After the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops last year, the future of military first person shooters is becoming a little shaky. This is the genre that spawns billion-dollar launches, Eminem songs, ads with Kobe Bryant in them, and some of the biggest video game rivalries out there, but with the knowledge that key players in the CoD franchise are now gone from Activisionís stable, many on the inside track are expecting Call of Duty to start being a big disappointment. Hell, on EAís side, Battlefield is right in the midst of a transition, too. In about a month theyíll finally unveil Battlefield 3, but right now the whole project is a mystery.
It seems like itís as good a time as any for another big publisher to break into the genre, and with Homefront, they just might have the right game to deliver better action than most of the last couple years of FPS games, which we all know, deep down, havenít really been that great. Developed by Kaos Studios, the core of which made the legendary Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942, Homefront drops players into a scenario that at first seems a bit far-fetched: North Korea has invaded the United States, occupies lands west of the Mississippi, and is slowly turning American communities into concentration camps.
Seems silly, doesnít it? Well, the backstory is actually pretty effective and makes it seem more believable, mostly because the invasion doesnít happen out of the blue in 2011. Itís fifteen years into the future, and after a massive economic collapse and a devastating new war in the Middle East, unemployment in America is 30% and gasoline is twenty bucks a gallon. Meanwhile, the populace idolizes its celebrities at massive new levels, looking to faith healing and zealotry for the solution to their problems. Political leaders have become ineffectual and are largely ignored, the military is downsized to extreme levels to cut costs, and the North Koreans, having peacefully unified all of Korea and nationalized its economic, engineering, and manufacturing centers, has started to sell America cheap tech in order to help secure its latest computer systems. Some Americans are warning of an impending Korean attack, but few are listening and Korea is in good standing on the world stage. Following a devastating internet attack on the Korean-made electronics (with convenient backdoors pre-installed) that make up Americaís defense computers, a Korean satellite, hiding a huge nuclear device, detonates over Kansas and nearly every piece of electronics in the continental United States is fried in the resulting EMP blast. Koreaís army numbers in the tens of millions. The stage is set for what could be considered a reasonable scenario for a land invasion.
Then thereís the poisoning of the Mississippi. One of the important parts of the half-decent Voice of Freedom prequel novel, which was written specifically as backstory for Homefront, is the radioactive sludge thatís pumped into the Mississippi River. When combined with a hijacking of nearly all American high-tech military equipment on the west coast and positioning this gear in drone mode to automatically defend every bridge that crosses the river, the two halves of the country are completely shut off of each other. This gives the Korean army time to dig in and marginalize and pretty much enslave the American population, a group that was instructed by the vestiges of what used to be American leadership to simply survive and not fight back.
In comes the protagonist of the story. Youíre a retired US Army pilot, having survived in this Korean-run world for a few years, who has just been discovered and ďrecruitedĒ by the KPA to become a collaborator and start completing missions for your new overlords. When the bus youíre being transferred in is attacked, you quickly find out that you were the target, and itís a group of American rebels that has set out to rescue you specifically. We hear a lot of words from the rescuers to the tune of ďwe hope youíre worth itĒ, leading the player to believe that the protagonist has some secret key to fighting off the Korean menace, or at least a superhuman fighting ability that we tend to see in games like this. Itís not terribly a original idea, but in a genre where itís now normal to kill hundreds of trained enemy soldiers in a row without getting tired and only having to wait a few seconds for a bullet wound to heal, well, itís hard to blame the developers for this setup. Of course, in the short introductory demo I got to play, it wasnít time yet to become some kind of revolutionary hero, and the only fighting I did was against small squads of enemies with a couple of AI buddies doing a fairly decent job of helping me.
At the recent NYC event we attended, THQís big focus that day was on multiplayer. Itís not the first time weíve played it, as there was an event last year in San Francisco, but this time the game is almost finished and there were some interesting new elements to the multiplayer modes. Of course, the biggest one that we saw last year, Battle Points, is still there and better than ever. In the 32-player matches of Homefront where your gadgets, vehicles, and drones are just as important as your rifle, Battle Points give you quick access to these additional items at almost any point. Kill a dude and youíll get 150XP permanently contributing to your progress towards the next rank, but thatís also 150BP that you can spend right away on heavy weapons, important gadgets, and even a vehicle to spawn into directly - well, not immediately, but you can do it the next time you are killed and have to respawn.
Kaos debuted a new feature at this event called Battle Commander. It's a good feature, but it's probably not a very descriptive name for what it does, and can be a little confusing for Battlefield veterans. Essentially, the server gives out missions to players who perform unbroken strings of useful actions: things like spotting players with a drone, taking out vehicles, and yes, killstreaks. Youíll get missions to complete even more of them, and as you do you get higher star ratings, leading to extra passive and active perks that help you complete the next mission and make it easier for your team to win the map. Lose your drone, vehicle, or your life, and the streak ends and the missionís over. And itís made more difficult because each successive mission alerts a couple more enemy players to your star-rated mission and general location, until you get to the five-star mission when everyone on the enemy team is told where you are (again, not a pinpoint thing - a general location) and what youíre doing.
While Battle Commander has nothing to do with the ďCommanderĒ role in Battlefield 2 - where an actual player did scans, dropped supplies for his team, and could give squads specific orders - this is still an interesting system to give players both a team goal (win the map) as well as a personal goal that still actually helps the friendly team. Anyone whoís played Call of Duty long enough knows that killstreaks arenít really that much fun for the people not actually on the killstreak, and here thereís motivation on both sides to push to either defend or kill the guy thatís on a four- or five-star mission.
All of this is working simultaneously alongside the goals of the two main gameplay modes. Team Deathmatch is a familiar sight, with a dynamic spawn location system (without home bases) as seen in Call of Duty. The new mode, Ground Control, places three capture points on a map that you have to take and hold, and once any or all of the three have built up enough time held, you win a ďroundĒ of sorts and the capture points actually move on the map. Then the capturing goes on again, and the team with the most wins, well, they get the victory screen at the end of the match. What this does is it creates a front line of fighting without purposely turning everything into a single-point-of-contention meat grinder, and with the capture locations shifting on the map, it also means that youíre not fighting over the same damn barn every time. Itís an interesting and unique system, not unlike the Rush mode in Bad Company 2, although there is no attacker or defender side; either team can push the front line into enemy territory.
The mix of tanks, APCs, Bradleys, Jeeps, and helicopters is really fun on Homefrontís generally large maps, and the system of having to buy the heavy hardware to take out vehicles, yet being able to make those purchases on the fly, means that these bits of gear can be powerful without everyone running around brandishing one constantly. And on the other side, vehicles in the right hands can change the course of what happens on a map, but they donít completely wreck everything. As an example, Battlefield: Bad Company 2ís rather low-tech Vietnam add-on gives engineers only unguided rocket launchers, so a good pilot can dodge those easily and dominate a whole enemy team for a whole match - see this video for reference. Of course, I have spent hours with Homefront, not days, so itís hard to know for sure whether this is going to be perfectly balanced in the final game. What I will say is that the BP system puts the firepower at your fingertips when you really need it, but itís not available constantly - itís an unusual and innovative attempt at a solution to give people vehicle-destroying power without ruining the rest of the balance, and I think thereís a good chance it will work long-term.
While the console versions worked great in a 32-player environment, offering up a pretty solid frame rate somewhere in the 30fps range, the PC version was on display as well at full 1080p resolution. It was only the first chapter of the single player campaign, but there were a ton of display, configuration, and control options, and the controls were smooth and felt just right with a keyboard and mouse. I got the distinct impression that this really is a well-thought-out PC port (as opposed to what weíve seen with many primarily-console PC ports). The work on the PC version is being done by the guys at Digital Extremes and they have their own team working on various elements of the interface, custom dedicated server system, and more. Overall, the game looks good (if not amazing) on consoles, but everything looked sharper and slicker on PC due to the increased horsepower available on the demo machines I played on. Throw in full Steam support, and we might have a big winner here for the PC community. While I canít possibly put the AtomicGamer ďactually good PC portĒ stamp of approval on Homefront until Iíve played the final version, it seems thereís a pretty good chance. (See our video interview with Kaos' Brian Holinka about the PC version of the game on Youtube.)
Between the lore-filled single player mode - I did mention there was a fully-fleshed-out novel, right? - and the controversy that will surround the notion of North Korea actually successfully invading the US, Homefront does have a lot going for it going into the final stretch leading up to its release. Gamers will find the single player campaign sobering as the America depicted isnít that far off from the post-urban wasteland we saw in the Fallout games, even if no actual bombs were dropped on US soil. On the multiplayer side, the dedicated servers will bring a much-needed solid bit of performance on consoles, and the full-featured PC version should satisfy that audience. And all of the gameplay is brought together in a style that was started by Battlefield developers DICE, but it looks like an important evolution of it all is happening at Kaos Studios. Iím really looking forward to Homefront, and I think itís probably got a lot to offer those sick of Call of Duty and Battlefield.