We haven't swung the high-concept bat around here for a while, so how about this: Half-Life 2 meets Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. Valve's love of first-person storytelling, high-end graphics and mysterious military occupation, and Ubisoft's love of near-future weaponry, remote-control UAVs and current-day politics stretched to a fictional extreme. Kaos Studios' Homefront will have to go an enormous way to live up to that billing - and the developers aren't so immodest as to refer to either chart-topper when I visit - but the parallels are all there on the surface.
Set 20 years in the future, Homefront dumps you in Montrose, Colorado in a ramshackle, makeshift village of refugees fleeing an improbable North Korean occupation of the US. With a 10-year-long energy crisis in full effect, the Korean People's Army, thanks to mysterious and untold backing, has crushed its neighbour to the south and struck out for new territory, leaving you to pick through the rubble and feed off the droplets of water and electricity accumulated by windmills, aquifers, turbines and solar panels. Your identity isn't clear yet (although you're referred to as Connor Mason - "but he's on the list!"), and you're not helped to any conclusions by your lack of spoken dialogue in the first-person, in-game cut-scenes that establish the demonstration level's setting.
But you are quickly impressed by Kaos' application of Unreal Engine 3. Waking up in a suburban family house pocked with holes and tears, you catch a glimpse of windmills outside through the ceiling rafters as you sit up and take in a room full of plants - in pots, buckets and even shopping trolleys. "Good, I thought we lost you," says a khaki-clad man in the middle of the room, whose gaze and head movements follow you around. "They're going to be coming for us. We need to get everyone moving." You follow him outside, where people are packing up to do just that. A woman walks past with a baby in her arms. "Honestly, if we just landed in one place for more than a few weeks, then we could make a life out here," says your new friend.
And then, as promised, they do come for you, and equipped with an adaptive carbine rifle (ACR), you rush outside to meet them. The transition from walk-and-talk to run-and-gun is abrupt, but coherent, and the atmosphere around the previously peaceful streets is suddenly as oppressive as anything in Call of Duty 4. You duck behind cover and pop up to fire with tight iron sights, reminiscent of Killzone 2, as KPA troops leap out of Jeeps and respond. You stop and throw a grenade at a machinegunner in the rafters of a nearby building, and drones fly overhead. Turning your attention back to the battle, an RPG hits a cover point just in front of you and the sound gets muffled, the graphics saturated. When it wears off, your character reaches for his ACR again and resumes.
Your objective is simple: get across the street and activate something called "Goliath". Achieving it is rather less simple, because the KPA have you pinned down. Fortunately, you get your own RPG and fire it at an incoming truck, which bounces towards you in flames, forcing you to dodge right into the safety of the target house. Here you find the controls for Goliath. "Goliath's in the back garden, it'll rip through the house!" Sure enough. Goliath, it turns out, is a remote-controlled war buggy reminiscent of the Tumbler Batmobile, and attacks things that you identify with a laser designator, rumbling over car wrecks and anything else in the way. By the time the level finishes a minute or so later, it's done a lot of damage.
Pretty, confident and action-packed, the Homefront demo nevertheless makes a rather generic first impression. But speaking to lead designer Erin Daly fills in a lot of the blanks, and puts other elements in a different context. That bit where you shoot the truck with an RPG, for instance, and it bounces towards you, is part of what Kaos refers to as the "drama engine". "The way that works is, basically, wherever you are in that scenario, you blow up that Jeep and that wreckage is going to track towards the player," says Daly. "You're not always going to be in the same spot, so if you're 10 metres to the left and you blow that thing up you're still going to have to dodge it within a couple of seconds." Another example is incoming enemy attacks: your squad-mate might get an order from the drama engine to spin around and brutally kill someone who's running towards you so he's cut down before you can react, but in enough time to see it unfold.
What's more, there's a definite logic behind these scripted events. One example in the current demo is the incoming RPG round, and the groggy, Saving Private Ryan aftermath. As THQ's Sean Dunn puts it, "it's not going to do that while you're looking the other way". Nor will each event be obligatory, tying you to a particular location until you hit the right mark to enable the next set-piece. "It's a completely tunable logic system," says Dunn, "so we don't want it to be where the drama engine controls the pace. It's there to enhance the player's visual take on the world and the action."
The Goliath, meanwhile, reflects Kaos' interest in the future of weaponry. Like Frontlines: Fuel of War, the New York developer's last game, Homefront's arsenal is a mixture of present-day equipment and things we're expecting to see soon. "We work with Richard Machowicz from Future Weapons, and he helped us with a lot of the finding out stuff that's in prototype right now and expected to go into development," says Daly. You'll also take control of various drones, and there are vehicles and aircraft to pilot directly elsewhere in the campaign.
Despite Kaos' interest in modern warfare (if not Modern Warfare), Homefront's focus on direct action and set-pieces precludes certain things, so there's no specific squad or cover system (Daly says both slowed the pace too much), although you do have comrades in arms and you can take advantage of natural cover (or unnatural, if you want to use the Goliath as a rolling barrier). The same is true of destruction. "We looked at a lot of options there and we found that when we had too much destruction in the game it kind of removed a bit of the gameplay, because those key sight-lines and cover opportunities become invalidated," says Daly. "So our approach here is that we don't destroy much of the structure of the world, but we still have a lot of flavoured destruction."
Your colleagues' AI should allow for some loose collaboration, too. "We've just actually been working on this one section where your squad-mates tell you how to use a pin-and-pass technique, where they draw the fire of the sentry tower and give you an opening to run up to the next piece of cover, and then do a kind of leapfrog approach," says Daly. "It's not like these guys are just there to provide gunfire; they're there to tell you exactly how to accomplish these objectives and what's going on in the world."
At the other end of the sights, enemy AI is still in-progress, but Daly's adamant that there will be plenty of variety. Along with the basic grunts and superior KPA troops, for instance, there are the Korean elites, the 718s, who use more aggressive flanking and cover tactics, and use drones against you. "I've actually just been working with the design team to cull the list of threat types down because we had so many and it felt like we needed to focus a bit more," he says. You certainly won't be fighting the same guys level after level.
That progression will be backed up by an evolving storyline that puts some faces to the occupation's backers, and Daly reveals that John Milius (Apocalypse Now) is working as a story consultant. "He comes down to our studio every month or so and we do a meeting with him where we run through our outline, and he gives us a lot of feedback on structure, characters, the pacing. He's a great military historian, so he'll say, 'here's how a resistance would really plan this operation', and give you a lot of specific details that add that authenticity to it." "He'll be definitely involved in the dialogue as well," adds Dunn. "He's perfect for this kind of setting and drama. Milius has written some of the great lines of all time - 'Charlie don't surf', 'I love the smell of napalm in the morning', the Dirty Harry stuff..."
Then, of course, there's the prospect of multiplayer. As with Frontlines, Kaos is promising large-scale battles taking in all sorts of vehicles, and the player count is likely to be well north of what's typical (Frontlines supported 50 players, of course). "We like the intensity and fast-paced gameplay you get in tight infantry shooters," says Daly. "You find you play a game like Battlefield or Frontlines and you get these really long sight-lines and long run distances and stuff and the pacing just drops down quite a way, so we figured out a lot of interesting systems with spawning, with progression, with just our layouts in the environment, to give this kind of interesting mix of the two - large-scale and fast-paced." How about co-op? "We won't be doing co-op in the campaign, but there's a lot of interesting elements in the multiplayer."
One thing that is noticeably absent though is a simultaneous PC launch. There will be a PC release, but Kaos says it will ship after the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. "The question is just making sure we get the logistics worked out there," says Daly, who backs up his enthusiasm with a reminder that Kaos' background is in PC mods like Battlefield 2's Desert Combat. Sean Dunn gives a more measured publisher response: "trying to do them at the same time, it's just extremely difficult, especially when you go for different control schemes, and balance in multiplayer, and connectivity and all these things," he says. "So the idea is we don't want a port of a PC game, and nor do we want a PC version that's a port of a console game."
For now, the results are somewhere in-between: watching Homefront play out on an Xbox 360 debug unit and a massive plasma screen, it delivers the visual acuity and in-body oppressiveness of top-end PC shooters, with the set-piece swagger of their bazillion-selling console alternatives - and there's even more promise in the things we're told about but not yet shown. If it comes together, Homefront could deliver on the promise of Frontlines, and even establish its own berth in the X meets Y template of lazy preview introductions. Well find out in 2010.
Homefront is due out simultaneously for PS3 and Xbox 360, probably next year, with a PC version also planned.