Preview: Homefront

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To celebrate the opening of THQ Montreal, projected to be the largest studio in the publisher’s system within five years, THQ invited dozens of journalists from around the world to tour the studio and play through the latest build of Homefront. THQ’s upcoming shooter puts players in the boots of an American guerilla, fighting in the resistance movement against a successful North Korean invasion of the United States. The fiction for the game postulates increased North Korean aggression – the team jokes that the current North Korean regime has been “very cooperative” in supporting that image – first against its Asian neighbors and then against the US. Combined with a worsening economic situation in the States, US troops are unable to keep Korean forces from staging a successful invasion. Now it’s up to the player to fight for his homeland.

Though it’s developed by Kaos Studios, the new game displays much of the philosophy that seems to drive the Montreal team. This is a game aimed squarely at the hardcore, with little in the way of concessions for the casual audience. “There’s no room for average games in the world,” the developers told us, and Homefront hopes to stand out on the basis of its compelling story and comfortable shooter gameplay.

The team members hope to focus on the memorable moments that define certain games, but were quick to remind us that “games aren’t driven by story first.” Mechanics must come first, according to the creators in Montreal, and the fiction is just there to “make the mechanics sticky.” More than once, we were told that Half-Life 2 was a particular inspiration in this regard, primarily for the way it allows story and gameplay to occupy the same moment.

To a certain extent, much of the story of the game is just part of the background. The difference between fighting enemy invaders in Colorado and fighting Covenant on Halo or the Taliban in Afghanistan is basically that the billboards are in English rather than alien gibberish or Farsi. But there’s a certain visceral reaction that players will have to seeing more familiar suburban backdrops to these battles. Merely showing the ways that war can damage such a familiar and comfortable setting helps reinforce both the overall purpose and the lingering unease inherent in the premise.

It’s all part of the fundamental teenage fantasy so perfectly captured in John Milius’s script for the film Red Dawn. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising; Milius is also the writer behind this game. On some level, most of us crave the drama (at least in a vicarious or virtual form) of fighting for the places we love. And what’s nearer to our hearts than the America we live in? It offers a ready answer to the question “Why am I shooting these people?”

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Most shooters seem to suggest that the shooting justifies itself, but Homefront tries to place it in a context that provides a persistent motivation that touches the player’s natural patriotism. Though it might be a smaller motivation in the big picture, it’s much more comprehensible to players than the “saving the universe” or “I just hope I don’t die” target that many shooters aim for.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t hit these notes right off the bat. After the player is arrested in his crappy one-bedroom apartment somewhere in Colorado, he has to endure a lengthy bus ride full of war movie clichés that seem designed just to shock. Brains splattering on the window from an execution and a crying baby who watches his parents gunned down on the street corner are just two of the purely visceral, button-pushing moments that game presents. While it may be accurate, there’s no real story context for it, and it seems designed just to make the bad guys so bad that the good guys seem like angels by comparison.

The story really starts to pay off, at least in terms of supporting the gameplay, once you reach the other members of the resistance. Having braved so many firefights and fought your way towards a community of fellow resistors, you’re criticized for bringing unwanted attention on the civilians caught in the middle. It’s a great moment that turns your expectations on their head. Here you’ve been trying to link up with the resistance and, by the mere fact of success, have screwed up the lives of several innocent people. It throws another layer on top of the “Why we fight” question.

Things get even more intense once the inevitable Korean attack comes. You and your fellow freedom fighters take cover in a nearby house as Korean army soldiers and vehicles come racing down the street. The trouble is that the house is occupied by a mother and her crying baby. Having to fight off wave after wave of enemy troops while the baby is constantly crying in the background lends an emotional element to the fight that you just don’t get shooting yet another terrorist in yet another dusty brown village.

Just knowing that you have to keep that mother and baby alive is enough motivation to get me to actually care about the outcome of the battle on a personal level. When combined with the satisfying gameplay, it’s more than enough to get me excited about what Homefront can offer once it’s released next year.

Steve Butts thinks he’s tough for eating beans every day.

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At first, I laughed at the bizarre choice to highlight this fact as a selling point for the game. Hell, PlayStation’s official tweet about it starts off with the words “Two. Discs.” And as someone who’s almost entirely converted to buying their games digitally, I already started to do the mental math on how much storage space I’d need to clear up on my PlayStation 5 in order to make room for a game that stretches across a pair of 100GB discs.