Kaos--whose previous effort was 2008's Frontlines: Fuel of War--has gone to great lengths to develop a deep backstory for the upcoming game.
The game's narrative outlines a world where--in the year 2025--an EMP launch over North America by a Unified North and South Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-il's successor following his death, disables the powerful nation.
Homefront begins two years later, as players take on the role of Richard Jacobs, a lowly civilian who gets entangled in a war for the future of America between an invading Korean army and a group of resistance fighters.
The call to action is simple: battle the invading forces and put an end to the occupation of the United States of America. Or die trying.
Rising from a small cushion on the floor, I stumble to my feet from a peaceful slumber--one of the last I'm likely to have in the near future. My room is desolate and bare with only a single benefit, a radio in one corner blaring the morning messages of propaganda, propagated by the spokesperson of an invaded nation. Everything is okay, the tone of the speaker's voice suggests, but it isn't. Not anymore. Two years before, the country once known for its military superiority had been taken over in a swift and powerful attack. Citizens are now ordered and corralled like a herd of sheep; America, as we know it, is on life-support.
This is how the world of THQ's upcoming first-person shooter Homefront begins. A knock on the door later, and the world begins to spin, even further, out of control.
Playing as the game's protagonist Robert Jacobs, I'm thrown down a flight of stairs and hustled into a transport bus. My captors, a talkative commander and two Korean People's Army (KPA) minions, have been looking for me and wonder why I haven't surrendered my devotion to the new version of America.
What happens next is jarring. Like the tram ride that famously began the adventures of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, the bus begins to move through the city. A man sitting ahead of me on the guarded transport quietly asks if I'm also a pilot. Sitting in front of the screen, Xbox 360 controller in hand, I really have no idea. "I suppose so," I think. There is so little in the way of information provided about the protagonist that it's almost as if Kaos Studios had figured out a way to give players amnesia rather than use the tired tactic of giving the ailment to the game's hero.
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Around me in the game, the city of Montrose, Colorado, is in ruins. Civilians are separated and carted away. Some attempt to fight their way back into the arms of their loved ones, but are quickly overpowered. One man, part of a group being detained, breaks free from the KPA and runs towards the bus. He is promptly shot in the head, leaving a trail of blood and brain-matter on the glass in front of me.
"We'll be okay," the unnamed man sitting in front of me mutters. Like the radio before him, it's only another empty reassurance.
Rounding a corner, a small child is spotted crying for his parents. His mother, backed against a wall by the KPA along with her silent husband, promises the child that everything will be fine. "Just look away," she pleads. Seconds later, both are executed and the screaming boy staggers to their lifeless bodies and falls into their arms.
After watching the horrific scene, the bus is overturned by a semi-truck that barrels toward it, t-boning the transport at an intersection and flipping it over. A man, outfitted for war, rushes into the bus from its shattered windshield and finishes off a wounded KPA solider with a knife. "You can thank me later," he says before suggesting I pick up a handgun and follow him. Outside, I'm introduced to the man, an extremist named Connor, and his ally, a woman named Rhianna. Both are members of the resistance force combating the KPA occupation. Both are fighting for their lives. And like the KPA, both are looking for me.
The opening segments of Homefront do a good job of setting up the game's premise: civilians rise up to take their country back from an invading army. But it's also a plot that, no matter how many times THQ or Kaos employees tell me is completely original, we've seen before.
The obvious comparison is 1984's cult-classic film Red Dawn. That should come as no surprise, as Red Dawn co-writer and director John Milius was tapped to create the narrative surrounding Homefront. Video games have also tackled this subject in the past. In 2003's Freedom Fighters, players were thrown into an alternate history United States where New York City was occupied by an invading Soviet Union following the second world war. To a lesser extent, 2008's Turning Point: Fall of Liberty follows the same principle--an alternate history with an invading army from Nazi Germany.
Completely original or not, Homefront takes the concept of homeland occupation and runs with it in a new and interesting direction. From the opening section, players are presented with a grim and desperate place where violent occupation is substituted for order.
At first, as I was entering firefights throughout the winding paths of a destroyed suburban area, I was taken out of the world that was established during my bus ride to salvation. Gameplay degenerated into area-sweeps of enemy forces with no sign of the people affected by the occupation in sight--save for my squad-mates who reacted far too much like soldiers than angry civilians. But Homefront fixed that problem. Soon, you approach an area with your allies and are introduced to Boone--a leader in the resistance--who is reassuring civilians that the renegade Americans won't endanger their lives.
Immediately after you're introduced, the KPA roll in and decimate almost every living innocent life on screen. Running through shattered buildings and attempting to fend off the massive force, you're quickly forced to retreat.
The level ends when you're given the controls to a "semi-autonomous combat drone" dubbed Goliath. Essentially, it's an unmanned tank controlled by a special scope. Look into the scope and spot an enemy vehicle? Goliath will destroy it with a barrage of missiles. Waves of on-foot enemies coming toward you? Send your metallic menace toward them with its massive chain guns armed and spinning. Like the standard shooting itself, it's fun.
Homefront needs some work, though. There were odd glitches--one of which sent me flying into the air when I crouched near a teddy bear--and A.I. hiccups during the demo. Those are to be expected during the early stages. The main concern is the game's look. The environments look "right" for the situation, but everything is outlined with a rough edge. Characters look molded and stiff, rather than smooth and natural. Faces are often deadpan and expressionless. Homefront utilizes a modified version of Unreal Engine 3, but the game needs polish.
Of course, and we have to clarify, this is the early stages of a game still in development; however, we note these concerns now so we know what to look for when the game launches.
Homefront isn't scheduled until 2011, but what we've seen has piqued our interest in THQ's new franchise. Whether it can compete with the "big guys" in the FPS market is unknown at this time, obviously, but Homefront has the potential to tell an interesting and gritty story. A story where America is gasping for her last, free breath.
Disclosure: This preview is based on hands-on event held at the THQ studio in Montreal. THQ invited Shacknews to the event and provided one editor travel and accommodation to and from the event for the purposes of playing the game.