FPS titles no longer focus on the single player experience. It’s a sad fact but one that’s becoming increasingly true with the release each new game as the single player lover is left in the dark. The most recent example of the future of single player FPS games was the startlingly short (at 3 hours play-time) single player campaign of the hotly anticipated Homefront. I for one was hugely excited at the prospect of battling against North Korean troops within the US border and for the short time the game did run it was fantastic, yet out of nowhere the curtain was called and I was left wanting so much more. Thankfully though to make up for such a short single player campaign the people behind Homefront chose to invest a huge amount of time into the multiplayer and it’s clear from the beginning that this is the area they feel they can excel. Standing between them and multiplayer dominance though is the – up until now – untouchable Call of Duty series, which now has pretty much every fps enthusiast hooked at one point or another. Trying to break that stranglehold will prove a difficult task, like wrenching a bottle of beer from the hands of an alcoholic, yet it’s a task Kaos Studios seem up to.
As we join up to a server for the first time the familiarity of it all was startling, for a few fleeting seconds it genuinely looked like we had booted up CoD: Black Ops instead of Homefront so similar is the class selection screen. There are six separate classes for players to choose from: Assault, SMG, Heavy, Sniper, Tactical, and Explosive. It’s wise to choose an eclectic mix of classes to complete the team as each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Once players have chosen their selected class they must enter the battlefield of war-torn America, fighting their way through pristine environments against the Korean forces. For those who prefer being the evil aggressors they can become the Korean army, pushing their way into the American mainland.
Players can choose to play either Team Deathmatch or Ground Control. The first of the two game modes is pretty standard where one team must amass more kills than the other in a set time limit. The team with the most kills after 13 minutes (or the first team to reach the 120 kill limit) is crowned champions. The second game mode is slightly more challenging and much more fun. Three objectives are spread out across the map whilst 2 teams of up to 16 players must fight to take control of them, standing in the area in order to declare it yours. The more areas a team has control of, the faster the score bar will fill, once a team has a full score bar they win the round and the objectives change, pushing the other team on the back-foot. The first team to win two rounds win the game. The thing that makes Homefront brilliant though is the emphasis placed on teamwork. Players can earn Battle Points for going on kill streaks or wiping out a particularly nasty opposing threat; however the riches that come from taking control of areas, winning rounds and indeed winning games are far more valuable.
Battle Points can be cashed in throughout the game for upgrades, from things as small as extra armour to remote controlled drones. The more BP’s earned the more kitted out players become, and the bigger asset they become to the team. It is a feature that has made its way into a number of modern day FPS titles but the thing that separates Homefront from the rest is the way in which things are balanced out. Battle Commander, which can be played in either Team Deathmatch or Ground Control, assigns players with specific objectives depending on their in-game level. This means that no matter how good or bad the players is, they will have an objective that will keep them satisfied, be it taking out an enemy drone, target or vehicle. Players who are particularly nasty will find themselves hunted by their opponents thanks to the ‘most wanted’ system introduced. It’s extremely gratifying to see an entire team on the trail of a mercenary whilst he ducks and dives his way through the map. Indeed, for the general public the multiplayer in Homefront is much more exciting and much more fun than its competitors.
The general gamer isnt the only target Kaos are aiming to please though; they are also aiming for the most insufferable of online creatures. The competitive player. Many games developers have gone head to head with the competitive player and almost every one has fallen, left stripped of their pride. It’s a testament to how fussy the competitive FPS player is that the most played and most popular competitive title in the world is over 10 years old and looks like a cross between Lego and GTA III, that is Counter-Strike 1.6.
For years CS 1.6 has been the benchmark for competitive FPS games, yet still nothing has come close to emulating it. The massive fan base are as passionate about their game as the Ultras are about Lazio and until a title comes along that plays as well online they will stick to their guns. It’s not just 1.6 that has such a hardcore fanbase though, it’s every competitive title. Hell even the modern day Counter-Strike title, CS: Source garners hate from the 1.6 community because of how ‘different’ the game is. At the same time CS:S players harbour a hatred for any other FPS title on the market, including the Call of Duty series, a series of titles they see as "easy" and "skill-less". Competitive CoD players on the other hand still play CoD: Modern Warfare, a game released way back in 2007, every other CoD title to come along since has been shunned by the PC enthusiast competitive community.
So for every success in the online multiplayer environment there has been a bunch of failures, the most notable one is the recently released Battlefield: BC2. Developed by Swedish developer DICE the game was tipped as the next big thing in the competitive scene, set to take over from CoD4 and numerous other pretenders. In the build up to the games release various big name organisations found themselves teams willing to play and a number of tournaments chose to pick the game up. The initial signs from the developers were good; hinting that they would be listening to the demands of the competitive scene and doing everything possible to cater to their needs. However it slowly became clear that they were focusing their time and money on other areas, leaving the competitive community in the dark. Since then the Battlefield community has been left wandering, the nomads of the online world without a place to call home; could Homefront offer them that home?
Looking at how things are developing in the early stages that seems entirely possible. Before a game can be taken seriously as a competitive title it must feature a number of basic things. One such thing is Dedicated Servers, something that is an absolute must for hosting competitive games and something that Kaos made happen. Another is having the ability to record demo’s and of course some form of spectator mode – a la Source TV, HLTV etc – another two features that have been introduced to the game whilst the most important feature could quite possibly be the introduction of a LAN mode for localised network play. Even things as simple as a console button are vital elements of competitive play yet many developers tend to forget all about it upon release of their game. So, it has everything required to be a competitive e-sport title, but what methods would players use to play? How will it compare to the likes of CoD4 when stripped down?
Well the most likely of game modes would be ground control, which can be done in "Skirmish" mode, allowing two teams of eight players to battle it out for control of the target areas. It’s a bit different from the usual bomb-plant-defuse game modes most competitive FPS titles feature but it could prove highly entertaining for spectators and players alike. Given the wide spectrum of maps available and the various different classes (of which a class limit would need to be implemented) there is room for a huge number of different strategies and set-ups. Of course, the use of Battle Points in-game would most likely be removed, or at least limited as having air-strikes and drones isn’t really something the competitive player is after. It’s like a fencing match with a samurai instead of an Epee.
The game has already been selected by the ESL – one of the largest tournament/competition providers in the world – to feature in the ESL Amateur Series so the future looks bright for Homefront. It will likely never take over from the two main competitive FPS titles currently on the market in the shape of Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Source as the gameplay and mechanics are so vastly different. However due to the striking similarities between Homefront and both CoD:4 and Battlefield: BC2 it may prove tempting for players from both scenes to make the switch and give it a try. We’ll just have to wait and see.