It's been years in the making but Homefront: The Revolution is nearing the end of its gestation period. Developer Dambuster Studios has now begun the beta testing phase, with the first online multiplayer session taking place last weekend. The gaming media were invited along for the ride and first impressions are intriguing: Homefront features a lot of really interesting ideas and there's plenty of potential, but there's clearly a lot of work to be done in polishing up the game in the months remaining before release.
Of course, it's hard to discuss Homefront: The Revolution without taking into account the determination and resolve required to get the game to this point. Despite the limited success of the original Homefront, its publisher - THQ - decided to move forward with a sequel. Development shifted across from Kaos Studios to Crytek, tasking its UK studio (previously known as Free Radical) with the task of developing the sequel for what were then next-gen platforms. After THQ's collapse, Crytek acquired the rights to the whole project, which in turn were sold on to publisher Deep Silver. Crytek UK staff remained onboard, but they too were acquired by Deep Silver as part of the deal, becoming Dambuster Studios.
It's a pretty convoluted scenario then, but the bottom line is this: while the game may carry over the Homefront branding and storyline, this new release shares little in common with its predecessor, with the move to CryEngine opening up many new possibilities for the game. In fact, it takes a more open-ended approach to a KPA-occupied Philadelphia alongside a game design that falls closer into line with the original Crysis, as opposed to the Call of Duty influences that dominated the first Homefront. If everything comes together, this could prove to be an engaging package.
However, based on the beta test code we took a look at, despite the extended development period, a lot more in the way of polish and optimisation is required before Homefront: The Revolution is ready for prime-time. Of course, it's important to remember that work in ongoing and the game isn't set to hit shelves until May, so the team still has plenty of time to tighten up the experience. And unlike many beta releases over the past few years, this feels less like a demo and more like a legitimate information gathering exercise - right now it seems that current issues can be divided into two groups: network performance and graphics performance.
Once you take control it's immediately evident that player movement is quite jerky while animations of both allies and enemies stutter and glitch regularly, and our guess is that many of these issues are the result of network prediction inaccuracies. Networking has never been a strong point of CryEngine but we're hopeful that things can be improved by launch - it's certainly a key area of focus in this beta.
The other issue is perhaps more challenging to overcome: performance. More than any other game we've examined recently, Homefront: The Revolution demonstrates exactly why frame persistence is so important. In its current form, the game runs with a completely unlocked frame-rate and an adaptive v-sync solution that sees tear lines appear along the top portion of the image. The frame-rate averages around 33fps but can range from the low 20s up to the mid-40s at any point. On paper, that might sound pretty decent, but the inconsistent frame persistence combined with the networking issues result in a visibly jerky experience. However, the fact that the frame-rate is averaging above 30fps does at least demonstrate that baseline performance is in the right ballpark - it's a good foundation to build upon as development enters the final straight.
Beyond performance metrics, the game is attractive too - as you would expect from a CryEngine-powered title. It's true that the maps in the beta aren't particularly flashy, but there is plenty of destruction to enjoy, a nice implementation of parallax occlusion mapping on a wide variety of surfaces, and some surprisingly large and detailed maps. As a CryEngine game, you can also expect excellent post-processing and impressive lighting. Resolution in the beta is currently at 900p in common with other CryEngine projects, but again, this could change for the final game. We would not be surprised to see a 1080p/900p split between PS4 and Xbox One, bearing in mind the profile of prior multi-platform CryEngine titles.
So that's where we're at with Homefront: The Revolution right now. Performance needs work on Xbox One but it seems well within the grasp of the game's developer to get this title into shape - and plenty of development time remains. Simply capping the frame-rate at 30fps with no further optimisation would at least lead to a more consistent experience, but hopefully the team at Dambuster can work on eliminating the bottlenecks that see the title dip below the 30fps threshold.
There are grounds for optimism: this beta represents genuine progress compared to the much less stable Gamescom build we sampled last August. Beyond that, all indications suggest that the game's concept and execution are far more interesting and ambitious than the original Homefront ever was. Provided the technical issues we've highlighted can be ironed out, Dambuster Studios and Deep Silver could well have a creditable shooter on their hands and we'll be following its progress with much interest.