By: Brian Crecente
Rob Yescombe is worried. Not that Haze won't be critically received, but that the innovative shooter might be overlooked in the pre-holiday glut that threatens to deliver half a hundred must-have titles in three months.
The challenge Haze faces right now is one purely of Yescombe's doing: Everyone is focusing on the game's fascinating story, penned by Yescombe, which seems to turn an eye on both the nature of gaming and the nature of modern warfare. But in all of the talk about the deeper meaning of Haze's plot, gamers seem to be losing sight of the fact that that's not the only thing that makes this particular shooter different.
"The fun aspects of the gameplay kinda of got buried under the fun aspects of the story," he told me. "Most games tend to pin their chances on one thing. But we have many more things. And it can be too much to consume."
There is, for instance, the story, the fact that the game will support four-player co-op and the game's use of the drug Nectar. But what Yescombe and project lead Derek Littlewood want to focus on for now is how the team has created both in single and multiplayer modes a very asymmetric experience.
"Having an actual, functional asymmetrical gameplay system, that's pretty fucking exciting," Yescombe said.The game is divided into two types of play. When you start the game you are a Mantel soldier, which means you have elite training, the best weapons and a limitless supply of Nectar. While the drug does filter everything you see, it also provides you with some pretty significant gameplay advantages.
When you juice up on the drug, administered through a pack built into the back of your armour, you're given four very specific boosts abilities.
Nectar Perception: All of the rebels in the vicinity are highlighted in a strong orange glow. Nectar Foresight: A sort of six sense that causes a ripple effect around grenades that have been thrown near you. It also warns you of pending melee attacks. Nectar Focus: This sniping aid allows you to focus in on a target and, after a second, draw you automatically into a headshot. Melee Blast: A very powerful melee attack. Power-up: In general you can take and deal out more damage and you move and turn faster.
"If you use Nectar you are in your most effective fighting state," said. Littlewood. "You are the most powerful fighter you can be."
To make full use of these abilities you need to keep your Nectar levels at about 90 percent and every time you shoot someone you get a small Nectar boost. But with this power comes a major draw-back, too much Nectar and you go into overdose. So the trick to playing Mantel is to find that perfect balance.
"When you overdose, everyone around you starts to look the same," Littlewood said. "Your ability to not shoot is reduced. Your auto aim snaps to players."
What this means in game, especially in multiplayer games, is that literally everyone looks like a rebel when you OD and your controls will try to auto aim to anyone near your reticle. If you do end up aiming directly at someone your gun will start to fire automatically.
"You suddenly finding yourself working to not aim at people," he said.
People in a Nectar Haze also will sometimes automatically pull a grenade and start to cook it, letting the pin drop out but not throwing it. Eventually it blows up in your hand, taking you and anyone near you out.
The developers said they are playing around with the idea of adding a mini-game that would allow you to toss the grenade away if you succeed. They also are playing around with the idea of letting your teammates melee you into dropping the grenade.
Weapons Steal: You can melee and swipe away a Mantel players gun and then use it on them. Play Dead: When you down to about 25 percent health you can push a button to drop to the ground and play dead. Because of the Nectar you will literally disappear from the view of all Mantel soldiers. A mini-game allows you to pop back up and dish out some damage. Succeed and you hop to your feet, fail and you stand slowly. Scavenge: This ability allows you to convert the ammo of any dropped weapon you find to work with the weapon you are currently holding. Nectar Grenade: You can pry loose the Nectar pack from a fallen Mantel soldier and attach it to a grenade. When you use that grenade it creates a cloud of Nectar that lasts 10 to 15 seconds. Any Mantel soldiers who pass through it or are caught in it will go into overdose mode immediately. Nectar Knife: Creating Nectar grenades automatically covers the knife in Nectar. If you cut a Mantel soldier with it they overdose.
Rebels can also shoot a Mantel soldier in the Nectar pack, causing them to overdose.
And the differences between the Mantel soldiers and the rebels isn't just about their look and abilities, they did a lot of other little things to highlight their unique tactics.
During motion capture, for instance, the Mantel soldiers were all played by a former SAS soldier, while the Rebels were played by an actor with no military training.
The game's AI has also had significant work, Littlewood said.
"We spent enormous amounts of time on the AI," he said. "We basically rewrote the AI. We used the Timesplitters AI in the past, but this time we threw all of that out."
"The new AI is very much about it being adaptive and reacting to different situations. We spent a lot, an awful lot of time building two different, distinct personalities into the AI: The Rebels are more careful. The Haze are much more forward.
"You only really appreciate the interesting things when you see what it does."
Something I had a chance to do when I was at E3.
Playing through a chunk of the game I was impressed with both how easily it was to perform some of the special actions, like a weapons steal. But more importantly, I found myself surprised, a number of times, at the way an enemy reacted to my attacks.
Of course they did the whole duck and cover thing and they even seemed to back each other up. But in one area of a map, which looked a bit like a rundown apartment complex, another AI controlled rebel seemed to get tired of my poor aim and ran past me to take a Mantel soldier down with his knife.
I was also meleed more than once when tinkering with something in the controls as a bad guy stood around a corner hiding from me.
In general I found the controls themselves very tight and the map construction was both spread out and vertical in some places, the sort of combination I love in my first-person shooters.
Littlewood said the games online play will support up to 24 players online, something that's being tested an awful lot right now over at the Free Radical studios. The studio might even push out an open public beta, though that hasn't been decided yet.
"We are going to use every single last second we have to try and balance the game," Littlewood said. "You can never have enough time when you balancing a game."
In the coming months, the team plans to also shift the focus on the game from the deep and very interesting storyline, to the games nuanced and asymmetric gameplay. Hoping in the shift that gamers understand that Haze isn't about one or the other, but both.
"We are under no delusions that the market is split between people who like the plot and people who pick up on gameplay," Yescombe said.