Homefront, the next FPS from Kaos Studios (the people behind Frontlines: Fuel of War) and publisher THQ, is coming. Set in America, it tells a tale set in the not-too-distant future where the United States have become less united than they were and are in a state of economic ruin. As the US retrenches their armed forces to focus on dissent within, people struggle to feed themselves, and the government begins to collapse - Korea unifies and attacks.
Over all too quickly, the army of the unified Korean nation take over - rounding up the populace into labour camps and generally behaving like the dominant world power that they have become. Times are tough - the general populace tries to buckle down and adapt to their new leaders but not everyone is so ready to accept what appears to be inevitable. The resistance is born.
Releasing in New Zealand on the 18th of March, we recently got some hands-on time with the game thanks to THQ and the game's local distributor. Starting at the very beginning of the game, we played for over and hour and got a good feel of what the game is all about. To set you in the mood, here's the opening cinematic:
While that's clearly going to have more of an emotional impact on American gamers, there's strong emotional cues in there for all westerners, which, as it turns out, is just the beginning...
It kicks off with you, some random slob (at least, so it seems...), waking up in your slummy dwellings to the sounds of jackbooting Korean invaders bursting in on you. You're arrested, bombarded with propaganda rhetoric and thrown onto a bus to the nearest labour camp. This trip serves as the "Half-Life"-style intro, as it takes you for a ride through this "anywheresville" US suburb. There you can see the invading forces running wild and, much like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, various atrocities unfold in front of your helpless eyes. The obvious, focused intent on grabbing your heartstrings and yanking them hard becomes ever more apparent with each unfolding moment.
Without ruining the story, you end up joining up with the resistance forces operating in the area. Made up of "regular joes", this armed group you find yourself in is intent on messing with the local occupation forces and generally making things difficult for them. It is here that the game proper begins, as you traverse the environment and attempt to flee from your would-be captors.
The feel for the game is pretty much what you'd expect from a modern FPS, with a largely linear gameplay corridor, populated by smart enemies and scripted events. While that sounds dull, Homefront doesn't feel like it's trying to reinvent the mechanics of the typical shooter - its innovation is in the way it makes you feel, which we'll touch on again in a moment.
Otherwise, the guns feel good - which is a key benchmark for a game where you spend most of the time pulling the trigger. They have a good weight to them, with a punchy mechanical thump associated with every single cartridge fired. They also have an effect on anything they hit, adding to the visceral thrill of pulling the trigger. The grenade in particular is a devastating weapon, causing significant damage to a large radius and sending anything nearby (including enemy soldiers) flying.
Where Homefront is unique (and obviously so, at that) is in the way it makes you feel. This isn't some generic enemy homeland and you're not the aggressor; this is "home" (well, for Americans - but it feels a lot closer to home than, say, a shanty town in Madeupastan) and the enemy is coming. You must defend it. The best early example of this is when the Koreans attack a house you're sheltering in, putting the owner of the house and her baby in the firing line. This simple mechanic, 99% identical to every shooter ever, ensures you're at the very peak of your awareness. That 1% difference gives you the focus and drive to keep the enemy out - how dare they come in here and shoot at a baby! It's a genuinely tense moment, helped in no small part by the screaming child and the terrified wailing of its mother, and it's the moment we got what they were trying to do.
It's not all kid-protecting set-pieces, though, with numerous missions featuring basic stealth gameplay, crawling through tunnels and chatting with the various inhabitants of Homefront. The characters are raw, emotional and frustrated, making for a stark contrast to the bull-headed marines we're used to fighting alongside. The odds are overwhelming and it's hard to imagine how you could possibly overcome them but you've got no choice so you fight anyway. While the presentation and plot points of the story were occasionally either forced or clumsily executed, we left gripped with a desire to know what happens next, like a good book that you just can't put down.
Graphically, the game needs a lot of work to get up to the standards we expect visually from a modern shooter. Given how close our play session of the "80% complete" title was to the 18 March release date, we suspect that it won't quite get up there but, with polish and post effects often joining the party late in development, our judgement of that part of the game will have to wait.
There's also a deep multiplayer mode, set during the invasion itself and before the fall of the US forces. Promising an ever-escalating battlefield that starts with grunts on the ground and then moves through various vehicle upgrades until the area is literally thrumming with dozens of aircraft and tanks, THQ are bullish as to its potential as the online game of choice once it is released. Unfortunately, we didn't have an opportunity to test this out for ourselves, so can only pass on the enthusiasm that the presenter had for it. He, at least, was excited...
What we can tell for certain already, though, is that Homefront is very much a title to keep an eye on. The emotional impact of the various set pieces on offer promise to set a new benchmark for emotional investment in a videogame. The on-the-ground stuff in America feels infinitely more real and upsetting than what we saw in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. They're crossing "the line" at a sprint and not looking back - expect to see a lot of media buzz about the themes of this game when it releases next month.
Keep it locked to NZGamer.com for more details and a full review once the final copy of the game arrives in the next few weeks.
Pros: Thrilling emotional triggers