Homefront Multiplayer Preview
While the crowds are already picking sides between long-running military shooter hit Call of Duty and EA's rebirth of Medal of Honor for this holiday season, it's not too early to look at other upcoming military games. For many people, the ones that put interesting sci-fi or fictional scenarios in are the most original and appealing, and in that case, Homefront from THQ and Kaos Studios should be on a lot of people's radars.
Taking place just shy of 20 years into the future, Homefront takes us on what seems at first like a rather bizarre path at first: North Korea starts to take over the world, and its invasion of the United States is what the player takes part in fighting back. Yes, we've seen on the news just how oppressed and backwards the DPRK is as a nation, but the simple fact that the game actually sells this as a real possibility tells us just how good at storytelling the developers are - compare, for example, against Modern Warfare 2's Russian invasion, which was implausible not only in how it was all caused, but also in the execution of their actual invasion.
I got to play Homefront's multiplayer mode at a recent event in San Francisco. With huge 32-player games on consoles and PC powered by dedicated servers, you're getting right into the thick of it on large maps with interesting, but simple objectives. You might have to capture and hold spots on the map to win a "point" for your team, but when one side gets that point, the capture locations then shift elsewhere on the map, forcing players to change tactics and attack (or defend) a different spot on the fly.
You'll also see some interesting innovation in the progress that your soldier makes. Not only are Battle Points (pretty much used like experience points) totaled up for your post-match level progression in multiplayer, but you can actually also spend whatever you've gained in that match immediately on extra equipment or ammo. (As far as we were able to tell, spending points doesn't reduce your level-up total at the end of match, but it does limit the number of overpowered items, like rocket launchers, that you're allowed to repeatedly pull out of your butt.) All you have to do is tap a direction on the D-pad to buy a resupply or a new secondary weapon.
And when you're ready to jump into a vehicle, there's none of this Battlefield crap where some jerkhole keeps stealing the attack chopper just so he can bail out and purposely crash it over a capture point - and usually those people get themselves killed within seconds of bailing out, making it an extra waste. Instead, you'll spend your Battle Points to buy a vehicle when you spawn, and then it's yours - things like helicopters are already in the air when you buy them.
There are also land- and air-based drones you can use, which can mark targets for all to see easily, take out infantry with a little better efficiency (and less risk) than using your actual soldier to do it, and distract and annoy the enemy. Most of the serious explosive weapons have to be bought, but they're relatively cheap and you usually get 2 shots with each that you buy. You might need to spend a few sets of 50bp in order to take out something like an attack chopper with 5 or more shots, but your reward for doing that will far exceed what you spent.
There will be configurable loadouts and likely unlocked gear and such in Homefront, but our demo only included pre-set loadouts. Apparently, that part of the game is still being heavily worked on, but I did notice that the pre-set loadouts consisted of a choice of perks, adding a weapon modifier to your gun (like sights and silencers), and choosing from an array guns from little pistols to massive sniper rifles. Presumably, these will all be configurable in the final version of the game.
We only got the chance to play on two maps and mostly spent our time on the 32-player one, but the overall look you can expect is a war-torn version of American suburbia as well as some peaceful, pastoral-looking rural settings (at least, they're peaceful until a couple dozen people jump on the server and start firing tank shells at each other). The overall look of the visuals strikes out on its own compared to its competition, generally giving us a pretty realistic, very slightly futuristic look but obviously showing itself to be different from games by Activision or EA.
The teamplay that Homefront requires for people to win decisively is a big deal, as lone wolves do worse and worse with each additional player on the server possibly gunning for them. Our 32-player matches were populated well, with a map big enough to not feel crowded and not small enough that you can't find the enemy, and often we had 15 or more soldiers (from both sides) pouring into a building to try and capture it. With the vehicles and toys getting flown around and fired outside the capture spots as well, there's a place for dedicated infantry soldiers as well as career tinkerers, drivers, and pilots, too. And they'll all have to work together to win matches consistently.
Our 32-player experience ran very well on the Xbox 360, especially considering that Kaos Studios still considers Homefront to be in a pre-alpha state. The killcams were often broken (but when they worked, they worked just like Call of Duty's did), but the warnings we heard about graphical quality not being up to par didn't really seem to hold true. Frankly, this game looks and plays well, albeit at what seems to be around 30fps now. And that leads me to about the only thing I could hope for: getting the game closer to running at 60fps on consoles.
We didn't get a chance to see the PC version, but the developers do understand some of the lessons learned from the PC release of Modern Warfare 2; dedicated servers are going to be a big part of Homefront's launch. The jury's still out on the possibility of things like a command console or mods, but at the very least we'll very likely get the best online experience with 1080p or better graphics, presumably (and very likely) all at 60fps if you've got the horsepower to deliver it.
Kaos Studios is the team that brought us the legendary Battlefield mod Desert Combat, but I just wasn't expecting much after their first stand-alone game, Frontlines, flopped almost immediately. So when I saw Homefront at E3 earlier this year, I found its story elements, emotionality, and its campaign's action to be surprisingly good, and now I've been wowed yet again at seeing such a fun, accessible, but yet hardcore multiplayer experience. This is leagues ahead of Frontlines and it's got some crucial improvements over some of the flaws and shortcomings of other military shooters like Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Modern Warfare 2. THQ and Kaos have already delayed the release into early 2011, so let's hope that they've got all the time they need to polish their game - as it's already fun as hell to play.