By: Chris Matel
If you've ever wondered what it's like to play a game before it receives its UPC label, know it's generally not a pretty experience. Be it on a disc or for download, even by the time a demo is released to the public, it's usually been through the QA wringer a few times, polished, and distributed as what the creatives behind the game want the final product to demonstrate.
Imagine, then, hearing Global Communications Manager for THQ Huw Beynon's words reverberate through a mic and boom out a pair of speakers to premier Kaos Studio's Homefront multiplayer: “What we're showing you today is actually pre-Alpha code.”
Wait, come again?
“[The build] is by no means hitting the visual target we've set ourselves...it has texture streaming issues, so it doesn't look as crisp and sharp as it should. You may encounter a few bugs; we know our kill-cam is a bit buggy at the moment.”
Caveats at preview events are expected and commonplace. Then again, although I'm sure the eight-on-eight and 16-versus-16 “Ground Control” battles we played were honed just for this occasion, this was a big one. You just don't show off a raw package like that, right?
But Kaos have something to prove with Homefront. Their debut title, Frontlines: Fuel of War, was a mash tun of ideas that never really filtered out into a quaffable experience. With a team coming from work on the Battlefield series, surely the group had experience in large battles with vehicular combat, but Frontlines' drone warfare and tug-of-war setup didn't find its niche. A canceled PS3 release was just salt in the wound.
Nevertheless, as Erin Daly, lead multiplayer designer, puts it, Kaos have a formula they wanted to stick with for Homefront: “We've tried to take some of the strategic choices we had in [Frontlines], and learn what ones were working and what ones weren't.” The goal this time around was to tighten up the action with focus on large-scale battles and making access to devastating and tactical 'toys' easily rewarding.
And honestly, Kaos looks to be delivering on their plan. True enough, in only a handful of contests there were a couple of rough technical issues to joke about and crashes to idly wait through as multiple 360s were reset, but the core experience plays much more fluidly than what Frontlines offered.
This achievement came largely from the game's “Battle Point” system. As an in-game currency, players accumulate points by killing enemies, taking objectives, defending those objectives, and fulfilling other similar actions. (Though, for you spawn campers, be aware you're not rewarded for your dishonorable strategy—I know because I tried.) In turn, these points can be cashed in for assets like rocket launchers, which become advantageous when your enemy is reigning hellfire on your position via RC helicopter.
Then again, you could instead opt to deploy your own ground assault drone, even though it wouldn't fair well in the MicroMachine™ standoff. Better yet, why bring a knife to a gunfight? Take your chance with the drone; because if you die, respawn in an Apache for 1400 BP, effortlessly take out the drone and seek out the pilot. It's these on-the-fly maneuvers which make Homefront a much more versatile game than its predecessor.
Perhaps the most revelatory strengths of the new Battle Point system are it's rock-paper-scissors accessibility, and cessation effect on civil wars over team vehicles. In our session, no one armament overpowered the other and you never felt like the last to the party. Whether it was in the smaller “Cul-de-sac” arena, trading points for extra ammo, or using offensive vehicles in the bigger “Farm” setting, Kaos certainly displayed how critical their reward system is to survival and success in their game.
To fine-tune these maps, Kaos have to take into account a spectrum of players with a “wide variety of play styles,” according to Daly. Because of the option to go from foot soldier to whirlybird pilot, Daly expressed the challenges in designing Homefront's multiplayer aspect: “There are so many different components to it; if one of them isn't working, it can really bring down the whole experience.” In the games of Ground Control we played, even at this early stage, hotly contested objective points switched teams' hands not just because a small battalion of tanks overtook a position, but because sentries of drones caught infantry run-and-gunners off guard and UAVs relayed those controller's hiding positions.
Furthermore, tactics didn't stagnate since the area of battle was constantly on the move. In Ground Control, both teams vie over assigned points in a map. Once a team captures all of the points, the battlefield shifts to another location in the losing sides favor. Though our games were more focused on showing off the basic principles being developed, it's easy to see how tense matches could become once they included even more than just who could take over more territories than the other.
With a fiction taking place two years prior to the game's campaign, Homefront's multiplayer element is given an air of relevance to its overall presentation. Though even in an infant stage of development, Kaos is on the right path to deliver a much more well-rounded experience than their first go. Much of what they showed wasn't anything particularly revolutionary in the first-person shooter landscape; instead, they're using familiar mechanics and re-purposing them in more accessible ways.
Look forward to going drone-to-drone in the future, be it on the 360, PS3, or PC (with Digital Extremes once again heading up the mouse and keyboard front).
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