It wasn’t so long ago that EA made promises of a grittier and more realistic Medal of Honor reboot that sounded rather enticing on paper. Of course, what was pitched and what was released turned out to be two completely different things (check out my review here
). So when THQ started talking about very similar things with Homefront, I allowed myself to be drawn into the belief that a dark and believable real-world first-person shooter could be achievable.
I’m a sucker for any game with a strong narrative, and Homefront has this in spades. Right from the opening cut-scene that gets you up to speed on what’s been going on in the world between now and Homefront’s 2027 setting, the storyline had me hook, line and sinker.
As you may well be aware, John Milius —- the writer responsible for films such as Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn -— penned the script for Homefront, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Red Dawn film. America has been occupied by the North Korean People’s Army (NPA), its own military force is scattered, civilians live in refugee conditions under the constant threat of NPA aggression and the American Resistance wages a guerrilla war on the occupying force.
You take on the role of Robert Jacobs, a former pilot who has attracted the interest of both the NPA and American Resistance. Dragged from his dilapidated accommodation by none-too-friendly NPA troops, Jacobs is tossed into a bus and slowly driven through a war-torn American suburb. Civilians are being rounded up, families are separated and you’ll witness more than one cold-hearted execution before your bus trip ends. The gritty aspects of Homefront are what Kaos Studios consistently gets right throughout the course of the game.
I don’t recall ever playing a game that has left my jaw dropped for extended periods of time due to the sheer horrific nature of in-game events. Without spoiling the plot for you, Homefront does a fantastic job of exploring the darker side of human nature, the repercussions of a resistance movement in a country occupied by a brutal invading force and that fertile grey area between what we traditionally understand to be the ‘goodies versus baddies’ story. When Homefront gets it right -- which it does at many key points of the campaign -- it gets it really right with some amazing cinematic moments, resulting in genuinely engaging immersion.
But within this strength lies some of the game’s biggest problems.
Because Homefront achieves such lofty heights of game immersion, it’s a rude shock whenever you’re dragged out of it, and this happens far too often with a multitude of problems across the board. First and foremost is the game’s emphasis on realism and the features that are at odds with this. Sprinting doesn’t feel much faster than your brisk walking speed and yet it’s offered in unlimited amounts; it would have been infinitely better and more realistic to have a faster sprint mechanic with limited stamina.
The AI is atrocious; friendlies more-so than enemies. I wasn’t even 10 minutes into the game before one of my resistance liberators was standing out in the open firing a seemingly never-ending clip into the cover of an NPA soldier who, understandably, wasn’t keen to pop his head out. Friendlies often get in the way of where you’re aiming, which isn’t that much of a problem when you can’t hurt them but can shoot enemies through them; of course, this does dint the whole realism factor. Enemy AI generally suck, running at you in straight lines with occasional moments of using cover, but they were particularly deadly with grenades which they throw with pinpoint accuracy. For the record, I played through the bulk of the campaign on hard difficulty (second highest) and, with the exception of a few sections, it felt like a cakewalk.
Speaking of those few difficult sections, they were made artificially harder by a distinct feeling that the game was cheating. Cover is, apparently, sometimes a lie as you can seemingly be shot through it (even though you can’t do the same in return), while sporadic random deaths occur. One moment you’ll be taking more bullets than Ned Kelly and still surviving, and the next a single shot will take you out. These ‘cheating sections’ were also the ones that tended to use the old trick of throwing unlimited respawning enemies at you until certain objectives were completed. And sometimes this relied on you having to wait for AI teammates to get to certain positions, or you standing on the perfect spot that activates the next part of the level before being able to progress.
The extremely linear approach to level design works well for this kind of storytelling, but is hampered by invisible walls, sticky corners and ugly backdrop textures that you definitely shouldn’t zoom in on. I ran the game on full settings without any frame rate issues and enjoyed fast level loading times, but although Homefront is pretty in parts, it’s far from the best-looking game; particularly on PC.
This is countered somewhat by the solid sound design. Voice acting is believable and engaging, while firearms and explosions pack the right amount of aural punch to make you feel as though you’re in the midst of a battle. And with the exception of a few Call of Duty-esque tracks, the soundtrack fits particularly well.
The vehicular sections are very meh and feel tacked on, with the helicopter mission the worst of the bunch; flight controls are tacky and even smashing into a mountain a couple of times didn’t seem to affect my chopper. Physics and clipping fails are an all-too-common occurrence throughout the campaign, and considering we beat it in under six hours (and this could easily be halved on lower difficulty levels), this is a noticeable detraction.
In terms of its single-player component, Homefront is difficult to rate. Despite the abundance of technical issues and design decisions that tarnish immersion, the compelling narrative and effective gritty tone have to be experienced firsthand. That being said, with no strong reason to return to the campaign after it’s over (unless you want to hunt for not-so-well-hidden newspapers scattered around the game world), a short campaign length and the reality that those gobsmacking moments won’t smack gobs more than once, it’s difficult to recommend purchasing this game for single-player alone.
Then there’s the multiplayer side of things
Having had the opportunity to test drive Homefront’s multiplayer component twice before its official launch (once on preview code and once on retail code), I was hopeful for this as a serious first-person shooter contender. It was clear that it had taken inspiration from Call of Duty and Bad Company 2, but had its own unique spin on things, too. Both pre-launch play-throughs though, were on Xbox 360, which isn’t just a bad place to try out a first-person shooter (they’re still best on PC), it was also a fairly ugly multiplayer game.
On PC, it looks a lot better, but as with my criticisms of the campaign visuals, it’s not going to win any awards; it looks just good enough for it to not be a major deterrent. In saying that, there are some distracting animations at play here. Whether it’s the none-too-smooth movements of troops while running or switching stances, or the fact that certain vehicles float over the ground, technical issues are noticeable in every round.
And that’s without even taking into account more pressing technical flaws. Put simply, the whole friends system did not work for me. I was playing online with a friend, but that lovely promise of a "Friends" tab in the server browser was rendered useless for both of us as it refused to detect when either of us was in a game. Couple this with the rather annoying tendency for the game to crash when you try to refresh the server list, and Homefront is in dire need of a patch before it’s really playable. Once connected, though -- thanks to dedicated Australian servers -- the whole experience was incredibly stable, with low pings, excellent hit registry and weapons that kill refreshingly fast.
Technically, there are two core play modes in Homefront multiplayer -- Ground Control and Team Deathmatch -- with the option to play either of these modes with the Battle Commander Feature active. The problem is that Ground Control is infinitely more popular than Team Deathmatch and, unless you want to play on an overseas server, you’ll find it difficult to get into Team Deathmatch; and I couldn’t even find a local populated Battle Commander server for either play mode at all.
The unique Battle Commander feature, which I did test out in my preview sessions, attempts to offer individual incentives while simultaneously levelling the playing field. If you’re on a kill streak, your AI Commander will give you challenges that let you reap buff rewards; alternatively, the enemy AI Commander will start assigning players to hunt you down for their own rewards. This worked really well in the preview sessions but, since there were no populated servers to test it on, I can’t comment on it for the review.
While Team Deathmatch may be self-explanatory, Ground Control is essentially the Conquest mode of Bad Company 2. While your team doesn’t start with vehicles, you will earn Battle Points (BP) by getting kills and completing objectives that can be spent on temporary upgrades such as armour, radar sweeps or rocket launchers, or hoarded and used to purchase vehicles such as Humvees, tanks and helicopters when you respawn. This works well in theory, but quickly turns a team-based game into a selfish shooter as it’s easier to lie prone in a bush and pick off enemies than it is to attack points and risk getting killed by snipers, ground vehicles or attack helicopters. Vehicles and snipers are also ridiculously overpowered.
Homefront sports a Modern Warfare-like approach to weapon unlocks, whereby you earn persistent experience (separate to Battle Points) that lets you rise through the ranks and acquire new tools. This has the unfortunate downside of rewarding players who’ve already logged in serious hours at the expense of newcomers. The more powerful sniper rifle, for instance, can kill in one shot; and considering you don’t have to lead your opponents a whole lot or take into account bullet drop, it makes sniping all too easy and far too attractive an option for earning serious experience/Battle Points. It’s not long before a side dominated by the opposing "team sniper" has to also contend with tanks and helicopters that have been bought as a result of easily earned Battle Points.
The flipside of this is that even if your team is getting dominated, you can still save your precious BP and spend it on a vehicle that gives your side some breathing space. It happened several times when I was playing, where the tide of battle would turn thanks to the timely spawning of a friendly tank or chopper. The problem with ground vehicles though, is the lack of any sort of destructible environment. This means that you’re forced to travel only where the designers have dictated a vehicle should fit, which means your tank will be stopped by a wooden fence if the gap isn’t wide enough to pass through.
Helicopters are pretty cool, but the much-touted PC-exclusive control difficulty levels -- Rookie, Veteran and Ace -- are really not that much to write home about. Ace does take some getting used to and offers increased mobility but, as with the single-player helicopter level, the way that choppers handle across the board feel way too arcadey.
All things considered, Homefront’s multiplayer is disappointing. What could have been a third contender for the attention of gamers choosing between the dichotomy of Black Ops and Bad Company 2, is instead, a compelling reason to return to one or the other. The maps are diverse (and for the most part, well designed), and the new features are interesting; but it lacks the necessary polish that attracts a loyal following, and by the time they fix the bugs they may have lost their all-important shot at player retention.
The real tragedy of Homefront is that it’s not a terrible game. While my score may suggest otherwise, the campaign really should be played for the core things it does right and the multiplayer has enough potential to reward patient players. Unfortunately, there are too many glaring flaws with the game -- both technical and in terms of design -- that drag it back from the heights that it was clearly aiming for.