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Mantel troopers absolutely love Nectar. And why not? Administering it through a big yellow disc on the back of their suits grants them super powers. Well, not super powers in a Superman or Spiderman way. Super powers in a "I feel really good about myself and will no doubt kill everyone in sight without breaking a sweat" kind of way.
More specifically, giving yourself a Nectar hit will grant you improved perception, or, as I prefer to put it, makes enemies that look exactly like the background glow white and thus killable. You also get a super powerful melee blast, hardened skin, better snipe aim and a foresight which helps you identify threat via a pulse before it's even happened. But yeah, it's all about making the bad guys stand out so you can actually see them and kill them.
Haze, the PS3-exclusive near-future FPS from Free Radical Design, the developer behind the TimeSplitters series, pretty much forces you to use nectar in the opening levels of the game, which we've soldiered our way through to bring you this report. As a Mantel soldier you're part of Mantel Global Industries, a humongous corporation with fingers in more pies than you'll find at a Bolton home match. Although you don't know it yet, you soon enough come to understand through cutscene conversations with your fellow Mantel soldiers and during missions that Mantel isn't quite as good as it ought to be, and Nectar, well, Nectar has its drawbacks too.
A Nectar bar on the bottom left corner of the HUD fills when you inject Nectar. However, the bar will quickly drop and you've only got so many Nectar pods on your back to refill with. The answer? Kill! If you keep the kill count ticking your Nectar bar will automatically replenish. Haze, in its early stages, wants you to realise that you need to keep your body full of Nectar to survive, and the only realistic way of doing this is by killing more and more rebels.
There's another problem. Go over the Nectar bar's limit and you'll overdose, which makes the screen go red and forces you to wail about like a mad man shooting anything that moves, including your own squad. So you need to have one eye on the targeting reticule and one eye on the Nectar bar, making sure you don't pump yourself with too much of the good stuff. It's hard not to at times - for no other reason than Haze makes this really cool thwumpy bass noise and focuses everything you see when you administer Nectar. You need to manage it appropriately though - Haze gets pretty crazy, and you'll frequently run out.
Playing Haze's first four or so campaign levels rekindles memories of Halo 3. You've got four player co-op, big levels, lots of vehicle driving and turret firing settings, and some spectacular set pieces. The game opens by dropping you in a jungle with a team of fellow Mantel soldiers. A band of rebels have shot down a Mantel plane and it's your job to investigate. As you make your way to the crash site, killing any rebels you encounter, you begin to get a feel for Haze's combat, which is slightly more considered an affair than other similar games. Most of the time you'll be running and gunning, or unveiling rebels with Nectar Perception from a distance and taking them out with The Blacksaw B72 Assault Rifle's zoom function. It's not blisteringly fast, but it is entertaining. If a fellow soldier is downed you can revive him by walking up to him and triggering an animation that looks like you're lifting him up with one hand. And, in a nice touch, if you accidentally shoot the Nectar-carrying disc on the back of a team mate, the Nectar will spray out and the unfortunate fellow will go nuts like he's overdosed. I did this more than once, especially when AI-controlled squad members ran in front of me while I was zoomed in. Once you've reached the crash site and defended yourself against further waves of rebels, your squad is picked up and brought back to a nearby land carrier.
Time to take revenge on the rebels. Here, you get your first taste of Haze's vehicles. The motor available is a hulking metal beast which looks a bit like Gears of War's UV-light blasting car. There's room for a driver, someone to man a turret and two hangers on. Driving the vehicle through narrow winding, mountain roads is a lot of fun, a lot more fun than using the turret or firing your rifle at the blur that is the scenery from the side. Haze can be quite hard, so more often than not you'll find your vehicle ticking, indicating it's damaged so much that it's going to blow up. You'll have to jump out and wait for it to explode when this happens. Conveniently, a brand-spanking new vehicle is usually never more than half a minute's jog away.
Haze's hook is that it's something of a moral dilemma. Although what I'm about to say is a potential spoiler (look away now if you don't want to know), it's already been announced by Free Radical and is pretty much essential to understanding what to expect in the game. Half-way through you learn the truth about the Mantel corporation and Nectar, and decide to join the rebels, changing the way Haze plays for the remaining period of the game.
As a rebel member of the Promise Hand, you'll be free from the side-effects of Nectar, but you'll also be free from its power-giving properties. But you do have some unique skills which help you turn the tide. The most useful is the ability to roll, by double-tapping X, which helps you get out of trouble quickly. You'll also be able to play dead by tapping L2 - Nectar sanitises war for Mantel soldiers, so they can't see dead bodies or blood. Once they think you've vanished you can spring up and shoot them in the back. Nice.
As a rebel you'll also be able to set traps, steal weapons and, most interestingly, make Nectar grenades and Nectar knifes by standing over a dead Mantel soldier and ripping the yellow stuff from his back. Nectar grenades explode in a shower of yellow haze, driving anyone within range mad. Throwing the Nectar knife will have a similar effect on a single target. Playing as a member of the Promise Hand is all about turning Nectar, the very stuff you spent four levels injecting into your veins, against your old buddies.
There is no doubt that Haze's campaign will be a blast with three friends online. Indeed most FPS games with online co-op, or split screen co-op, are better when played this way. This is no intense single-player corridor shooter after all. We love the fact that co-op is supported by some nice tech which allows seamless drop in and out campaign co-op gameplay, too. Haze is shaping up nicely - while it's not a graphical powerhouse it does have its moments, and its own unique look. We're getting a bit bored of identikit Unreal Engine 3 shooters, so Haze's aesthetic should prove to be a selling point. There's little revolutionary in terms of gameplay going on in the campaign, but it should keep PS3-owning shooters happy until big-hopes Resistance 2 and Killzone 2 arrive later in the year. The popularity of the switch from Mantel soldier to rebel will no doubt have less to do with being engaged with the story and more to do with how fun both are to play. My initial impressions are that most people will prefer the Mantel at first, but there's more sneaky fun to be had as a rebel. Colour us yellow.
Want more info on Haze? Head over to our video preview where you'll also find plenty of new in-game gameplay footage.
Haze is due out in May 2008 on PS3 only.