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I am a proud soldier in the Korean People’s Army, in the service of our Glorious Leader. We have come to this country, the United States of America, to liberate it from its stagnant, corrupt leaders and to welcome it into the fold as a member of our mighty Greater Korean Republic. The craven and cowardly U.S. military is broken and scattered, and today we meet one isolated pocket of resistance in battle, to crush these American dogs against this pastoral farmland – to strike a blow that will bring them one step closer to their final surrender.

They fight with the fury of a cornered animal, but we fight more fiercely still, capturing their strategic objectives and driving them back to a storage facility, where they make their last stand amongst silos meant to hold crops and grains. They are well-fortified, and we make little progress. One soldier in particular kills many of my comrades on his own, and he is marked a priority threat. Our wise commander gives me a personal mission to hunt this soldier down and eliminate him – a chance to win honor and glory. I follow my orders to this foe’s approximate location, trusting in my superior training and skill. I know he’s around here somewhere; I raise my rifle to my shoulder, preparing to fire at any moment as I round a corner … and come face-to-face with the main cannon of an American tank.

Well, crap. Respawn in 5, 4, 3 …

There’s no denying that Kaos Studios’ Homefront is an ambitious title. With a near-future speculative fiction concept – the United States invaded and occupied by a resurgent North Korea – the game’s single-player campaign (as our own Steve Butts checked out back in November) aims to uncomfortably and emotionally involve the “human cost of war,” Homefront creative director Dave Votypka told The Escapist. But the modern military shooter is an increasingly crowded market dominated by the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield – games that are sold primarily on the strength of their multiplayer. If Homefront can’t compete with the big dogs on that turf, it won’t succeed.

At a THQ press event set to strut the game’s multiplayer stuff, the Kaos team was out to prove that Homefront could do just that. And you know what? They just might be right.

There are two well-thought-out systems in Homefront that might well allow it to stand with the major players, but we’ll come to those in a moment. In contrast to (largely) infantry-only affairs like Call of Duty, Kaos and THQ are betting that players want to blow things up with tanks as well as on foot. “Right now, large-scale multiplayer warfare” – that is, multiplayer putting all the tools of war (infantry, tanks, jeeps, helicopters, drones, air strikes etc.) in players’ direct control – “is really only being done by the Battlefield games,” said Votypka. Homefront is looking to change that.

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One thing that the team always found lacking in Battlefield-type games, says Votypka, was the first-come-first-served nature of the game’s vehicles that encouraged competition within a team rather than cooperation. “There’s the runway in Battlefield games where the planes spawn … and everybody’s team-killing each other to try to get to it. Those problems have been around for a long time, so we thought, ‘let’s try to address that.'”

Enter Homefront‘s first key system: Battle Points (BP), which are credits that a player earns by carrying out any action that’s beneficial to the team. Kill an enemy soldier? BP. Avenge a friendly death, or contribute to a kill? BP. Capture or defend an objective? Here, have some BP. The points serve as a temporary in-match currency (they vanish when the current game is over) with which players can purchase items or vehicles. Since you choose your available items beforehand – I’m going to give this class the option of getting body armor or a radar-scanning personal drone – it strikes a nice balance between the customizable loadouts of Call of Duty and the buy-your-weapons-every-round of CounterStrike.

It gives players a more tangible benefit to helping the team instead of more nebulous “experience” like you’d find in COD. “We don’t want it to be ‘you captured that point, have experience,'” said THQ VP Danny Bilson, “[It’s] ‘you captured that point, have a tank!'” What’s more is that it gives players a very interesting spend-or-save choice to make. Do you want to spend a small amount of BP now for some body armor to make you more durable, wait a little bit more for a remote-control helicopter drone that fires missiles, or forego all of these in hopes that you can save up enough points to hop into an M1 Abrams tank?

When you have enough cash to buy the tank (or the Apache helicopter), you’ll instantly spawn in it: There’s no worry that your teammates will hijack your well-earned engine of destruction, solving the Battlefield dilemma. You also have the option of instantly spawning in the gunners’ chair of a vehicle, which means less time waiting to find a vehicle with an available seat – or, on the other side, less time riding around feeling vulnerable because nobody’s watching your six.

Homefront‘s BP also make it so that newer players can still appreciate the fun of COD-style killstreak bonuses. In Black Ops, I need to be very good (or very lucky) to call in an air strike. In Homefront, I can do the same if I help the team and save up my points. You don’t even need to be the fastest shooter, either – one of the remote-control drones is an aerial quadrotor with a camera that acts as a recon unit. You target-paint enemy units, and everyone on your team can see where they are for a limited time, giving them information that can help them deal with snipers, campers, or avoid ambushes. If one of your teammates kills a target you’ve marked, you get a BP bonus yourself – it’s a great way to help with information control without it being entirely passive like in other games.

While the Battle Points system is a great addition to the game and the genre, it’s hard to say it feels particularly new – rather, it just feels like the natural progression of similar features in other modern military shooters. At last week’s press event, THQ and Kaos unveiled the second of the two key systems I mentioned earlier: the Battle Commander (BC).

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Unlike what the name might suggest to some people, the Battle Commander is not a player promoted to armchair general, but an AI system that identifies players that are doing well and gives them special missions. A sniper who has taken out three enemies without dying – or a recon drone pilot who has target-painted six foes without being shot down – will be given a “one-star” rating, a special mission to complete (kill three more enemies, identify six more targets), and a minor buff to help them do this (faster reload time, or a refilled battery life on the drone). When you complete your mission, you get a chunk of BP as a bonus, a two-star rating, another buff and another mission. Complete that mission, earn a three-star rating, so on and so forth.

However, the moment your friendly Battle Commander identifies your superior performance and gives you that one-star mission, the enemy Battle Commander will do the same. “Hey,” it will say to one or two enemy players, “There is an enemy player/drone/vehicle that’s messing up our team. Here’s a mission to take him out.” They’ll be given your general location, and if they can bring an end to your reign of supremacy, they’re the ones who will earn the BP reward. Like in GTA, the higher your rating the more danger you’re in – while two enemies might be after you at one star, you’ll have four assigned to hunt you down at two stars. By the time you manage to reach a five-star rating, the entire enemy team will be told to find you, hunt you down, and eliminate you.

Simply put, it’s brilliant. I spent all of the day playing Homefront‘s multiplayer not just because I was supposed to for work, but because I wanted to – and it was this (and the BP system) that kept me coming back. It takes large-scale, 32-player battles and gives it a more personal flavoring, particularly when you’re the hunter: I am going to find this S.O.B. and take him out. What’s more, is that it can reward newbies as well as veteran players. If you’re the hardcore player who earns a four-or-five-star rating, you feel like a big shot for getting the entire enemy team on your tail. But if you’re the neophyte who won’t ever get the kill streak – but you still manage that one moment of luck – then that victory (and chunk of BP) is your own personal triumph.

The gunplay works well, though it seems to lack the customization seen in Black Ops. The vehicles are fun – I had some incredibly intense helicopter vs. helicopter dogfights – and I enjoy how they’re tied to spawning and the BP system. We only saw four maps – a farm complex, a wrecked interstate overpass, and two maps set in heartland-esque suburbia (one of which was Xbox 360 exclusive) – but they all seemed to be well laid-out if they weren’t particularly varied.

I have no idea how well the game will hold up in prolonged play or how gamers will respond when it hits stores March 8th. But from what I saw, Homefront‘s multiplayer is solid enough to stand with the best of its contemporaries.

Also, I was awesome enough at flying the recon drones to earn a five-star rating – and won a real-life RC replica of the quadrotor of my very own from THQ (still waiting for it in the mail, guys). Just putting that out there. Yeah, I’m pretty awesome.

Homefront is out on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on March 8th in North America, March 10th in Australia, and March 11th in Europe.

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