Whilst it certainly won't be pinning an array awards to its chest, if it learns from its mistakes, Homefront is an IP with a decent chance of survival
It’s a task in itself when reviewing a military FPS not to draw inevitable comparisons with other such titles in the genre. There’s a vast shadow emanating from Activision HQ these days that first person shooters in particular find themselves cowering beneath. Success breeds imitation and good business is based on success. Call of Duty shatters sales records annually, with a player-base that seemingly stretches into practically every household that owns a gaming system. It’s a relentless juggernaut that methodically crushes all in its path. THQ and developers Kaos Studio’s Homefront, faces an uphill struggle from the offset. With a five star general commanding the barracks, new recruits are destined for a tough time. Step out of line, and you’ll be ruthlessly disciplined.
Thankfully, Homefront’s premise at least is suitably absorbing enough. Writing duties are trusted to John Milius (the co-writer of Apocalypse Now/co-director of Red Dawn), thus his experience in military motion pictures is being bought to the table. Set in the near future and with the US in economic turmoil, a unified Korea (led by the now deceased Kim Jong Il’s son - Kim Jong Un) invades and occupies American soil. With much of the civilian population under the control of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), a small pocket of resistance fighters take it upon themselves to retaliate.
The idea here then, is to bring the fight closer to home. Battling on familiar shores against tyrannical, oppressive forces; in essence, to deliver an FPS experience that asks more of you than simply fast trigger squeezing reactions. Homefront wants you to be emotionally connected to its story, yet unfortunately it only shows glimpses of promise without fully realizing it. It’s a shame, as even with an intriguing story arc in place, the game fails to flesh it out and capitalize on its own potential. Milius has done a degree of the hard work already with the well conceived plot, yet doesn’t inject enough substance to really it to bring life. There are several reasons why this is the case.
A fatal flaw in any game that considers its narrative to be an integral part of the experience, is to burden it with uninteresting characters. The rag-tag collective on offer here really don’t inspire an affinity. It’s not that they’re dislikeable as such, just bland and generic - two words that often pop into mind during course of the campaign. First and foremost, the playable character and protagonist, Robert Jacobs, is entirely faceless. You never catch a glimpse of him, and at a push he utters only one or two lines throughout. You might argue that in the context of an FPS this shouldn’t be an issue, after all, most shooters don’t overtly focus on character development. However, Homefront is always attempting to tug on the player’s heart strings. There’s nothing wrong with this, but with zero compatibility with Jacobs himself, it very rarely works effectively.
There are breaks in combat for story-driven set pieces. A walk through a civilian labor camp or hiding in a mass grave from a Korean patrol for example. Undeniably harrowing in concept, yet ineffective in execution due to your character being so utterly uninspiring. Why no back story? No show of emotion? No dialogue? Jacobs needs to endear himself to the player in some way, to react to the terrible situation he finds himself in, to generate sympathy. Instead you merely feel apathetic. A wasted opportunity.
Allied NPC’S fall into familiar stereotypes. The brave but reckless male, the moral female, a quirky technician, the respectable leader of the bunch. We’ve seen and heard it all before; unoriginal caricatures spouting stock lines of dialogue. When your male companion gruffly shouts “I thought I smelt Korean BBQ!”, you’re left wondering if the same guy who coined many of Apocalypse Now’s legendary one-liners really had anything to do with the game.
Familiarity rears its head in almost every facet of the single player gameplay. Again, it’s by no means dreadful, just recycled and run-of-the-mill. Unfortunately here we’ll have to make another Call of Duty comparison, but in defense, Homefront doesn’t exactly help itself in not warranting them. The duck-for-cover, pop-out-and-shoot mechanic is prevalent, as well as sporting a completely identical control scheme to COD.
However, whilst ‘you know who’ constantly ups the ante with cinematic action set-pieces, for the most part, Homefront plods along from dilapidated suburb to crumbling warehouse. Make no mistake, for two thirds of the campaign you’ll be treated to a predominantly grey/brown color palette: clear an area of generic KPA soldiers, move on, rinse and repeat. It’s certainly not pretty. Players looking for an aesthetically pleasing FPS will be sorely disappointed with Homefront’s visuals. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the obligatory ‘stealth’ mission is also here in all its predictable glory.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Homefront’s single-player does have some redeeming features, that at the very least stand up to their corresponding FPS siblings‘ efforts. The arsenal of weaponry at your disposal is both expansive and brilliantly realized. Each weapon feels unique and (although personal experience can’t vouch for this) authentic. The 870 express shotgun is a devastating example of how to represent the ever popular ‘shotty’ in a videogame. Sniper rifles, SMG’s, assault rifles and RPG’s are all a joy to wield and well balanced. The wide array of attachments and scopes on offer means that there’s a vast potential for mixing and matching to find a weapon that suits you, and no two ever feel the same. Even if Jacobs is devoid of character in every department, at least you can share a mutual excitement when you get your hands on an untested gun and put it to good use.
Now although the campaign is predominantly ordinary, it does pick up during the last two missions. The penultimate sees you piloting an attack chopper, hijacking a convoy of tankers and destroying a bridge with C4; whilst the final mission involves a climactic assault on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The latter in particular is on par with some of Call of Duty’s finer action-fuelled efforts, yet it all feels like too little too late.
With a campaign packed with more standout moments such as this, Homefront’s single-player could have dragged itself out of the mires of mediocrity and made a name for itself. It’s also worth noting the length of the campaign. Although FPS’s aren’t famed for long playthrough times, Homefront - even on the hardest setting - can be finished in five to six hours. And, regrettably, it’s just another nail in the coffin of the disappointing solo experience.
Homefront’s single player could have been so much more, but falls short (literally) by quite some distance. There are undeniable glimmers of hope here that hopefully THQ and Kaos will take note of and act upon for the inevitable sequel. It has its own identity lurking beneath the recycled FPS conventions that needs to be unearthed and asserted to avoid the same downfalls in the follow-up.
Thankfully, Homefront’s multiplayer goes at least some way to acting as the game’s saving grace. It succeeds by ramping up the scale of battle, with 24 or 32 players facing off in large teams. This often gives multiplayer combat the important feel of all-out warfare. You could be ducking behind a wall with bullets flying everywhere, helicopters circling in the sky, tanks rolling past and RPG rounds whistling past your head. It’s chaotic at times, but this is exactly what’s required after the largely forgettable solo campaign.
You’ll come closer to capturing the experience of a soldier in a war zone here than any of the forced events that occur during single player. The likes of Battlefield may have already successfully replicated large scale combat, but that isn’t to take away from what is a fun and solid multiplayer experience. Although the maps predominantly suffer from the same dreary gray/brown color scheme as much of the campaign, most are well designed as to incorporate the game’s potential battle strategies.
Tight, close quarters gunfights in suburban streets may be followed by an open map where heavy vehicles are the key to domination. Being set in the not-so-distant future, we’re also treated to a variety of robotic scouts and drones that add not only to the fun, but also to the tactical possibilities. Of course, pulling off the ever reliable sniper headshot never gets old despite all the high-tech gadgetry at your disposal.
The usual rank based unlockables are here: perks, attachments, camouflage, weapon upgrades etc, but what makes Homefront’s multiplayer stand out is the introduction of Battle Points. BP are essentially currency that you earn during combat for killing opponents or completing certain challenges. They can’t be used outside of the war zone, so it’s up to you spend them on various attributes that could affect the course of battle as you play. Spend them on a cheap RPG to take out an enemy tank, or save up for an attack chopper by which time the game may well be out of your reach?
BPs mean players will employ a slightly more cognitive approach than mindless running and gunning, and will most effectively be spent with the team’s best interests at heart. But - and there’s always a but - a lack of variety in game modes does somewhat hinder multiplayer’s longevity. There are only two core game modes: Ground Control and Team Deathmatch, which are both fairly self explanatory to anyone familiar with online shooters. Beyond that, the Battle Commander mode assigns an AI commander to both teams, gives each special objectives, and places bounties on certain player’s heads.
Although this adds a new slant to team based combat, Battle Commander only operates in conjunction with TDM or Ground Control, meaning that that same old F word - familiarity, crops up once again. But considering how mediocre the campaign is, multiplayer does actually have much to commend. The real problem is that with competition such as Black Ops and BFBC2 to contend with, it may well be fighting a losing battle.
But the war isn’t over. Homefront has a lot of improving to do, but there’s certainly hope for it yet. As a new IP it isn’t completely dead in the water after one installment, and if it can capitalize on its merits, the future may look a great deal brighter than it does now. Not dire, but disappointing - Homefront has learned that frontline soldiering is a tough job. However, it’s just about survived its first taste of action and will live to fight another day.