The next time you’re trying to perform a complex task while some annoying distraction scuppers your efforts, spare a thought for Dambuster Studios. In the process of making Homefront: The Revolution, the Nottingham-based developer was forced to weather the loss of not one but two publishers due to financial difficulties – an unusual occurrence even in the high-risk world of videogames.
The game this embattled team is making will be the sequel to 20xx first-person shooter Homefront, which depicts a near-future US invaded and occupied by the Greater Korean Republic (you never know: with North Korea testing missiles and Donald Trump riding high in US polls, it could prove prophetic). Set in 2029, this follow-up presents a fully open-world, as opposed to the single-path of its predecessor, and, fascinatingly, some of its key new features come from that unfeasibly difficult conception.
“With Homefront: The Revolution, the fiction is all about guerrilla fighting,” says Dambuster Studios studio head Hasit Zala. “And it sometimes feels like the development of the game has in itself been a story of guerrilla fighting. We started off – can you believe? – in September 2011.”
Back then, Dambuster Studios was called Crytek UK – having originally started out as Free Radical Design, which developed the popular TimeSplitters games, and was founded by members of the legendary Rare Software team behind GoldenEye. Free Radical Design had fallen on hard times and was bought out by Crytek in 2009. Giant US company THQ, which published Homefront, approached Crytek UK to develop the sequel, saying it wasn’t happy with the quality of the original. “We were looking for Crytek UK to have its own IP and franchise to work on, so it suited us well, too,” says Zala. “Back then, in 2012, we conceived a game that would be next-gen, but probably a bit more linear than it is today.”
At the end of 2012, Zala and his team went out to THQ’s headquarters to present their progress, but alarm bells soon began to ring. “In the background, there was all sorts of stuff going on,” says Zala. “THQ was in a precarious situation, and as we headed into 2013, it actually went down. One company tried to buy out what remained of it, but the shareholders fought against that because they felt the value wasn’t high enough, so it went to an auction. Within the auction, Deep Silver picked up Volition Studios and the Metro IP, and Take Two and Ubisoft picked up some stuff. But Crytek picked up Homefront.”
Remarkably, as Zala explains, Homefront: The Revolution benefitted massively from the turmoil. “Crytek was unhappy with the progress and reception of Crysis 3 [which came out in February 2013],” he says. “So we reassessed Homefront. It had been my long-standing ambition to turn it into an open-world shooter and, although that was supposed to be for the next version, we said: ‘You know what? Let’s go ahead and do that now.’ That was July 2013: we owned the IP, as we were Crytek UK, and we moved the game to an open-world structure, which really rebooted the development process.”
Crytek swiftly signed a deal with Deep Silver to co-publish the game and, at last, everything seemed rosy for Crytek UK and Homefront: The Revolution. But further – even greater – tribulations lay ahead. “In the summer of 2014, Crytek ran into financial trouble,” says Zala. “As time went on, promises went back and forth, and we got to the stage where the staff hadn’t been paid for quite some time. I was busy trying to hold the studio together, and I needed to look at its long-term future. Deep Silver stepped in, saying they believed in the game, believed in the team, and were really concerned with the way things were going, because it looked like the team might completely dissolve, and the game may never see the light of day. So it approached Crytek, and a buyout ensued.”
At that point, the developer renamed itself Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, and was finally able to concentrate on nothing other than making Homefront: The Revolution. “We’re still the team that started working on this game back in 2011,” says Zala. “Although in 2014, we were a studio of 150-odd people, quite a few of whom hadn’t been paid for weeks; they had mortgages, wives and families – so over a third of the team left at that stage. When we started Dambuster, there was a bit of rebuilding that had to be done. But it’s the same studio: I sit in the same place, and it’s the same code base.”
No more run-and-gun
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, losing one publisher in the course of developing a game is unlucky, losing two goes beyond misfortune – but Homefront: The Revolution has indisputably benefited from Dambuster’s traumas. If it had blissfully enjoyed an uninterrupted development process, it would have joined the ranks of generic single-path shooters, and the modern gaming world demands more than that: see the open-world co-op gameplay of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, or the RPG-infused depth of The Division and Destiny.
Zala reckons that Revolution’s open-world single-player story contains over 30 hours of gameplay, and a zonal structure is designed to bring in diversity. “It’s a much deeper game,” he says. “Rather than your traditional run-and-gun, you’re talking about an open world with scavenge mechanics, progression and loops. You have to deal with asymmetric combat against a superior force, and you have to choose where you fight.”
“We’ve split up Philadelphia into three zones: yellow, red and green. The red zones are war-torn – if you like, our Syrian landscape – where Philadelphia has become a battlefront. In the yellow zones, the game takes quite a dramatic turn in terms of how you play it. There, you have ghettoes into which the KPA [Korean People’s Army] has herded the local populace – these areas have very different, almost stealth gameplay. Within the overall structure, the green zones are the iconic places, such as Independence Hall and City Hall. The KPA has requisitioned those places for its own camps. There you find more traditional, epic set-pieces.”
Hands on with co-operative multiplay
Dambuster also took an interesting decision with Homefront: The Revolution’s online multiplayer element, which is co-operative only. “We just think that the co-op experience, where you’re playing together with your friends in an asymmetric war, makes more sense,” says Zala. A hands-on demo of the mode suggested pleasing echoes of one of the best recent online games, Rainbow Six: Siege, as it fosters a great sense of being a part of a team, and is pretty rigorous. When you’re taken down, you can be revived by team-mates, but will only respawn if a team-mate reaches a new objective.
You start the co-operative side of the game from scratch with a new character, and picking their previous profession bumps up one of their attributes. There’s an XP-driven skill tree, and it’s crucial to get to grips with the Guerrilla Tool Kit (GTK), which lets you create improvised devices such as teddy bears stuffed with explosives, which you can detonate when the KPA walk over to inspect them. In keeping with many modern games, a randomised card system brings useful new gear, such as sights for specific guns, and you can purchase weaponry in an armoury.
The missions are fairly long – upwards of 15 minutes – and swiftly ramp up in complexity. In one, for example, you have to reach a KPA base, exterminate its inhabitants, steal a truck and then preserve it from destruction in the face of increasingly fearsome KPA onslaughts. The feeling of depending on your team-mates’ skills to fight off a vastly better-armed enemy was exhilarating, and certainly felt fresh in comparison with the player-versus-player action that Homefront: The Revolution’s peers usually present. The good news is that Dambuster Studios has pledged to follow up the game’s release with a constant supply of new missions (doubling the number from 12 to 24 within a year), incorporating fan feedback, without charging a penny for them.
Dambuster, though, has plenty of work to do in the run-up to the game’s 17 May launch. The recent closed beta of co-op multiplay on Xbox One was beset by glitches that weren’t present during an earlier hands-on press event using networked PCs. At least the developer has a few months to iron out these all too familiar technical issues. In a month or so, a planned open beta programme will let gamers judge it for themselves.