Free speech is arguably the most highly protected right in the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court recently upheld this right, voting in favor of the controversial Kansas-based Westboro church’s hateful picketing at soldiers’ funerals. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush have been equated to Hitler, and folk singers like Bob Dylan have penned songs protesting both racism and McCarthyism. Americans are proud of this right and generally use it with great respect. Protection of free speech extends to the video games we play, as well. There is no doubt that Homefront’s depiction of a not-so-distant future unified-Korean invasion of the United States is enough to raise eyebrows around the world. With reports indicating that the invading force was originally supposed to be the Chinese, and further reports indicating that Japanese versions of the game were changed to essentially eliminate any mention of North Korea, it’s clear that the bulk of Homefront’s hype comes from its controversies. But as an American reviewing the game, Homefront felt like just another first-person shooter, albeit with a close-to-home story.
Homefront is as much about the Korean aggressors as it is about a global economic meltdown. The game starts in 2027. A terrific intro, cut with real-life footage of actual press conferences and fake gas price protest videos, sets the stage for a changing world. These modern-day problems eventually lead to a worldwide struggle. The game is obviously a work of fiction, but nearly all the events that happen before you actually start to play the game are feasible. In 2012, after Kim Jong-Il dies, his son Kim Jong-un takes over North Korea. The following year he unifies the Korean peninsula, leading the U.S. to withdraw troops from South Korea. General Motors declares bankruptcy (again), and gas prices skyrocket to $20 a gallon because of a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the years prior to the Korean People’s Army invasion of the U.S., both Canada and Mexico close their boarders to Americans. All of these events are extremely implausible, but not impossible.
This could very well start a new sub-genre in the first-person shooter market. There are plenty of games that focus on World War II or take place on distant alien planets. We even had a game centered on the Afghanistan War, but using real-life global problems to set the stage for a near-future war works wonders in Homefront. The game is not so much about the story as it is about what a war in America would look and feel like. I can’t emphasize enough that this is a work of implausible fiction, and in no moment of the game did I think these made-up events that led to the start of the game would (or could) cause such drastic problems.
Kaos Studios did a remarkable job of thrusting players headfirst into the setting. Modern fast food restaurants, landmarks, and products are used to remind players that you are fighting this war at home (if you’re from the U.S.). Stale colors of burned-out buildings and pale landscape tones brilliantly represent a war-torn country, though they also makes everything look a bit dull and repetitive. Battles are largely guerrilla warfare style, fought in urban jungles or on rural farms. The game doesn’t do a great job of differentiating the contrasting settings, and while the overall ambiance is terrific, it all becomes a bit bland.
That’s not to say that the action is not exciting; in fact, the pacing is terrific. Homefront’s single-player campaign is relatively short (although it’s comparable to other first-person shooters with five to eight hours on the normal difficulty setting). Kaos Studios did a great job of making those hours intense and emotionally taxing. At one moment you’ll escape a Korean school bus transport, and the next you’ll seize a helicopter from a crazy cult of American rebels. There are some moments where you and your small group of Resistance fighters must sneak stealthily through the countryside and other moments where you have to run headfirst into bloody gun battles. The action is fast, intense, and always pushing the envelope of what players can mentally withstand.
The single-player story, penned by John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn), features a small cast of largely forgettable characters. It follows a small group of Resistance fighters based in Montrose, Colorado. Nearly all communication is down, thanks to a Korean satellite, and much of the west coast of the U.S. is fully occupied by the Korean aggressors. You play a former pilot who is recruited by the Resistance.
The gameplay is extremely basic for a first-person shooter. There’s no solid duck-and-cover system and hit detection has some issues. You can crouch behind objects, but you won’t lock onto anything. You can, of course, stand up and pop-off a few rounds, but you can’t peer around walls or shoot from behind cover. The basic gameplay doesn’t kill the game, but it makes it fairly lifeless. Luckily, the variety in level design and pacing help the game flow.
The biggest problem with the gameplay has to do with the poor A.I. Your teammates constantly get in the way and provide more of an obstacle than actual assistance. The story is told through in-game dialogue (don’t expect any crazy and flashy cinematics) and if you happen to get too close to characters during these set pieces, you are going to get pushed out of the way. These issues carry over during combat. If you are crouched behind cover and a teammate is behind you, they will not get out of your way when you try to dash away from an oncoming grenade. This is a basic problem that could have easily been addressed, and hopefully it will be fixed in the inevitable sequel. But the entire campaign is filled with frustrating moments caused by your teammates.
These problems are non-existent in multiplayer, thanks to human companions. Homefront’s multiplayer is quite a bit of fun. The gameplay elements are just as basic as in the single-player mode, but there is one unique component to in Homefront that feels fresh. The battle points system allows players to acquire different perks, including vehicles like tanks and helicopters, by killing opponents or meeting various objectives. This allows players to save up points through the course of one match and hop into a tank to blast away enemies, likely changing the course of battle. It’s a refreshing take on perks and the system has great promise.
During my review time with the multiplayer system, I ran into a few server problems (THQ notified reviewers that this was to be expected). Still, when I wasn’t shut out of a session, the servers seemed to handle full 32-player combat extremely well. There are essentially two different multiplayer modes — a classic team deathmatch and Ground Control, an objective-based control mission. In addition, once you reach level seven, you can join Battle Commander missions. These are the same style as deathmatch and control, but include a battle commander that provides different objectives. The six maps offer only slight variations from one another. The maps carry the themes from the single-player campaign, but the overall multiplayer experience loses the emotional power seen in the story mode.
Vehicle combat in Homefront’s multiplayer is a joy. There are some vehicles that require two players (one to drive, one to shoot), and you can even pilot a helicopter. Since everyone can save up points to use a vehicle, battles often get hectic and intense. I hope to see more maps and modes in future downloadable content, because what’s on offer presently will get stale quickly.
Homefront is not a flawless outing, but it’s a terrific first step for Kaos Studios and THQ. A rich, realistic setting coupled with an interesting and emotional premise help set Homefront apart from its well-established competition. If Kaos Studios can iron out the A.I., improve the depth of the graphics, and offer a bit more in the multiplayer mode, the sequel could be an incredible game. But for now, Homefront is a solid experience, filled with memorable moments and exciting action. There is plenty here to keep just about any FPS-gamer satisfied. If you are ready to peek into a fictional, alternative reality, and play a game with tried and trusted mechanics, you are more than ready to join the resistance.