Crytek has finally revealed what it's doing with Homefront, THQ's last stab at a big-budget shooter: it's turning it into a free-roaming guerilla warfare FPS. On first impressions, it's like Homefront meets Far Cry, set in a future Philadelphia dotted with encampments of Korean occupying forces to be photographed with smartphone cameras and disrupted with guns and explosives.
The original Homefront, according to pretty much everybody who worked on it, had one of the most tortured development cycles of the last console generation. It killed off Kaos Studios in the end, and honestly the final product was hardly worth the years of hardship. Homefront was a deeply average shooter with a compelling premise, one of those games that really could have been something. Fighting in an America under military occupation, with tattered flags flying in bombed-out suburban backyards and North Korean militia shooting people in the streets, is still a relatively novel idea.
What the original Homefront did with this idea was make an FPS that made you wait for other adults to do things like open doors for you and contained an actual QTE prompt that read "Press X to jump in mass grave". What Crytek is doing with it is more interesting. It's creating a free-roaming FPS in a large city, where you play a civilian member of the resistance rather than an ex-soldier. You don't have big guns (not at the beginning, at least), you don't have solider pals to shoot Koreans with. You have bricks and a hacked smartphone and some bolt cutters, and you're fighting back against overwhelming military might.
"Initially when THQ still owned the licence, we were working on [Homefront] under a different guise," Crytek producer David Stenton tells me. "Back then it was more corridor-shooty, a bit more like Crysis 2 - linear-ish, but a fairly open - that's what it looked like under THQ. Then when we acquired the rights to it, we took it off in the direction it's going now, which is much more of a free-roaming sandbox FPS."
Homefront: The Revolution's Philadelphia is appropriately nightmarish, a twisted and ruined version of the place where American independence was born. Flying drones patrol the decimated streets from above, zooming down on troublemakers and potential troublemakers, scanning with a blue mechanical eye that turns red when it spots dissent. The Korean military is never far away from them. Occupied Philadelphia still looks war-torn, almost post-apocalyptic save for the giant screens erected above the city, which exclusively show Korean propaganda. Homefront: The Revolution is PC/Mac/Linux, Xbox One and PS4 only, and technically impressive, but there's also a military-dystopian art style at work here that gives it visual character.
It's playable either solo or in four-player co-op - unlike The Division, it's not online-only. In a ten-minute chunk of co-op gameplay, I'm shown a guerilla strike on a Korean encampment at the centre of a civilian part of the city, beginning in a resistance-run molotov factory deep underground. It shows impressive flexibility when it comes to tactics and options; I'm reminded of an assault on one of the larger pirate bases in Far Cry 3.
The lead character is called Ethan Grady, and the idea is that he's just one of many ordinary men and women fighting back against the occupation. Taking on military encampments is generally not a good idea unless you're extremely well-prepared, Stenton advises me. "You don't have equivalent military firepower. You start off under the boot of the KPA and later on, as you unlock more possibilities, you can customise your playstyle a little bit more. You're growing the resistance yourself. There's an implicit interplay between the story and your own actions. It's a free roam environment, so we're spending a lot of time on attention to detail and giving the player options across the board - options for combat, options not to start combat, choosing what to take on and when."
A stolen smartphone loaded with resistance-coded apps lets you scan whichever area of the city you're in for security cameras, drones and Korean military personnel, and that information both feeds back into the resistance database and lets you plan guerilla attacks. After sneaking around security cameras and dispatching two isolated militiamen guarding some resistance prisoners, our demo-player finds a cache of explosives and other useful stuff in an abandoned building. There's a lot of ducking behind and under things to avoid the cold mechanical eyes of the drones. As a guerilla fighter it's all about striking fast and blending back into the city, almost Assassin's Creed-style (without the climbing superpowers).
Interestingly, weapons are customisable on the fly - you can add and remove components of your base weapons to add scopes, change the firing rate and so forth. There's a big emphasis on using what you've got to cobble together weapons, making bombs out of chemicals and cobbling together molotovs and, in this case, strapping explosives to an RC car to infiltrate and blow up a military encampment.
The demoer quietly approaches the base, his three companions watching from other angles. Using the explosive-rigged RC car, he drives in underneath a military vehicle and causes an explosion, at which point all hell breaks loose. Civilians are swarming all over the place, trying to get out of the line of fire as the Korean military opens fire and the four players fire back.
I sense there's an interesting opportunity here to explore the concept of collateral damage in guerilla warfare: in a violent revolution the populace always suffers. Sadly, it seems that Crytek isn't enormously interested in this facet of armed resistance. "We're not focusing too much on the politics, or delving too far into the civilian aspect," says Stenton, disappointingly. "In the unfinished game at the minute you actually can't injure civilians at all.
"At some point we'll probably take the bull by the horns and decide which way to go with that, it's not plausible that we'll release the game with no civilian damage at all, but it's not integral to the experience. If we wanted to go down that route, it would be something we'd want to weave tightly into the game systems, cause and effect - that's not something we're doing at the moment."
Oh well. I suppose Homefront: The Revolution won't be going full Spec Ops: The Line on us. It seems like a wasted opportunity to me at this stage, but there's always the possibility that the final game will find the bravery to tackle the issue.
The problem with video game revolutions is that you always feel part of someone else's revolution. Games like the original Homefront and the execrable Saboteur take a guerilla resistance and make you an errand boy along for the ride, blowing things up and shooting baddies on command. Crytek hasn't shown off all that much, but it looks like Homefront: The Resistance might not do that. It might actually let you define your own uprising to an extent, and let you do things other than shooting. It would be a welcome change.
Keza MacDonald is Kotaku UK's Editor, currently working through a debilitating addiction to FTL on the iPad. Follow her on Twitter, if you're into that.