With THQ's assets siphoned off to different publishers as the company fell apart, there was opportunity to take a known name and freely reconfigure it to a new vision and direction. A rare opportunity in a market where most licences cling to the familiarity of what's sold well before to avoid loosing any future profits.
But with most games purchased safely nearing release, only three titles from THQ's portfolio were between active development to offer any buyer the chance to so freely tinker with them. We expect word of Darksiders' return imminently, while Red Faction as we know it may disappear as a relic of the old generation. That leaves Homefront.
Homefront was THQ's gamble at securing their own Call of Duty or Battlefield. A huge marketing push and media buzz fizzled upon release. The 2011 title propositioned an alternate near-future, in which North Korea successfully invaded and occupied North America, years before Call of Duty clutched at a similar concept of home invasion to inject fresh ideas to its own single player campaigns. Yet the shortness of Homefront's own campaign, and the overfamilarity of the first-person shooter gameplay with little distinction from its peers, saw it disappear into bargain bin obscurity long before THQ imploded.
Talk of a sequel though wasn't new. THQ confirmed it was in the works even before the first title was released, THQ's Danny Bilson stating back in 2010 that it would "take place on the other side of the Mississippi - nobody knows what's going on over there because the North Koreans have irradiated the Mississippi with radioactive iodine and nobody can cross it without a hazmat suit. It's very interesting stuff". With original team Kaos Studios shuttered by THQ, development duties were passed on to Crytek in 2011.
"It's really important to us that THQ has the faith in giving us a lot of creative freedom over one of its most important properties," Cevat Yerli, Founder, CEO and President of Crytek, "to allow us to bring the Homefront world to life in a new and innovative way."
With THQ breaking apart shortly after, Crytek purchased the licence wholesale, and things went quiet. Until today. Or more precisely, last week, when Deep Silver invited press to a pre-E3 event, where it was reveal they were the new publishers for Crytek's new vision for the series - subtitled The Revolution - and the 'new and innovative' Homefront was shown in demo form by members of Crytek UK (formerly Free Radical), who are developing the game for a 2015 release on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Mac.
The team have kept much of the backstory of the world - North Korea invades and successfully occupies North America - but flashed forward four years and shifted location from Colorado to Philadelphia, and perspective from army vet to ‘the everyman', as the city's populace slowly mounts a grass-roots resistance against its occupiers. One can only assume the Mississippi angle became a creative dead end with the handover between studios.
It's still a first-person adventure, still mostly focused on using guns for survival. But what really headlines this reintroduction to the world is the approach Crytek UK is taking to the game design: large sandbox environments that can be freely explored solo or with three friends in co-op. An on-screen map gives a hint as to thick labyrinth of streets that you're allowed to range across, escape down, hide in. Exploration doesn't immediately equal firefight. Keeping your weapon holstered and activities non-threatening will let you explore these locations, profiling KPA-held stations, tag security cameras and work out patrol routes as you mingle with civilians going about their day.
This isn't a corridor shooter, and trigger pulls are the end game of a much larger play. This is guerrilla warfare; ambushing and infiltration are as important to survival. Appropriating a smartphone from the resistance allows you scan each area for dangers and mark them on your HUD and map, while breaking into storage rooms undetected allows you to scavenge household items and gun parts to craft makeshift weapons and customise rifles.
The best toys are behind enemy security gates, guarded by soldiers. Sneaking around them is necessary when they can call a district's worth of tanks and attack helicopters to your location if they spot you doing something illegal. But as the game progresses you'll establish safe houses and bases in which to pull bigger and better arsenal from.
In the demo we watch as part of Deep Silver's pre-E3 presentation, our character manufactures a toy car bomb, remotely controlling it to drive it between shadows and park up under a newly arrived patrol convoy at a KPA station. The car's detonation signals to our three other comrades (this PS4 build simulating co-op partners for the sake of the demonstration) to attack the station from their hidden locations to either side of its entrance. We unholster our rifle, and join in the fracas.
It's a short, but visually impressive demo, not unexpected given its being built on the CryEngine, and we're reminded more of Ubisoft's The Division in style more than anything. The rain-soaked streets give way to a washed-out wasteland as we travel underground and pop out into the one of the Red Zones, heavily-devastated areas that honeycomb the city, as the demo ends. The city's not completely open from the beginning, and it's better to think of it as a group of interconnected sandbox areas rather than one sprawling world, but it's still far from the corridor shooter archetype that many other franchises stick with.
The team talk about this being a reactive occupation, enemy AI responding organically to attacks, and the idea that with missions successfully completed, the city will actively change as the resistance increases - we take this to mean scripted events on the streets, access to better hardware, more areas opening up, as opposed to a percentage meter on a menu gradually increasing. That's not a unique gameplay system; third-person sandbox adventures have been doing it for years, but that doesn't mean Homefront has to be poorer for its inclusion.
With the game scheduled for 2015 on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Mac, we're fully aware this tiny gameplay slice will give way to much more over E3, Gamescom and beyond. It certainly looks the part of a next-gen game, but we need to know its not just a cobbling of old-gen mechanics underneath the skin, and something new. Revolution, rather than evolution.