Rather than tackle the entire FPS market head on, Nottingham's Dambuster Studios has taken to guerrilla fighting to make its presence felt. These tactics appear to be working, though clearly it won't be an easy fight.
After six hours in the company of Homefront: The Revolution, Gamereactor can report that it is a game that very capably goes its own way. Though the backstory may seem Hollywood preposterous, its narrative execution is compelling. While it's hard not to scoff at the 'back door' that a Korean technology firm supposedly builds into every device from smart phones to helicopters ("They turned off our military with a single button-press"), when it comes to fighting for the freedom of horribly mistreated Americans you'll likely warm to the cause.
What makes Homefront: The Revolution immediately arresting is how it so ruthlessly tosses many traditional FPS tropes out with the trash. You're a freedom fighter, not a super soldier. The game makes it abundantly clear that one man is unable to win a war all by himself, and that directly confronting heavily armed and tech assisted soldiers in the year 2029 is suicide. Though a familiar mission/cut-scene structure remains in place to guide the plot, when you choose to engage the battles are fought tooth-and-nail even on standard difficulty setting.
The Korean-invaded Philadelphia of 2029 is presented as a convincing warzone, divided into three areas: Red, Yellow and Green. The Red Zones are where the action becomes the most gung-ho; where missions are invariably kill or be killed. It's possible to establish and protect rebel safe-houses here to defend home turf. In the Yellow Zones the pacing is much slower-paced and stealth like, where any suspicious action is immediately and forcefully punished by KPA (Korean People's Army) soldiers among the military controlled Philadelphia ghettos. Finally, the Green Zones are where iconic buildings such as Independence Hall have become KPA strongholds upon which to launch well orchestrated assaults, kinda like COD we guess.
It's an open world, almost RPG-like approach that distinguishes Homefront: The Revolution from its contemporaries. In Red Zones especially the game urges players to research their surroundings by hacking enemy transceivers and looting stashes to turn the tide. Success provides more intel, which is used to navigate the maps with greater purpose, highlighting more points of interest which include the whereabouts of motorcycles that can be used to speedily traverse battlefields. Reaching objectives by avoiding firefights goes against the grain of much that we've learned to expect from blockbuster shooters, but it's a recurring theme in Homefront that takes some getting used to. Very much a part of all this is the likelihood that you'll come off worse in any exchange of bullets, unless you've carefully weighed up the consequences of the first action. Randomly opening fire on KPA patrols invites shoot-to-kill retaliation that brings fatal consequences as a harsh lesson learned. Though player death in Homefront isn't rogue-like by any means, it really is best avoided.
And so, rather unusually but potentially smart where Dambuster Studios is concerned, the protagonist feels quite weak. This is a struggle as it ought to be. But that's not to say that your armoury is poor, or that the gunplay isn't satisfying. If anything, the necessity to make every bullet and Molotov Cocktail count places a stronger focus on firearms and the skills required to use them. There is a crafting system for tailoring weapons to suit situational needs, with modifications possible out in the field as long as the components are in your possession. Your standard issue pistol can quickly become a handy SMG, or a Light Machine Gun transformed into an Assault Rifle by switching out certain parts. Gunsmith lockers found at resistance bases offer various sights, muzzle brakes, foregrips and suppressors to further modify your tools of choice. These are obtained in exchange for random resources scavenged from out in the field: wires, power sources, CPUs, nails and old cans... anything you can lay your hands on. This kind of junk is also used to fabricate Molotov Cocktails and pipebombs, however, so there's a trade off to be made. Rooting around for bits and pieces, which entails pressing the action button next to almost any chest of drawers or highlighted object nearby, is surely the most unappealing pastime that Homefront expects from players. On the upside, it becomes a routine that makes you pay attention to the level of detail.
There's plenty of time to admire Dambuster Studios' meticulous approach to world creation during forays into the Yellow Zones, such as Earlston. Here the pace is slowed right down with heavy KPA security monitoring your every move. Civilians are used as cover to move undetected, your identity must remain secret. Any action taken against a KPA operative alerts the entire force, necessitating the use of silent take downs that can be subtle or surprisingly brutal. A crossbow is an elegant solution, though a fallen enemy immediately arouses suspicion. Much more effective is a knife thrust under the chin of a lone guard or KPA official. Mission objectives in the Yellow Zones are geared toward propaganda control and disruption, with a series of tasks listed under Voice of Freedom (find radios), Sabotage (disable power-points), Acts of Liberation (free prisoners from armed guards) and Destroy APCs (personnel carriers that require explosives to take permanently out of action).
It really can be satisfying to find success in the Yellow Zones, hacking terminals to secure each new safe-house - or 'overwatch'. Adding to the intrigue are sub-quests assigned by the safe-houses to earn more credits such as killing a certain amount of KPA with crossbow or shotgun, and generating intel by photographing power generators. It is an experience not very far removed from Assassin's Creed in many ways, with Hide Spots to lose pursuers, and safe-houses becoming locked if the KPA is on global alert. Assassination attempts are aided by causing distractions with firecrackers (which also require scavenging for components), and a small team of AI combatants can be recruited to hopefully watch your back.
Enjoyment of Homefront: The Revolution requires that you take its scenarios very seriously. Its fiction is well wrought, the world and its characters are convincing - even hot-head Dana who's almost stereotypically edgy (tattoos and piercings: check). The daft Korean-tech angle is made up for with understated KPA soldier behaviour. Cut-scenes can be uncomfortable to watch in which despicable bad guys get their comeuppance surprisingly fast. Both there and while in action it isn't possible to drift through Homefront; you are paying close attention. This could prove to be a double-edged sword for a world built upon emergent behaviour.
The sandbox element of Homefront makes you examine the actions of the AI very closely, largely because you need to know the boundaries of what you can get away with. In the stealth sections it occasionally comes up short, piling a never ending procession of alerted guards through the same doorway for example. Sometimes it's just inconsistent: running is less conspicuous than walking? When it comes to your AI buddies recruited in support, they don't appear to have much of a plan, nor can they be given simple orders to attack, defend, spread out or regroup and so on. In the absence of any Player vs. Player modes, believing everything that takes place in Player vs. AI situations is going to be the real battle here, despite the dialogue being so well written ("I thought she was dead... I preferred her when she was dead"). It doesn't help that when you choose to go for a swim, to sneak around the dockyards as we've done many times in similar gaming scenarios, you quickly drown. The crafting idea has great potential, but an entire mission based on finding requisite parts...?
This is not a straightforward FPS, but a realistic game of staying alive to complete objectives. When everything comes together, such as deep into the game where a military compound is traversed by bike, pursued by airships and finding it hard to distinguish between friend or foe in the dusty haze, there is a real sense of panic. You can feel bewildered, but after taking a breath to think, there is a way through.
We'd imagine that being a real resistance fighter isn't at all glamorous, and actually very painful and difficult. Homefront: The Revolution captures the spirit of all this very well, perhaps too well. But only time (and our review) will truly tell.