What We Already Know:
At the Director’s Guild Theater in Manhattan more than 50 members of the mostly European gaming press listened to THQ’s vice president of core games Danny Bilson pose this weird scenario. What would happen if North Korea invaded the U.S. in 2027? Poor, isolated, embargoed-to-the-max North Korea? Such is the seemingly unbelievable trope within New York-based Kaos Studios’ Homefront, a first-person shooter which will be released early next year.
What We're Seeing Now:
In a brief interview, Kaos design director David Votypka said that Bilson brought to the project one of the finest storytellers from the film industry, Apocalyspe Now writer John Milius. Milius fleshed out the story, cut-scenes and scenarios that the studio has been working on for three years now. “He sees how games have progressed since he worked on Medal of Honor: European Assault. And he likes what he sees.” Right now, the result seems to be a human drama within a tightly-produced FPS that moves forward with the varied human emotion of Heavy Rain or Red Dead Redemption.
But there’s still that pesky suspension of disbelief. How could North Korea bring a country as influential and powerful as the U.S. to its knees? At first blush, that’s about as implausible as a game like this causing an international crisis between the U.S. and North Korea. To explain the story, THQ’s consultant and Southeast Asian expert Tae Kim was brought onstage and a slideshow commenced.
Here’s how Kim explained the great rise of the small communist country. First, North Korea, through Kim Jong Il’s charismatic son, convinces the South to become one united Korea again in the name of peace. Strengthened by a more agile armed force, Korea annexes Japan. Soon, much of Southeast Asia becomes part of the Korean empire. As the fictional scenario progresses, a satellite-enabled electromagnetic pulse disables communication for much of the United States.
Using a classic Trojan Horse ploy, massive cargo ships supposedly bearing tens of thousands of U.S. nationals -- long imprisoned throughout Southeast Asia -- arrive on the West Coast. As the ships are embraced with open arms on these shores, out march the Koreans to take over San Francisco. To make matters worse, the U.S. is felled by a massive flu epidemic which kills millions, so much so that the population in 2027 is less than it is today.
There's every reason to be skeptical of the logic behind these events. Thankfully, the proof was in the pudding. When chapter two of the single-player game was demoed, there were three important moments that led me to believe their scenario wasn’t as far-fetched as it first sounded.
In Homefront you meet a macho character somewhat like Sarge in Halo. Yes, you wonder if you’re in for another clichéd melodrama where story isn’t important -- especially when he spews the worn-out “Failure is not an option.” But there’s a hint that there’s more depth to him in the coming chapters. And when you see the stalwart Rianna, who starts out as a tough military gal, completely break down during the fog of war, you feel you’re meeting characters that you might not be able to easily stereotype.
Another reason this world could work is that there’s a subplot off the grid, in a small, dingy home and yard. A dusty pinwheel weakly spins in the breeze. A cranky, paranoid cuss believes you plan to steal his goats. Two innocent kids sleep fitfully by the fireplace.
Plus, the raging fire in a Lumber Liquidators and Hooters parking lot due to a massive phosphorous weapon is a scene of awesome terror. You believe in the danger of this blaze in the same way you believe the fire upon the black water outside of the downed plane at the beginning of BioShock. Here’s where shooting makes sense, not just to up your score and finish the level, but to protect yourself and your friends. In other words, there’s an emotional need here beyond the yearning to see who’s going to shoot at you next.
How do you know this will work? You don’t -- yet. What game companies do that film and music companies don’t often do is to tease you mercilessly with snippets along the way during the production cycle. If you saw the Homefront demo at E3 last year, you thought this game might be something. And if you saw the demo at the Director’s Guild Theater, you would be more confident in saying the game looks great and just might play very nicely. One nice detail was with the weapons, in that they might not always work perfectly when picked up. To give the weapons a real-world feel, a scope atop a long-used gun might have a crack in it, for instance.
Even though Kaos’ demo was unplayable by the press, there is something about the plot setup that sticks with you. When you see those ragamuffins in sleeping bags snuggling by the fire, you just know there’s going to be an engaging mission where you have to protect their lives. Even more important than the single-player campaign is multiplayer, which was notably absent from the event. That’s another significant snippet to be divulged later. All Votypka would say is, “There is a very fractured U.S. government and military in the year 2027. That’s explored in the multiplayer games.”
So there are some big "ifs." If, once you get your hands on Homefront, the gameplay is tight and the characters and shooting feel real, and if they can make the multiplayer aspect equally engaging and human as the single-player game, THQ just might have themselves a winner. The Call of Duty space is one that’s saturated with games, but THQ certainly believes in Homefront as one of their biggest releases for next year -- and perhaps beyond. They’re already planning downloadable content and a sequel.
Harold Goldberg is writing All Your Base Are Belong To Us, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, for Random House, due out in February, 2011.