“Press A to skip.”
And so begins Homefront’s single-player campaign. A montage sets the scene of this dystopian future and with North Korea’s rise and America’s struggling economy, serious things are afoot. Yet alongside these images of a changing world you have the persistent reminder that by pressing the green button on your Xbox 360 controller, you can just skip the whole thing and get on with shooting people. It’s a strange way to start a game that purports both its story and back-story to be serious work. We’ve seen the promotional content. John Milius pens the narrative. He brings editorial clout and Hollywood fame (Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn) and in his imagined world, North Korea has annexed both its Southern neighbours and the Japenese before subsequently invading America. All is good and well here, for the scenario is plausible, if a little discriminating. But the developers seem to be aware of a trigger-happy crowd who has no time for long-winded preamble. A crowd more content on mashing triggers than digesting “what if?” scenarios. And when a game tries to straddle its audiences – on the one hand, discerning, on the other, shooting fan – you wonder which side will win through.
The answer is clear early on. Homefront shuns exploration in favour of shooting. This is a copy-cat game that shoehorns genre tropes under its wing with the hope that its much-vaunted premise and famous writer will keep it afloat. True, first-person shooters have long been restrictive affairs, but Homefront copies the formula without attempting to hide its “gamey” roots. A promising helicopter sequence laughably restricts your progress. A romp in a humvee asks only that you mash the trigger. And during the levels proper, invisible barriers have the last say. Quite why there are collectibles scattered around isn’t clear, because Homefront never lets you explore.
This is warfare then, Call of Duty style. And while I understand the appeal of an action game crafted in the vein of a big-budget film, Homefront lacks both the pizzazz and polish of bigger shooters. In a genre that lives and dies by its technical merits, frame-rate stumbles and clunky shootouts are unforgivable. At times even textures fail to load, though when they do, they don’t make much of a difference.
“Homefront lacks both the pizzazz and polish of bigger shooters”
But perhaps a dated look suits the gameplay. Homefront is more about dirty guerrilla warfare than medal-adorned soldiers. You’re on home turf, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting for your country. You’d expect then to be covered in glory, but civilians are unhappy with your meddling. They’re content to be servile in fear of being caught in the crossfire. In this respect, Homefront does its world justice, throwing up NPCs that are not merely doting. One group of American radicals has even been arming themselves since the “2k bug”. They lie in wait, Southern accents and shotguns in tow.
Sadly, the squad-based nature of the game means it’s all too easy for your AI teammates to set the pace. This is a copout for any developer and Kaos (Homefront’s creators) has taken the bait. You’ll spend much of the campaign trotting behind your fellow fighters waiting for the ubiquitous command to “follow” or “regroup”. In one rare moment towards the dénouement you’re left stranded, but this exciting stretch of gameplay is over far too quickly. As for your squad-mates? You have the gruff leader Connor with his crew-cut and the token girl Rianna. But it’s Hopper, an American of Korean origin, who’s most mismanaged. He is a potential vehicle for conflict but it’s something only briefly touched on during the campaign. His inclusion is promising but Kaos fail to make the most of him. A real shame given the interesting dichotomy he could have posed.
Still, where Homefront missteps, it does at least nail the core of the game: shooting. Playing under such a tight leash, there’s little opportunity for flanking (at least until a squad-mate directs you to a new magical pathway) but enemy AI puts up a resilient fight. Guns are plentiful, and in Call of Duty style, variants of the standard machine-gun litter your wake. But in terms of actual action, Homefront feels slower paced than Call of Duty. This is chiefly down to your own movement, which is more lethargic than the norm. Even sprinting – something that sets you into warp speed in most contemporary games – only marginally quickens your progress. But what this does is give your weapons a feeling of solidity. You get the impression you’re labouring under heavy, powerful firearms. And they sure do pack a punch. Enemies can be extinguished with one or two shots, meaning that every gun feels concussive. Moreover, your own health is depleted after a few well-aimed shots and with hit-detection so spot on, the game never seems unfair.
What you have then is a competent and challenging shooter wrapped up in a derivative package. And with so many solid shooters adhering to the same mechanics, it’s difficult to recommend Homefront for solitary gamers. Multiplayer, however, shows more promise. With Frontlines: Fuel of War to their credit, Kaos is certainly more adept at crafting online play, and the team-based structure of the game (which is forced into the single-player campaign) works better here.
Vehicular, airborne and infantry combat are thrown together in maps that afford you both room and manoeuvrability: a complete departure from the single-player campaign then. The result is a nice mix of gameplay styles. Moreover, the game puts the onus on playing well in the here and now, with a battle points system that rewards excellent play in the match proper. Battle points grant bigger and better goodies, rewarding genuinely good players rather than those that simply play all the time. The maps themselves are large, and though not plentiful, you’ll find the layered system caters for gamers of all inclinations.
The multiplayer is not a world beater, nor is it likely to sway most gamers from their staple fix, but it certainly outstrips the single-player component. Still, a half-baked campaign and a solid multiplayer component does not make for good value. Sure, good ideas frequent the story mode but its potential is squandered by restrictive level design and a policy to play it safe. Having Korean/American Hopper on your side could have made for interesting flare-ups, but he remains a mostly peripheral figure throughout the story. Visually, the game makes poor use of the Unreal 3 engine and though a good orchestral score keeps you engrossed, the music alone fails to lift the game’s overall presentation. Even enjoyable multi-play is mitigated by the reality that many gamers will likely migrate back to more hallowed ground. Thus, Homefront is a pleasant diversion at best. At worst, it’s a sub-par action game riddled with flaws and design missteps. Perhaps an option for pressing “A” and skipping the entire campaign would have been better advised.