defend their villages and expose the evils of Mantel's beloved nectar. These men are the shining beacons of Haze's two-sided moral compass, the rational and ethical antithesis of Mantel's malice, yet they're written with the same lack of subtlety. Eventually, the game acknowledges the missing shades of gray in a few bits of contrived and hackneyed dialogue, but by then it's too late: The story has long been exposed as a shallow mess that simply can't deliver on its intriguing foundation.
Nectar is more than a plot device; it's the basis of several mechanics that give each faction distinct play styles. As a Mantel trooper, you can inject a quick gusher of nectar by pulling a trigger, which heightens your senses and causes all of your enemies to glow. While high on the stuff, you are also more resistant to damage, can detect mines more easily, and have better aiming skills. You're also prone to overdose if a stray bullet punctures the nectar administrator strapped to your back. Should you be so unlucky, you will temporarily lose control of your actions. On these occasions, your view becomes muddled and you cannot control your shots, so you'll watch helplessly as you plug your comrades with lead.
A short way into the game, you'll gain an entirely new set of abilities, and you'll spend the majority of the campaign using them. At this point, you can infuse standard grenades with nectar, which will in turn cause an overdose if certain enemies come in contact with the resulting cloud of gas. However, chief among these abilities is the capacity to play dead if you take damage. When prompted, you can fall to the ground and your foes will promptly ignore you; after a few moments (or when you press X), you'll stand again and rejoin the battle. This is a powerful ability, though in the single-player game, you may not always see it as an advantage. If no friendlies are around to take fire once you drop, enemies may hang around, ready to blast you the moment you stand. If there's an automated turret nearby, it will continue to fire even after you've feigned death, so if you find yourself in such a circumstance, you're as good as dead.
If only your enemies had the deadly accuracy of those turrets. The term "artificial intelligence" only half-applies to your computer-controlled challengers, who are laughably, painfully stupid. Foes will run directly past you as if you aren't there, stand motionless as you fire, and completely ignore grenades tossed toward them. On the occasions when they do notice that a grenade has been thrown, they will wait a few seconds and then leap forward as if stealing second base--sometimes choosing to dive toward the grenade, rather than away from it. You may even find an enemy facing a wall, pointing his gun at a texture rather than noticing that you are standing directly beside him. You're frequently accompanied by AI-driven squadmates, and sadly they fare no better. They seem incapable of using cover intelligently, they stand in your line of sight, and they're often more hindrance than help. In tandem, the AI of both factions will create scenes of comical ineptitude, such as when a trooper and rebel circle one another for 30 seconds in a surreal do-si-do.
In spite of this brainlessness, Haze offers the occasional golden nugget of utter brilliance, and most of those moments come courtesy of some intelligently designed levels that are too good for the AI that inhabits them. Two on-rails sequences are exceptionally thrilling. In one, you defend a village from behind the turret of an aircraft; in another, you race alongside an enormous land carrier while trying to take down its defenses. The carrier sequence in particular is a total rush, pulverizing you with its sense of breakneck speed and using scripted camera adjustments to enhance the thrill. A few other levels are equally enjoyable in spite of the shortcomings, such as a climb toward an observatory and a tense village battle capped by the destruction of a rocket-launching tank.
Nevertheless, not every level reaches these heights. In Haze's worst level, you must escort a vehicle from one side of the map to the other. This badly structured mission requires a bit of trial and error, given that the vehicle's driver is cut from the same cloth as his teammates; he'll readily drive over you or your squadmates, or into the minefield that you're supposed to clear before he arrives. Other levels put you behind the wheel of a vehicle, but these scenarios are less detours than they are wrong turns. Vehicles handle very loosely, as if they weigh just a few pounds, and the odd, limited camera implemented during the driving sections adds to the awkwardness.
Thankfully, the core gameplay of a first-person shooter--the shooting proper--is smooth and silky. The standard assault rifles handle beautifully and have just the right weight and feel, and chances are that you'll be using them for the majority of your journey. Each faction's shotgun also feels good, though it takes a few more close-range shots from the Oso shotgun to defeat a trooper than you may expect. It's also effective at a greater range than with similar weapons in other games. The small blight on the parade of solid weaponry is the flamethrower, not just because of how it feels, but because of the frustration it initiates. If one should set you ablaze, you have to shake your controller to fan away the flames, which disturbs the momentum of battle and simply isn't much fun. The flamethrower also seems to have a much greater range than it should, so though it may not look as if the flames spewing forth are reaching your enemies, somehow you manage to set them alight anyway.
That issue could be partly due to the pixellated fire visuals, which look decidedly last-generation. In light of the PlayStation 3's powerful capabilities and the genre's ever-rising standards of technology, Haze looks good but not impressive. It certainly has its bright spots: Some of the outdoor lighting is striking, and the centerpieces of the best levels, such as the aforementioned observatory and a hotel courtyard, are rendered with great detail. The game performs beautifully with few frame-rate jitters, so when the action is heavy or you're traveling at high speeds, things look quite nice. When things slow down, you'll notice how modest Haze actually looks. Textures are muddled, scenery is blocky and lacks detail, and animations are clunky. Character models are also inexpressive, which only reinforces the pettiness of the story.
At least Haze sounds big and boisterous, filling your ears with explosions, gunfire, and the rush of aircraft engines. These elements don't sound extraordinary, but they fulfill their roles nicely, as does the orchestral soundtrack, which injects drama into the scenes most in need of it. But this is a game that prizes juvenile leering over multidimensional storytelling, and the voice acting is exactly what you would imagine: a cast of drill sergeant wannabes competing to see who can sound more uncivilized. The Promised Hand is no less annoying; once you hear a rebel cry out "Remember your promise to Merino" for the hundredth time, you may be tempted to look down the barrel of your own weapon. Then there's the awful rap tune that plays while you wait for competitors to join some online matches--and then continues to play throughout the match. Its presence is absolutely embarrassing.
Most shooter campaigns are better when someone else joins you, and Haze is no exception. Up to three others can play along, both online and in split-screen play. The game ramps up the challenge during co-op play, and considering the horrendous AI, that's a welcome change indeed. Vehicle sequences are all the better for having a buddy join you, and some action-packed moments are improved with the presence of a few hired guns. However, not every level is suited for cooperative shooting. Some scripted sequences, such as one in which a bridge collapses, are at complete odds with the existence of another player, as if the possibility wasn't considered when the level was designed.
If you held out hope that the multiplayer could succeed in spite of the campaign's shortcomings, you may be disappointed to learn that competitive play is at best underwhelming, and at worst, weirdly out of balance. Up to 16 players can compete in Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Assault modes. You can also fill out unranked matches with bots, but considering the moronic AI, why would you want to? Assault is the clearly superior mode here, in which rebel and trooper teams take on opposing objectives, which in turn lead to the occasional focused and intense firefight. The other modes are exactly what you'd expect. Unfortunately, shortcomings that aren't readily apparent in the campaign due to the horrible AI are obvious the moment that other players join the fray. Although you'd think that the inherent strength that nectar provides troopers would make them the more powerful faction, the upper hand goes easily to the rebels, thanks to the playing-dead mechanic and each rebel's ability to dodge by double-tapping the jump button. An effective rebel can rack up the kills in this manner, because in a full match, opposing players aren't apt to hang around and see if you spring up 10 seconds later. It's also proof that nectar is, at its core, a gimmick. Being able to cause a trooper's overdose is great in theory, but in practice, it's more efficient to just mow them down as you would in any shooter.
A seven-hour campaign and uneventful multiplayer modes just don't cut it in light of the far better modern shooters available on the market. The patchy quality of the entire package is surprising, considering the developer's fine pedigree. Yet Haze is a roller-coaster ride made up of tall peaks and unfathomable valleys, and it won't leave you so much breathless as disappointed with its squandered potential.