Who would have believed that when Homefront was announced back in 2009, that it would become such a divisive and much-discussed game? The idea that a game from the creator of Red Dawn scribe John Milius, itself a similar story to Red Dawn, could end up being a lightning rod was a strange one indeed. A game that would take a look at the long term implications of the conditions facing our country right now was also a somewhat risky proposition. Then there was also the fact that the enemies in this story were changed from Chinese to North Korean largely in the interests of political correctness. After all of these things have occurred and well after all of the buzz of the initial press has died down, I will take a look at whether or not Homefront is actually a good game.
Homefront takes place in the year 2027, in an occupied and all-but-conquered United States. The North Korean forces have taken over thanks to American economic woes and a well-placed electro-magnetic pulse that severely crippled our defenses. Homefront places you into the role of Robert Jacobs, a former Marine helicopter pilot living in Colorado who is arrested by the North Korean forces for having piloting skills and not answering a draft order. While being taken on a bus ride in views into the realities of day to day life in North Korean-occupied America, Jacobs is rescued by members of the Resistance movement who need his piloting skills for a vital mission they are planning.
This is the set-up for Homefront, a first person shooter taking place in various parts of the United States and taking the form of guerilla-style military operations aimed at crippling North Korean occupying forces. As a first person shooter, the single player campaign of Homefront is very competent. It features a variety of different weapon types and even seems to take into account the differences in stopping power between different types of ammunition. In addition to handguns and rifles, you will have the opportunity to use explosives and remote controlled drone technology, as well as man mounted turrets in vehicles. In the multiplayer component you are actually able to control your own drones, both ground- and air-based, as well as drive various tanks and Humvees and personnel carriers.
The single player campaign is a fairly tight and contained story. I appreciated the fact that this story merely takes place during the course of one major operation. This is not a save-the-world mission but more of a major opening strike in a greater conflict. Some will view this as some type of attempt at creating an artificial cliff-hanger, but I saw it as the ability to tell one complete story, without forcing some wide-scale ending that doesn’t fit the story or action offered. Sometimes it is enough to simply tell a smaller story in a larger one and have the ending stand on its own.
As far as set pieces go, Homefront is definitely in the Michael Bay school of large explosions and firefights occurring everywhere you look. The campaign moves along at a swift pace and contains various different types of missions. In one setting you may be running for your life through alleys and backyards and in the next stealthily avoiding enemy forces while judiciously sniping enemies. There is even a rather fun level involving controlling a helicopter and providing support for allies. The variety involved helps keep the game moving forward without being severely repetitive.
As is common amongst modern shooters, Homefront uses a checkpoint system over standard game saves. The checkpoints are fairly well-spaced, and I really only started to get annoyed replaying certain sections a scant few times. The difficulty is pretty much in the middle of easy and hard, containing sections that are simple to complete and a few requiring multiple attempts. The latter situation is largely due to an inconsistent enemy A.I. that is seen in nearly every chapter of the game. As an example, there were times where I was overwhelmed with enemies who kept aggressively advancing towards my position, laying down cover fire and using grenades to keep me pinned down, while at the same type using flankers to surround me. While this was nice, in the same level you would see enemies sometimes just standing there firing at some fixed position, easily in my sights, but not even shooting at me. Still, the fact that enemies occasionally showed intelligence and tactics was quite welcome.
"…by far one of the shortest campaign experiences that I have played in some time."
I would be completely remiss if I did not now address the major issue often associated with Homefront, that being the rather short length of the single player campaign. When they said short, they were not joking, as I clocked in a little over four hours for the campaign, and this included multiple reloads, as I tried to get past a particularly rough spot. This makes Homefront by far one of the shortest campaign experiences that I have played in some time.
Having said this, I do have a few comments regarding Kaos Studios’ campaign effort. First, I felt an emotional connection, if you will, between the atrocities that I was witnessing and how I played the game. There were some rather disturbing scenes that made me anxious to punish the North Korean forces. There is one scene in particular that likely sits atop my list of the most uncomfortable moments I have ever experienced in a game. I won’t ruin it for those who check it out, only to reiterate that the experiences of your character in the single-player campaign are engaging and at points disturbing. This ability to evoke in me an emotional response means that the campaign was at least capable enough to keep me interested in playing from start to finish, while wishing for more content when the credits started rolling.
The multiplayer component of Homefront is actually fairly substantial in terms of features and content offered. It offers up the now-standard class system, where you can initially chose from a handful of pre-loaded roles. These roles consist of the standard sniper, explosives expert, assault trooper, etc. Each one of these roles offers a set alignment of weapons, abilities, and upgrades that you can buy as well as the ability to customize and rename these roles. The abilities range from things like carrying more grenades to faster reloads and even more armor for your drones, just to name a handful.
One of the unique aspects of Homefront’s multiplayer is the ability to purchase additional equipment for your character. Points that are used to purchase this equipment, called Battle Points, come from completing various mission objectives, as well as getting kills. There is also a rather fun bonus that comes from killing a wanted enemy. Enemies become wanted as they gain numerous kills in a row. When this happens, their general location is displayed to all opposing forces who often immediately radar into to their location and try to take them out. In larger 32-player games, this is all but a death sentence. Having sixteen or so opponents hunting you down adds a new layer of suspense. In a genre of clones, this is just one of those little elements that helps set Homefront apart from the rest of the pack.
While this is not new, Homefront does feature the rank structure, which allows you to gain experience points from killing opponents and securing strategic points. These ranks then allow you to unlock new weapons and abilities for your character, as well as scopes and other equipment designed to help make your character stand out a bit from your fellow gamers. Of course the downside to this system is the inevitable “grind” that occurs as it, can take hours, if not days, of playing to reach the highest ranks in order to unlock the desired equipment. Meanwhile those who have to time to play the game non-stop will lay waste to you at times with their superior equipment and firepower. This is not so much a negative as it is the reality of online shooter games out today.
"…a largely stable multiplayer experience…"
Despite some initial instability issues at launch, Homefront offered up a largely stable multiplayer experience, and I was only booted from a game once for no reason that I could discover while never experiencing any noticeable lag, even in a 32-player game with vehicles on the ground and in the air. My only real gripe was that sometimes it felt like the shooting was off. Having fired and owned firearms for much of my life I know that it is truly impossible to outrun a bullet. Yet in battle after battle, I would have a target aimed in and release a small burst and still have the opponent do the Matrix move around it. I was also quite disappointed with the sniper rifle and the damage it delivered. Time and again I fired sniper rounds at prone enemies, hitting them in the head, only to be amazed at them getting up and running off. I understand the fear of snipers being over-powered, but it got ridiculous over time.
Graphically I felt like Homefront was a fairly good-looking game. The character models and their expressions were top-notch and lent an air of realism that helped move the story and its characters along. The settings were depressing, but very well delivered, conveying a sense of an America that is no longer like the one in which we live. This new America is drab, the buildings all tattered and damaged, and the people largely hidden wherever they can find a place to stay. The truly touching things, like children’s toys lying scattered on the ground or park equipment, lent a sad empty feeling to one’s surroundings. The set pieces were truly stunning from a graphical standpoint, featuring amazing uses of fire, a high school field that I will never forget, and even the Golden Gate bridge. However, with just a few exceptions, this game stuck to the suburbs and smaller locations, avoiding urban areas.
The sound effects and voice acting offered were also pretty top notch. The characters seemed to come to life, voiced by solid voice actors that lent a quasi-cinematic feel to the game. The weapon effects seemed to at least attempt to lend some realism in terms of having different sound effects for the different weapons available. Then again, anybody firing that many rounds and explosives without hearing protection would likely have severe hearing loss by now anyways.
Homefront to me was an engaging single-player experience that was far too brief to be fully satisfying. I don’t fault the designers for keeping the story small, but I do fault them for not offering at least a few more hours of gameplay. Since its release and initial critical bashing, the developers seemed to have taken note of the overall displeasure shown towards the length of the single player, and they mentioned making sure the sequel avoided this. I would like to see the release of some downloadable content that extends this game, but am not holding my breath all the same.
The multiplayer component was solid and I always found a game with enough players to make it engaging. Although not a major fan of multiplayer shooters, I have found myself returning to the game several times the past few days, attempting to increase my rank and unlock a few more weapons and pieces of equipment. For those tired of their current FPS multiplayer of choice, they should give Homefront a look.
In the end, the overall experience offered was enough for me to enjoy my game and feel satisfied by my purchase. For those concerned with the short length of the single-player campaign and those who are not big multiplayer shooter fans, this will likely not be the game for you. The story itself was not so engaging, so much as the way it is presented and the emotions that it evokes are engaging. For me, Homefront was a promising first entry in a franchise that is all but confirmed to have a sequel in the works.