Control is arguably the most important aspect of any videogame. Players need to feel that it is they who are the ones guiding their digital avatar to whichever heroic conclusion the game being played is thrusting them towards. Our actions are what propel the story, and what ensures the frequent violent action set pieces and titbit pieces of dialogue occur in the first place. One of the first things you realise about Homefront, is just how little control it’s willing to relinquish to you, pushing you along it’s linear, heavily story driven path but very rarely attempting to allow you the privilege of doing things your way.
Instead Homefront asks that you to put your feet up, drink a warm cup of coffee and just let you sit and watch while it does all the hard work. This is so the story can be absorbed, so that the characters you follow through the entire single player campaign flesh out their reasoning for being in the situation they’re in and drop hints as to where things will eventually conclude. It’s a noble attempt to add some weight to the setting and characters who inhabit it, but it’s also deeply infuriating.
The plot, deemed too important to sit quietly in the background, involves the fictional, near future war and subsequent conquest of the western United States (currently the worlds wealthiest superpower) by North Korea (one of the worlds poorest nations). In this reality, the US has been subjected to a number of political and social catastrophe’s that have seen it lose the influence it once wielded over the rest of the world. North Korea, however, has excelled in it’s financial and technological output, united with South Korea, and formed an alliance with Japan.
The game begins 20 years later, after a successful attack by the Korean forces has crippled much of the US and scattered it’s military, putting a huge chunk of the country under occupation. This is where voiceless protagonist Robert Jacobs fits in, a former army helicopter pilot who is fast recruited into the resistance after a slapdash escape. The game struggles to make it’s premise believable, despite some admirable efforts setting up a huge time-line of the events that lead up to it’s opening level. It’s never really explained what China or the rest of Europe where doing either as half the US was conquered. But thanks to the input of Red Dawn writer and director John Milius, it does provide Homefront with a unique setting, ignoring the favoured battlegrounds of the Middle East or distant Europe for the homeyness of inner suburban America.
Here the fighting sees you carving a bloody path through run down cul-de-sac’s and makeshift refugee camps built around football stadiums. Fighting takes place through abandoned wholesale shopping centres and run down fast food restaurants. It’s a stark contrast to what other FPS games often have as their backdrop, though it’s immediately apparent that the setting was designed to stir patriotism in American gamers. Anyone outside of the US is doubtfully going to be driven to feverish flag waving simply because Korean’s have overthrown the local Hooters.
It’s such a pity that very rarely are you rewarded for exploring and soaking up the detail of the (admittedly quite limited) environments. Remember that control thing I was blabbing about earlier? Well, almost from the offset you’re put behind fellow resistance members and told to follow them, and follow them you must, because it’s rare the game ever allows you to carve your own path. Follow them to the next objective, follow them through a narrow alleyway with only one possible exit. Follow them to a door leading to the next objective, and once you’re there, wait for them to stop talking and open it for you before proceeding.
It never lets up. On top of being forced to walk in the shadow of these resistance fighters, you also have to listen to them constantly bickering towards you, uttering out patronising hints as to what you should be doing. This repeating dialogue doesn’t help, it irritates. You’re reminded almost every step as to who you should be shooting or where you should be planting explosives, or told to duck for cover when shot as though you’re new to this whole First Person Shooting thing. It wouldn’t be so bad where it not for the utter uselessness of your AI team-mates. Why they see fit to tell you what to do when they can barely prevent themselves being encircled by Koreans is a mystery. They don’t help, they hinder and annoy, and only serve to show the colossal flaws of games that rely far too much on heavily scripting.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the game was designed specifically to cater to the casual crowd, but it’s clearly not. This is not a title for the young and inexperienced gamer, there are some heavy and adult themes running throughout. Some may find them borderline distasteful. You’re subjected to scenes involving a child witnessing the execution of his parents, or Korean prisoners being hanged by deranged survivalists. One sequence even casually asks you to “Jump into Mass Grave” to hide from patrolling soldiers. It’s difficult to understand why these things exist in Homefront, any message of how horrific an oppressive occupying force on a foreign country can be is lost somewhat on the none stop ride of shooting and explosions the game merrily subjects you to.
Whether or not you’ll come to tolerate scenes of seeing civilian bodies bulldozed into pits or simply accept the fact it’s all escapist fantasy, there are moments where Homefront punches above it’s linear, sometimes insulting gameplay to displays glimmers of something special hidden deep beneath. Occasionally there are moments where things open up a little and restrictions are loosened, one or two moments even allow you to go it alone without being told what to do. And the climactic battle in San Francisco provides the game with clearly it’s high point, putting you into the thick of a large scale battle to take the Golden Gate Bridge. Sadly, this comes far too late.
At around five hours long, there’s just not enough meat on the bone to an already threadbare single player campaign. It’s a wonder Kaos Studios even bothered to go through the trouble of hiring such an experienced writing team to create this fictional war when they barely flesh it out to anything other than yet another generic FPS. It’s not a terrible way to spend five hours, but hardly memorable enough to warrant purchasing the game for it’s single player alone.
Kaos don’t really excel at catering to the solo player however, their expertise lies with online gaming. Their last release Frontlines: Fuel of War – an overlooked gem that deserved a more substantial online community than it got – boasted a multiplayer mode that borrowed from the Battlefield series yet provided a few ideas of it’s own. Here things are much the same, only now Kaos are also taking into account the huge dominance of Call of Duty.
So the usual influx of challenges, weapons unlocks and customisable classes all make an appearance on top of the Battlefield-like elements returning from Frontlines. The game modes themselves are sparse, settling for the usual deathmatch and objective based capture modes. Of these, Ground Control perhaps stands out as one of the more unique. Here both teams (Korean and the US Military) fight to claim three control points. Holding them long enough gains a team points that work towards an end limit. Once this limit has been reached, the map then expands to the next set of capture points, forcing both teams to quickly adapt and pounce on these new objectives before the other beats them there.
It’s a nice dynamic mode that always ensures maps never feel fatigued by over familiarity, and the fact that the losing team always spawns closest to the next set of objectives once the winner has claimed the prize the first time around ensures that the action never lets up, and very rarely breaks the pace of the usually chaotic battles.
But it would be unfair to lump Homefront with Call of Duty and the thousands of pretenders each seeking to copy Activision’s golden goose. Kaos have thrown in a few neat tricks here and there to provide the game’s online mode an individuality of it’s own. Vehicles still play a huge role, though even here it would also be unfair to draw comparisons to Battlefield. Instead the game operates using a system whereby currency is awarded for successful kills. These Battle Points can then be spent on a variety of additional weapons and toys to play with. Infantry abilities such as the usage of rocket launchers or gaining access to remote controlled missile firing helicopters may seem a little overpowering, but gaining access to these requires Battle Points after every use.
This throws up an interesting, almost strategic mode of play. Battle Points can be saved and hoarded to buy the weapons you want when you need them, or they can be thrown into something special such as an air strike or the purchasing of a tank. The benefits are often matched by downsides, however. Getting to control a helicopter may provide you with a huge advantage over the other team, but these cost money, and once it’s destroyed you’ll have to laboriously save your points again to afford another.
Additionally, this system also solves the problem of appeasing players who are just starting out. Whereas other online games make it difficult for new players to match those who’ve ranked up and unlocked all the best weaponry and equipment, Homefront allows a more level playing field, where it’s ultimately skill that defines the best players and not the weapons they may use. Being the best, however, isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. One of the most interesting features of the game’s multiplayer is how it treats those who are skilled at taking down other players.
Effectively, the more people you kill without dying, the greater the threat to the other team you become. Thus, the game designates you a prime target, assigning a bounty to your head that not only awards you extra Battle Points the longer you stay alive, but lines the pockets of the one who will eventually put a stop to your merciless conquest of the scoreboard. It ensures that games aren’t dominated by the elite few. The greater their abilities at slaughtering, the fewer hiding places they have and the greater the threat of being head-hunted. There’s a nice balancing act throughout Homefront that should prevent games becoming one sided.
Where Kaos stumble about with the single player, they stride online. It’s with Homefront’s online portion of the game that Kaos’ abilities shine, combining the best of what worked with the Call of Duty games with those of the Battlefield series and adding enough of their own imagination to make something immediately more appealing. But it’s not perfect. It still needs polishing up, a few too many bugs and an anti-cheating system that can’t seem to prevent a few too many players from stepping in and ruining things.
It’s also hardly going to topple the likes of CoD and Battlefield. As great as some of the features are, there’s nothing here that’s particularly ground breaking. Nothing that seems to suggest this will ever stand tall amongst the greats of the genre. It’s aged looks and middle of the road sound effects may have a hand in this as well. The entire game does tend to look old and tired as far as the presentation goes, which isn’t entirely fair considering Kaos do get the most they can from the ageing Unreal technology used to power the game, but it is a factor that many may see as an excuse to give it a wide berth.
It is worth a look though, provided you can overcome the shortcomings elsewhere and so long as you prescribe to the notion that FPS games are driven entirely by their online abilities. But while fun in places, there’s that nagging sense of an opportunity missed. A more substantial and free-form single player with updated graphics could have propelled Homfront to the front of the class, in it’s current form it’s a shy nerd sitting at the back, still capable of great things, but never truly inspiring those around it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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