If you know its background story you also know that Homefront: The Revolution is a game that's had a quite disruptive development process.
Originally developed by THQ, after that company's close the game was bought by Crytek. When Crytek, in turn, had to close down its game studio Crytek UK (formerly Free Radical Design) last year, the development had to undergo yet another change as Deep Silver (part of Koch Media) took over and a game studio of fifty people, named Dambuster Studios, was formed.
Homefront was a mixed bag. An ambitious concept and interesting multiplayer jostled with halfway decent visuals and conservative combat. It was not the Battlefield killer that many had hoped for.
The sequel is something completely different. The narrow hallways have completely been removed to give way to an open world where the ultimate goal is to allow the player to feel like a small part of the nightmare scenario of a United States in control by North Korea.
In Nottingham at Dambuster Studios before Gamescom kicks off proper, we get the chance to experience new direction first-hand. This demo version is the same being shown on the floor of Cologne, and allows us to catch a glimpse of the open game world, its structure and inhabitants.
The game map is limited to an area Dambuster choose to call "Our Syria". This is part of the game's Red Zone. Here, the player is shot at from a distance, so smart planning is crucial for navigating the dirty and heavily bombed terrain.
Philadelphia is a dark place in Homefront: The Revolution. Dark, dense and threatening. We get a briefing on how the graphics engine CryEngine works on the night and day cycle, how individual raindrops fall and gradually form puddles on the ground (which then slowly dry in the sun) and how the atmosphere is created by several layers of shading techniques and believable lighting. The atmosphere is impressive, even at this stage in development, and it is easy to see how much thinking goes into creating even the smallest of details.
We begin with an automatic weapon in our hands and looking round in order to scout our surroundings - patrolling guards seem to be just about everywhere. Proved twenty seconds later when we stumble into a firefight that doesn't go our way as we collide with a convoy. Second time round, we make for a nearby apartment and kill two guards several meters below us. We feel we've got a handle of things. This proves untrue.
"As in any other sandbox game, the player has a choice - always. If there's too much heat on you, you can just leg it out of there," explains Hasit Zala, studio head for Dambuster Studios. It turns out to be a good strategy. Homefront: The Revolution is challenging.
We die, die and die. This was an obvious choice from the start by Dambuster Studios, with the motivation that players today appreciate adventures like Dark Souls and the challenge it brings. In Homefront we are supposed to feel insecure, vulnerable. A few bullets can easily kill the player, which means that the use of smart protection, right choice of weaponry and taking advantage of verticality is critical for survival.
Most important, however, is to learn how to use the guerrilla tactics available. After a while, we learn that the key to success lies in modifying our weapons through a familiar menu that is borrowed from Crysis. Zala explains how this evolved: "Any good guerrilla fighter will want to improvise with his weaponry and therefore, we developed the idea of modifying the weapons. All basic weapons can then be modified into these very specific weapon types." At the same time, he shows how the standard machine gun instead turned into a violently efficient mortar that wrecks armoured cars without any real effort.
This is a very useful tactic when we sit down again with the controller. Drones are now falling from the sky and the armoured vehicles chasing us are not as great a threat anymore. The shotgun becomes a favourite as, after modification, enemies can be set on fire.
These upgrades are awarded to the player by blueprints can be found scattered around Philadelphia or earned by completing missions.
We get clear vibes of Far Cry 3 in the way the weapons behave, but also because of the structure of the game world. We take over bases and we're told that radio towers can be climbed in order to discover new parts of the environments and unlock various equipment. As in that game, an arrow reveals whether you are close to being discovered by an enemy, and you can, if you wish, choose to keep a low profile at any given time.
Again - it is important to choose your battles carefully when the enemy is always greater and stronger. A gloomier and tougher game than Ubisoft Montreal's sun-drenched third, but still the game that it can best be likened for pure gameplay.
Several different types of vehicles will also be included in the game. In this demo, we only got to try the vehicle that will be used the most during the game - the motorcycle. It quickly turns out that the driving behaviour is not impressive (at all) and to navigate the tricky terrain is a pure pain. Why Dambuster chose to show this clearly unfinished part of the game feels a bit odd considering how good the rest actually works. Of course, it should be mentioned that this is an early version, which also manifests itself in a lot of bugs, jerky animations and voice-overs that haven't been recorded by the right cast of actors yet. The ambition is obvious and the gaming world looks and feels very well made, but the shortcomings are visible at this point.
Playing Homefront: The Revolution is to forget the disappointment that was the first game. Just like lead designer Fasahat Salim says, this has nothing in common from a gameplay standpoint. The inventive playfulness of the dark battlefield will make this a popular sandbox. We also believe that the idea of an open world will work successfully together with the game's grim vision of the future and we like the idea of splitting Philadelphia into different zones.
We didn't get the chance to play the coop-mode, which will be treated as a separate part to the main adventure. From what we've seen so far, we've confidence that this will be a nice addition. We personally hope that the finished game doesn't offer all types of weapons at the game's start, but instead let the first hours move forward at a slower pace, where the player, for instance, only has access to a knife. If Homefront: The Revolution can plant this sense of total vulnerability and then gradually let the numbers of weapons grow alongside movement of The Resistance, we think Dambuster has something going on.