You'll fight the North Koreans in the parking lot of Home Depot (or of a store that looks just like it). You'll protect your fenced suburban Colorado backyard from Korean eyes in the sky with a canopy of camouflage. Homefront is a game of American fear and American resistance, set on American soil.
I saw this interactive fantasy of an America struggling to rise from its knees last week and left a little uneasy, a lot impressed.
Homefront is a first-person shooter set in 2027 and scheduled for release early next year. It has been crafted to convince us that North Korea could become powerful enough to invade the United States, and it has been designed to make fighting that invader thrilling and fun.
At an event mostly for non-US press at a movie theatre in midtown Manhattan last week, reporters were shown the game. We didn't play it, but we took it in on a big screen. The experience began with an introductory hype reel, a montage of mortifying news bits starting with the recent real life crisis of a purported North Korean attack that sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors. The reel unrolled the nightmare of a defiant North unifying with the South under the son of dictator Kim Jong Il, annexing Japan and Southeast Asia before crossing the Pacific to seize Hawaii and invade the west coast of the United States.
A weakened America, wracked by a second economic downturn and a flu epidemic, could be vulnerable to this attack, we were told. With Europe distracted by a war in the middle east and China preoccupied with its own economic woes, a mighty Korea could assault America. In the Homefront fiction, a Korean satellite zaps an electronics-damaging EMP blast that blacks out the continental US. Accidentally, America welcomes a Trojan horse fleet of ships that contains not foreign nationals but Korean soldiers, the landing force in Hawaii. As the invasion continues, the Koreans even poison the Mississippi, irradiating the river and its surrounding regions, leaving America's east coast cut off from a rampaged west.
Not the most cheerful set-up.
"I'm not here to tell you this could happen," Tae Kim, a "former Agency officer" who consulted with THQ on the game told reporters at this event. "I'm here to tell you that this game, Homefront... it happened."
Kim provided a fake historical lecture, backing up the dark fantasy of Homefront's fiction with the reality of some of the North's real and troubling actions. He wanted to convince his audience, us, that North Korea might be more than the the belligerent but starving struggling state it appears to be in today's real headlines. In little more than a decade, he suggested through his fake history, it could be a viable and encroaching American foe.
If you buy that, at least partially, you'll feel the fear Homefront is designed to evoke. You'll feel the homeland threatened, and you'll get the drive to be an insurgent repelling invaders. This game's a flag-waver.
The urge to resist fuelled portions of two levels we were shown from Homefront. Both were played by a developer on a big movie screen in front of us reporters. The sequences demonstrated the superb graphics engine Kaos is using and the Call of Duty-style flow of the game. This is an adventure set on a linear path of one goal pursued after the next in a fashion that is a little more down to earth than the "James Bond level of insanity" THQ head of hardcore games Danny Bilson said is pursued by the Battlefield and Call of Duty games, the big boys against which Homefront will compete.
The scenario of Homefront is a variation on a familiar concept. The U.S. has been fictionally invaded in the movie Red Dawn, whose screenwriter John Milius, helped pen Homefront. More recently American strip malls were interactively defended from invading Russians in last fall's Modern Warfare 2. In the PlayStation 3's Resistance games, we defend the homefront against aliens. In Homefront we're defending against an enemy we might... we could ... we hopefully wouldn't be merely propagandised to hate.
The first bit of the game we were shown took place in a suburban home. No bullets were fired in this section. We were seeing what the developers describe as a "why we fight" moment, a non-violent opportunity to explore a bit of life in Homefront. We were seeing through the eyes of the game's lead character, a helicopter pilot awakened by a commander of a resistance squad in Montrose, Colorado. The location was a simple house full of people whose lives were upturned by invasion. The back yard was covered in a camouflage canopy. Out we wandered to explore it. It was a lively scene full of people that could be best described as surviving. There was a man at a table tinkering with circuit boards, another dealing with a delicate jar being lifted from a pot of red liquid. There was a person keeping fit on an old stairmaster and kids trying to play on a swing. Inside, some people were still tucked in their sleeping bags set beside a fireplace. This was a hideout, a corner of pre-invasion America from which this pocket of the American insurgency would burst. A map on the wall showed how much of America had already fallen. From here we'd get our next mission.
The home scene was from the game's second level. We then were shown a playable action sequence from later in the game. Our character was participating in a nighttime strike on what looked like a Home Depot store. Korean soldiers patrolled the parking lot. Our guy and a female fighter stood high and to the side of the lot at a sniper's perch. The attack began with the crash of a van through the parking lot's gates, a moment that came closest to making the game's heroes feel like the game's terrorists. The van attack was a distraction. It stirred the soldiers. Next came a "white phosphorus" flare that illuminated the sky and rained a blazing substance onto the soldiers, setting them on fire.
It wasn't clear if the next event was optional, but the person playing the game for us had the main character shoot some of the burning Koreans. These were mercy killings in the context of this game and one of the characters was barking disapproval at our hero for not letting them burn a slow, painful death. Kaos developer Rex Dickson later told me that this conflict - the ethical war between being the better man or acting by any means necessary - is a clash of philosophies embodied by two of the game's main supporting characters throughout the game. "We don't have [your character]take a side," Dickson told me.
Like a god action movie, things blew up fast. Soon, our freedom fighters were in the middle of the lot, gunning for their lives. A helicopter attacked overhead. But nearby was an armoured assault vehicle called a Goliath, which players can use as a devastating extra weapon. In the one demonstrated deviation from standard first-person shooter gameplay, we saw that Goliath commanded into action. At the press of a button, a special visor mode was selected that allowed the Homefront player to laser-tag targets and then watch the Goliath roll in and shoot them to bits.
Everything we saw of Homefront looked detailed and impressive, all very big-budget and rich with colour and activity. The game comes off as very action-movie. It appears to flick at - but doesn't yet seem deeply invested in - the ironies of Americans fighting not against an insurgency, but for the first time since the Revolution, as one. That doesn't rob it of its freshness. It has enough of a twist and taps enough of the anxiety about Kim Jong Il's regime that it feels more emotionally pitched than the average hyped video game. It looks slick as well, a game to watch out for and to look forward to playing. Should it make its players uneasy, perhaps that's for the better.
(One note about multiplayer: It wasn't shown at this event, but the developers said it will depict a less squad-level view of the fight, focusing instead on large-scale warfare, something closer to the design of the multiplayer in Kaos' previous game, Frontlines: Fuel of War.)