Game Rant's Andrew Dyce reviews Homefront
The past few years have been kind to fans of modern military shooters, with Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and the upcoming Battlefield 3. But with so many studios trying to occupy the same space, repetition and similarities have become commonplace, and the challenge of making a new title stand out from the competition is getting harder and harder.
With Homefront, developer Kaos Studios decided to take a different route from many of its contemporaries, and base their game around a story written by John Milius, the mind behind the films Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. Set in a fictional future where America has been invaded and occupied by unified Korea, Homefront puts players into the shoes of an everyday citizen fighting for their own freedom. At least, that's what the team has set out to do. Whether or not they succeed is a separate issue entirely.
Homefront certainly gets off on the right foot, with the startling and disturbing opening cinematic portraying the downfall and invasion of the United States. From there the game introduces the player into the horrifying realities of the occupation, and although the now-infamous opening bus-ride is little more than a minute in length, it's likely to upset to many gamers more than they'd like.
From that point on, the player is thrust headlong into the American Resistance as Robert Jacobs, taking on the Korean People's Army in a former suburban neighborhood amidst terrified civilians and screaming babies. The juxtaposition of human suffering and combat is as groundbreaking as it is disturbing, and the game quickly seems to deliver on its promise of a previously-unseen shooter experience.
Upon being recruited into the Resistance, Jacobs is allowed to enter the hidden settlement known as 'Oasis' that the fighters of Montrose, Colorado call home. The slow and open-ended freedom to interact with the residents automatically explains what the developers meant when they said that Half-Life had been their greatest influence. But sadly, the NPC's responses are limited to simple sentence replies, and the team soon gathers to plan their next mission.
After two more missions that continue to mix high-paced squad combat with truly jarring images of war, Homefront trades in serious emotional weight for pedal-to-the-metal gunfighting. So while the gripping story is delivered well within the first 2 hours, players hoping for a seriously gut-wrenching experience won't be too thrilled with the rest of the game's campaign.
After putting serious time into creating its own style and mood, Homefront cashes in all its chips to mimic Call of Duty: Black Ops in nearly every way possible. There's no rule saying that a shooter can't admire constantly-frantic gunfights in interesting locales, but it's the fact that Homefront fails to pull off the feat as well as Treyarch did that will leave a bad taste in players' mouths.
The guns don't feel as satisfying or varied as Black Ops, and the squad AI is nowhere near as intelligent. Homefront has chosen to go with a white uppercase font for the 'follow' prompt hovering over Jacobs' commanding officer's head for approximately 95% of the game, so no one can accuse them of theft. Seriously, if someone can explain why a developer thinks that having a player look at the word 'follow' instead of their surroundings is a good decision, please speak up.
While the one or two AI partners aid the player fairly well in the early stages of the game, the larger squad AI is completely thrown out the window during large-scale firefights, becoming more of a liability than an advantage.
For example, Jacobs' adopted squad of Hopper, Connor and Rianna are uniquely gifted with not only invincibility, but an absolutely fearless need to encourage the player to advance before all enemy characters have been dealt with. With a story so unfamiliar and politically charged, the lack of refinement in basic squad functions sticks out like a sore thumb.
This is the true fault of the game: halfway through, Homefront changes from a strong, story-based game with technical faults that are easily overlooked to a mindless orgy of shooting, giving the player no more than a basic understanding of what needs to be accomplished, but rarely the reasoning behind it. At no point is Jacobs given a specific character trait that would explain his actions. He simply 'follows.'
If the game had maintained its focus on interesting and unexpectedly raw depictions of war, then the screen-tearing, character-ghosting, ridiculous AI animations and hovering objects might have been overlooked. But by emulating an action-first game like Black Ops as faithfully as possible, the lack of any such faults in their competition just makes Homefront seem broken or unfinished.
The devil is in the details as well, with many mechanics and conventions already feeling tired by the end of the game. Achieving what seems to be a major turn of luck for you side in skirmish, only to witness a massive explosion that once again stacks the odds against you is interesting the first time, but after the sixth, it's just predictable and silly.
Observers may think that a story by John Milius and the fiction of Homefront's future history would be enough to keep many interested and unbothered by somewhat dumbed down gameplay. The fact is, there are only two moments in the game when an enemy actually identifies themselves as a Korean soldier, and never speaks about the political motivations of their superiors. From that point on, the game's enemy's are either masked or hiding behind cover, and their national affiliation makes absolutely no difference to any elements of the game's plot.
The notion seems insane considering how much time the development team apparently put into framing North Korea as America's perfect enemy, but most players will have little chance of differentiating Homefront's KPA from Killzone's Helghast. The player's story turns from one of survival and revenge into saving his own skin, with one of the most forced climaxes in recent memory being tacked on for even more explosions. So while players may have initially been driven to defend their neighbors and children, they're likely to instead feel pulled along for the ride by the final mission.
Homefront came under some serious criticism recently when it was revealed that the main campaign lasted only 5 hours, and there's no getting around the fact: the game only contains less than 10 missions in total. While initially defending the assumption based on differing playstyles from gamer to gamer, I owe the critics an apology. Even with several mind-numbingly obtuse mission hurdles along the way, this reviewer finished Homefront's singleplayer campaign in 4 hours. In all honesty, less than 4. Not even the countless invisible walls of the game's levels could stop me.
That's not to say that a short campaign can't be incredibly satisfying, but a game that tries to be two different things within such a short window give anything but a full experience.
Whether it was Kaos attempting to give shooter fans both hard-hitting drama and industry-standard 'always cranked to eleven' firefights, or pressure from THQ to get as close to Black Ops' blockbuster performance as possible, Homefront falls short of most of its goals.
In discussing a potential sequel to Homefront, Kaos Studio's General Manager voiced his thought that the game combined both storytelling moments and combat moments, which is true. The story was an interesting one, but with the developers abandoning the substance of it in favor of action halfway through the game, Homefront ultimately fails to accomplish either. You see, it's not that they only had half a game's worth of each, it's that they completely forgot about one of them halfway through.
The result is a game that stirs up serious emotions, but never sees them through to any resolution. It's also a game that recreates the action of other successful properties, but fails to achieve the same level of refinement, and offers nothing new to the gameplay.
Homefront also comes with an online multiplayer, available to anyone willing to buy the game new or purchase an online pass. THQ is allowing players who don't purchase or redeem an online pass to take part in multiplayer, but prohibiting them from advancing beyond level 5 experience.
The multiplayer modes of Homefront are competently-designed, and include a fair bit of carnage after some leveling, but that may not save the game from being tossed aside. As basically a lesser CoD title that includes vehicles, it stands to reason that most shooter fans would simply stick with Black Ops, Modern Warfare 2 or wait for Battlefield 3 to arrive.
Don't get us wrong: those who loved Black Ops will find things to like in Homefront, since the combat itself isn't lacking in any drastic ways. But Kaos never said they were going to inject some story and maturity into a popular shooter; they promised us a completely different, completely-realized dramatic experience.
So while Kaos may have produced a very good shooter with some seriously inspired story, the finished product never reaches the heights expected by its many champions. Because of that, Homefront will likely turn out to be a disappointment to those hoping for something other than a good shooter.