By Chris Matel
It was a day of firsts for THQ, on a perfectly brisk morning this last nineteenth day of October. A brand new development studio in Montreal collected dust from writers of around the world as they staggered about in anticipation for slow-to-brew coffee. Patrice Desilet, a major component to Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise, was officially announced to be the THQ's newest creative asset, joining a bullpen that includes former Team Ninja wild boy Tomonobu Itagaki and the industry's comedic legend Tim Schafer.
But it was also an occasion to debut cranial chunks splattering onto the window of a school bus in the single-player side of Kaos Studios' upcoming first-person shooter, Homefront.
Not too long ago we shared our experiences on the game's multiplayer portion, full of its Battle Points economy system and remote-controlled drones focus—but this event was solely about the opening sequence to joining a resistance in the mountain town of Montrose, Colorado. In the mess hall of the freshly opened Montreal studio, where one day 400 employees are expected to fuel their brains, just over a baker's dozen of televisions prompted writers to “Press Start.”
Acquiescing to the command dropped us into a future that current events seem all too willing to oblige into non-fiction. Written by John Milius, Homefront is specifically a work of speculative fiction; a what-if scenario. With credits in the film adaptations for “Clear and Present Danger” and “The Hunt for the Red October,” Milius is more than acquainted with political suspense. More relevant than all, however, is his work on “Red Dawn.” Before Swayze went not-so-clean dancing, Milius' work had him as a youthful guerrilla freedom fighter of the 80's, taking on an occupying Soviet force in—yup, Colorado.
Picking up the controller for Homefront puts you in the boots of Robert Jacobs. The year is 2027 and through a string of political maneuvers, Kim Jong-un has not only united Korea, but has formed a powerful army from other Pacific sovereignties. Deftly and decisively, his Korean People's Army invades the United States of America, becoming an occupying force.
Jacobs appears to be a man of little conviction as he awakes in a dilapidated room to a radio news update, both in English and Korean. There isn't a gun anywhere in sight, and you're fists aren't balled up, ready to unpack a whoopin'. He's just a guy. Scanning the room, dim light shows tattered fabrics and other grungy belongings—but before you can acclimate yourself with your surroundings a rapping at your door interrupts. The voices on the other side don't sound friendly, but still, there's no heads-up to equip a gun or refuse entry. Too late, your guests break down your door, shout commands, and make use of their rifles with a blow to your person before they send you head-over-heels down a flight of stairs. This, obviously, isn't Jacobs' day, but at least it's easy to watch with smart animation.
As the sunlight bleeds into the camera's iris, you become privy to just what's going on: a roundup. Not one of those meant for entertainment or enjoyment, but for head counting and terrorizing. A familiar looking yellow school bus becomes your ferry to the unknown, but as you watch out of those windows that only open so much, peering through the gelatinous matter from a citizen's head exploded on it, you bare witness to families divided and a community taken over by foreign control. One of your fellow passengers briefly relates a gloomy story, then mutters a hasty escape plan under his breath.
But just after the bus driver turns the corner of your block, a truck plows directly into your side of the vehicle. Gathering his consciousness, Jacobs learn this isn't some drunken hit-and-run, it's a rescue mission. Or, rather, a recruitment. Finally, it's time to grab a gun and fight back. There's no attempt at reconciliation as you steer his aim to dispatch your now former captors once exited from the wreck.
A few pops of your handgun and pursuing KPA soldiers are downed, but now out of ammunition, it's time to scavenge to resupply. Those enemy weapons aren't being used anymore, so you might as well re-purpose them for yourself. A blood bath at a gas station with some grenades, followed by some anti-tank C4 handy work lead you to a cul-de-sac wherein your new friends are pinned down by a hostile group of incoming enemies. You might have been scrambling for magazines just a minute ago, but now you're given the remote keys to a deadly unmanned Goliath tank. Standard package on this model: six wheels, armor plating, and homing missiles. Not bad for a guerrilla group.
Staying the encroaching forces with my RC razing machine, the screen fades and I'm brought back into the current reality. Kaos are striving to set a scene and tell a story with Homefront, and I was sucked into it. True, with little else than a premise and a short exploration of the gameplay, Homefront seems almost too much like a playable imagining of “Red Dawn.” That obvious influence notwithstanding, however, they're certainly on track in creating a believable setting to support the context. Homes become entrenchments for battles; a tree house makes itself useful as a crow's nest; the fuselage of a downed airliner from an EMP carves a pathway to maneuver around KPA strongholds.
Just like the school bus turned death wagon, Creative Director on Homefront David Votypka, explains the studio's goals in creating a universe where the “familiar turned alien” drives concepts. For him and the studio, the genesis for the overarching theme is “...about starting with what's familiar in our everyday lives,” asking, “What if those things become twisted and taken over by somebody else?” Kaos wants to you feel like there's a reason to picking up that handgun when you step out of the broken window of the bus. It's a goal that seems to be achieved in this brief introduction to the game.
While Kaos seem to be on the ball in terms of setting and environment, I hold a bit of reservation on pacing and action based on this short session. A keyword throughout the day was “competitors.” Though no developers were explicitly noted, both THQ and Kaos are well aware of the landscape in which they venture. Often we're promised compelling shooters but delivered products of near-meaningless gunplay. The setting and exposition in Homefront might look to quell some of the usual action-heavy overindulgence associated with first-person shooters, but aside from the constant hunt for guns and weaponry, there didn't appear to be much wholly separating Homefront's single-player campaign from others we've played in the past.
Groups of enemies swarming on your position, pop-and-shoot tactics from adversarial AI, and some specialized armament. It was all well-conceived and playable, but the action didn't command as much attention as the opening cruise down the streets of Montrose. Rex Dixon, lead level designer at Kaos, readied himself up to allay these fears. He made sure to point out that agency is never taken away from the player, even in more story-driven sections, “We don't do cinematic cutscenes; we don't take control away from the player to show a movie.” This decision he points out, is about taking the Gordon Freeman approach. From a gameplay standpoint Kaos has looked to model Half-Life 2, Dixon freely admitting, “...nobody does it better than [Valve].”
At this point, it's a benefit of the doubt which helps to stow some of my skepticism. While the gas station firefight left me a bit wanting from straight-charging enemies and oblivious ally help, the feeling of being overwhelmed, outgunned, and constantly dogged throughout the entire level was enticing. Kaos don't want Homefront to fit into the familiar molds of current shooters where being a super soldier is commonplace. As Dixon puts it, if they did that, “...we failed.”
Part of THQ's Core Games Division where “Creative First” is the mantra, Homefront is set to invade the HD consoles and PC in 2011. Based on only a limited time with the single-player campaign, a dedication to universe and stroytelling poise Kaos to deliver a what-if shooter with a strong base. The gameplay may be a bit too familiar in the first chapter, but I'm interested and willing to see where it goes.