Pandora's Tower Review
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but swords and chains excite me. Should you climb the towers in Xseed's JRPG/adventure hybrid to save your cursed (and tragically whiny) girlfriend?
[ Editor's Note: As Nick Olsen is a writer for Theory of Gaming, this won't be counted in the monthly Vox Pop prize. However, it is very much a worthy read. ]
By Nick Olsen
Co-founder, Theory of Gaming
In 1985 Nintendo started a revolution when it...
Usually I associate the term “could’ve been” alongside a piece of media which held prospering potential but having said that, one with untapped potential. Haze is no exception. And so you can imagine my disappointment to see all that potential get washed away, especially under the surveillance of Free Radical; a well respected team, renowned for developing fine shooters.
It just gets wrapped up under completely run-of-the-mill gameplay. Okay, maybe not “completely,” but after the first five minutes from shooting several soldiers in another hallway, you’d think I’d be telling the truth. Wouldn’t you? Because that’s basically it - save for one or two (cool) gimmicks, Haze is pretty generic stuff.
At least the premise starts out strong enough. You play as Shane Carpenter, a trooper of the Mantel Corporation, who like the rest of his team is thwarted by propaganda. The main anecdote of this is Nectar, a mentally, physically enhancing drug that keeps the trooper focused and consistent, but most of all, true to Mantel. Only when Shane stops using Nectar does he see the true colours of Mantel – the lies and the bloodshed of the trust that he placed in Mantel for all that time.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. In fact, most of the shooting mechanics are pretty flaccid and unoriginal, but they’re able to carve a niche thanks to the balanced, satisfying guns present, as well as some distinct, original perks that are also available. Mantel’s perk (most obviously Nectar) enhances your physical attributes whereas the opposite faction - the Rebels in particular, are more distinct with the ability to play dead for example. Oh, and you can also drive vehicles. They handle well and capacitate up to four players (just right for the co-op) and there’s even outlandish quad bikes to be had too.
But that’s as far as Haze’s originality goes. The shooting is functional, if also tight and responsive, as is a testament to some finely placed, tuned button placements, but even they are a bit off at parts. Though, what’s most grating are the missions, and how horribly they are designed. The level design is often disjointed, as in one instance a part may fail to connect to another as seamlessly as it could have done. And the lack of a directional radar only furthers this often bafflement that stems from the horrid level design.
The environmental and objective variety however, is always welcomed, and while all locations are fictional, they’re all believable, and are rarely moulded into your typical stereotypical Afghanistan setting. An abundance of mission variety is also implemented to save the combat from getting more monotonous than it already was. This ranges from driving your derived Halo Warthog to bombarding the beaches of Rebels with mortars (both parts of which are incredibly satisfying by the way.)
The combat isn’t half as exhilarating as it should’ve been, which is no thanks to the atrocious artificial intelligence. As if standing still wasn’t bad enough, the enemies will half-heartedly just let you walk right past them. The only plus (and to be expected) is that the AI will genuinely try to kill off any bots that may be present, but then again, that just makes your presence feel that much more diminishing. Because of this, set-piece battles are never intense and feel more as if they’re jumbled up than genuinely staged. And as a result, you never feel like you’re actually progressing as a player.
It does however help that the single player can be played via co-op – offline and online for up to four players. Even the multiplayer itself can be played online with friends which partly compensates for the weak online community. The multiplayer though, just doesn’t fair up to as you might expect from other higher-tier multiplayer games. There are no ranks or rewards and though there are after-match allocades they aren’t permanent and the only form of competitive comparisons is within the form of dull leaderboards.
Game modes and maps are also pretty worn down too; you have your standard deathmatch, team deathmatch affair as well as a Haze-esque inspired mode, but to be honest, it would’ve been best left out. There are six maps, though only a couple of these are actually refined and playable. One map for example, is dark, and swampy, which on paper sounds great, except the contrast is far too low and the frame-rate wobbles all over the place. To fill in the gap however, are two online expansions featuring one new game mode and half a dozen new maps, but only one of two are actually free.
Generally though, these maps don’t even look good and given Haze’s domain as a Playstation exclusive, the visuals simply don’t do the system justice. While sometimes the environments can be very well detailed in spots, the overall streak feels bland and effortless in terms of production values, and the fact that character models resemble the look and feel of Barbie dolls doesn’t help either. The dialogue too is goofy and horrible and the voice acting is incredibly cheesy, if lively. The sound effects however, are just plain brilliant as they’re just as fun to shoot as they sound.
Look. Haze isn’t by any means bad, but it doesn’t excite me as nearly as much as I was avidly looking forward to it. Even if beneath the surface, it’s another shallow, spirit-crushing shooter, it’s still fun and does what any other shooter sets out to do. Having said that, aside some original perks and satisfying guns, Free Radical merely tick’s of all the boxes a shooter needs. Its differences are definitely welcoming but there aren’t nearly enough here to make Haze stand tall amongst this crowded genre.