The opening scenes in Homefront will stick with me for a while. A six year old child witnessing her parents being gunned down in front of her, piles of corpses being shunted around by dump-trucks and screaming bodies on fire after a phosphorus explosion. Creating a video game with any real emotional impact these days is no easy feat. With mindless and glorified violence in most Triple A games, we have become de-sensitised by an ever-increasing body count and a blatant disregard for human life.
However, when you consider that Homefront’s storyline has been penned by John Milius, one would expect a gripping insight to the human atrocities of war. Milius is best known as a co-writer for the soul-searching Apocalypse Now and, more appropriately to this game, as a writer and director of 1984 cult classic film Red Dawn. The similarities between Red Dawn and Homefront are hardly subtle. Both feature suburbian America being invaded by Communist forces. Although rather than Russians invading in the mid 80’s, Milius has set about creating a future where a United Korea attacks the US in 2025.
Between now and then, a series of fictional (but believable) events have occurred. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il dies and is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un, who manages to unite the North and South to form the Greater Korean Republic. Initially praised for his efforts, it soon turns out that the apple never fell very far from the tree as Kim Jong-un soon invades Japan. While the world battles a massive surge in oil prices, an outbreak of flu pandemic and a struggling global economy, a united Korea starts forming alliances with other parts of Asia. Whether by agreement or force, soon Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan and most of East Asia are under Kim Jong-un’s control.
In 2025, the Korean People's Army (KPA) is 20 million strong and launches a devastating attack on the USA, starting with an Electromagnetic pulse that wipes out power grids and renders their defences useless. A year later, Kim Jong-un orders the radiation of the Mississippi River as a fortification for their control of the western side. By 2027, the UN is disbanded and America is in tatters, with multiple Korean forces secured in state capitals with its people either killed or held in re-education camps. This is where you come in.
Rather than play as a gun-toting, muscle-bound, hardened solider - you fill the boots of everyman Robert Jacobs, a former helicopter pilot caught up in a resistance movement against the KPA. By launching guerilla-style attacks, it is up to you and your desperate crew to try and regain control of your town one backyard at a time. There is no ‘save the World’ theme in Homefront, you are just one man doing all he can in a futile effort to hinder the KPA’s stranglehold.
But while there is no doubt that all of the ingredients of a brilliant first-person shooter are all here, there are a few mishaps in the cooking process that have made Homefront a slightly disappointing affair. The most annoying one being your own team-mates. Jacobs fights alongside Resistance veterans Connor Morgan and Rianna, who are behind numerous strategic attacks against the KPA. Unfortunately though, both your team-mates are about as useful as a trap door on a canoe. Connor, in particular, plays the role of an ‘I’ve got more balls than a gumball machine’ leader and loves to bark out orders and cocky one-liners in an irritating fashion.
He’s the kind of guy that yells out “aim for the RPG in the window” while he takes cover behind a crate and refuses to come out until the enemy is dead. After you’ve shot the target, he’ll expel brain-numbing lines like “That’s how you do it!” or “Yeah baby! Take it!”. It doesn’t help that your fearless leader also can’t shoot his way out of a paper-bag. When Connor decides to actually use his gun, he’ll often send bullets spraying out in all directions in an effort to look busy while you take out enemies closing in on him. Rianna, although a lot quieter (and easier on the eyes), isn’t much use either. She’ll often end up taking your precious bit of cover so that you have to dance around in the open like an idiot. With these two so-called team-mates stealing vantage points, blocking your path, failing to cover your back and often blocking your aim by standing right in front of you; it’s safe to say that your colleagues are actually more hazardous than the heavily armed KPA forces all around you. A number of times I just wanted to give up, wave a white flag and join the Koreans just so I had a chance to shoot Connor in the face.
I could bitch on about the retardation of your allies in Homefront, but thankfully there are a lot of positive aspects to the game to mention as well. The graphics and attention to detail are almost enough to make you forget how much you hate Connor. Although the lighting and texture mapping are run of the mill, the modeling and cinematic presentation throughout makes it feel eerily realistic. In your make-shift suburbia head-quarters known as Oasis, children play on swings while the older survivors attempt to pump water to their dwindling crops. Camouflage netting hangs from trees and rooftops, dirty pink flamingos lay in the grass, a glasshouse manages to stay upright despite being riddled with bulletholes and a lonely, rusting basketball hoop sits in a drive-way. Most of the survivors staying in the Oasis can be talked to while you wander amongst them. It’s a small slice of yesteryear’s society before you have to charge out to a warzone just a couple of blocks away.
Throughout the game you’ll find newspapers and files that you can collect and read to learn more about the comprehensive back story. Although the actual read is worth it, it’s a shame the developers made the presentation of each news clipping so boring to look at. Instead of a cleverly integrated news item, each one is simply text on a black background that requires a ‘next page’ button until you reach the end. These little snippets do showcase the level of detail that Milius has poured into the story though.
Gameplay-wise Homefront is a solid shooter, with traditional FPS controls and a relatively balanced difficulty curve. Turning off the auto-aim makes taking down targets realistically difficult and a low injury threshold means that you’ll need to take cover often. Coupled with a limited supply of ammo, the game has a frantic survival feel to it where you soon learn the importance of a good aim and patience. Most of the time you’ll be scavenging for pistols, rifles, shotguns or any weapon just to stay alive, but later levels introduce RPGs, grenades and even remote control vehicles armed with laser targeted rockets to mix it up.
It is often apparent that the developers have tried to copy past titles like Half-Life 2 and Modern Warfare. Although they succeeded in some areas, Homefront unfortunately falls flat in many others. While the enemy AI is fairly smart, your team-mate AI really is too annoying to forgive. The game also randomly switches between treating you like an idiot to assuming you must be a genius. There is nothing more irritating than being told to climb a set of stairs twelve-hundred times when they are right in front of you; to suddenly having to run through a gauntlet, track down a petrol tanker and plant a beacon on it in a matter of seconds with little instruction. You’ll also hear Connor yell out ‘follow me!’ a few thousand times as well.
The campaign mode, with all of its clever plot and roller-coaster action, clocks in at a lowly five hours from start to finish. Granted there are re-playable missions that are worth another visit while cranking up the difficulty. But overall, the potential sense of epic-ness is sadly lost in Homefront. Thankfully the developers have bothered to include multiplayer, which helps push the value score out slightly. But even with an impressive 32 player team deathmatch mode, Homefront isn’t going to be able to contend with the other online FPS games out there.
One of the advantages of playing multiplayer however is, unlike in singleplayer where you team up with limited resource resistance fighters scraping together an army, it’s the actual United States Marine Corps versus the Korean People’s Army. After playing through the campaign, it’s a welcome change to be able to access powerful weapons and ammo with ease. Despite it not being the best FPS online, Kaos Studios have still put plenty of thought into the experience. They have borrowed off their past title, Frontlines: Fuel of War and used ideas such as Battle Points that can be earned online to allow players to upgrade their weapons and equipment. Even air strikes and remote controlled drones can be earned to keep players interested. Most players will enjoy a few solid hours online with Homefront, but only those with a particular taste for the game will spend months with it. There have also been widespread complaints of bugs and crash issues for those trying to play online. Although I only had to hard reset my console once in an evening of gameplay, hopefully a patch will be released soon to prevent any extra frustration to the online community.
Overall it’s a shame as Homefront was one of my most highly anticipated titles after seeing it at E3 last year. It’s not a terrible game, but it’s agonisingly close to being SO much more. Maybe Homefront 2 will fix up all the bugs and reward players a bit more, rather than rely on a well-respected author’s penmanship. Worth checking out if you always wanted to be a Wolverine, like Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen though.
Note: Xbox360 owners of Homefront will be pleased to hear that THQ have promised exclusive DLC for Microsoft’s console. Initial reports indicate that a downloadable map titled ‘Suburbs’ will be available later this year and will not be available for PC or PS3 users.