Review: Homefront (PS3)

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Red Dawn, a film released in 1984, channeled Cold War thrills with an invasion of America by the Soviets and their allies. While it might have stretched the limits of plausibility, it was still a fun piece of fiction that imagined how it could have gone down and how ordinary people became heroes in defense of their homes.

Games have also gotten into the act ranging from IO Interactive’s third-person shooter, Freedom Fighters, to Massive’s RTS epic, World in Conflict. But there are no more Soviets, right? Well, there are always ultranationalist Russians if you follow Modern Warfare 2.

Instead, THQ has settled on North Korea to take on the United States.

In Homefront, the United States suffers a perfect storm of economic disasters over the course of several years that paves the way for its collapse. Its military has been reduced to only a shadow of itself in a desperate bid to reduce spiraling costs and the dollar worth as much as toilet paper. Out of control gas prices have all but ruined everything else, much like they did in Kaos Studios’ other game, Frontlines: Fuel of War. This is an America that is unable to do anything other than watch reality shows all day long to forget what is happening outside.

Enter North Korea which, following the ascendancy of Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent after his death, unites the Korean peninsula under a seemingly messianic peace loving leader. Of course, it’s only a facade. After coercing Japan along with Southeast Asia in the following years to join its growing empire, the People’s Republic soon reaches superpower status with all of the technical know-how left behind by America. After detonating an EMP device in orbit that knocks out electronics within the States in the 2020′s, they move in and set the stage for a brutal occupation that isn’t so much about re-education as it is thinly veiled loot and pillaging.

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As thin as its initial premise might seem (reportedly, the original intent had been to cast China in that role, but THQ had second thoughts), the portrayal of a conquered America and the resistance forces dedicating their lives to fight for it are convincingly stirring. Aided by Hollywood alum, John Milius (the co-writer and director of Red Dawn along with Apocalypse Now) in creating this vision, it doesn’t shrink away from presenting shocking scenes of brutality, hopelessness, and desperation against an implacable enemy. These aren’t so much thrown at the player as cheap shots but slipped into the experience to hit you when you least expect it.

A baseball field hides a mass grave, white picketed neighborhoods are turned into warzones, and examples made of Resistance fighters captured are found hanging from swingsets are only a few of those scenes. Yet with as much effort as there was in fleshing out the details within an eerie tapestry of atrocities, the actual game that runs beneath it falls short. Try five hours short.

If you have played FPS games before, you might want to manually crank up the difficulty from the Options screen to make it challenging enough to last a little longer. But that can’t hide the fact that it still plays and feels like something that hasn’t kept up with what its peers have been doing. The closest comparison I could think of was Bad Company 2, but without the great sound effects, destructible scenery, weighty feel to any of the weapons, or with as much scripted tunnel vision as there is here.

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All of the old and not-yet-overcome FPS shortfalls are present and accounted for: spawning enemies that won’t stop until you cross an invisible line, scripted door kicks, invisible walls, clone soldiers, and occasionally broken AI. What does a better job in setting the game apart is Goliath, an armored, unmanned WMD on six wheels that is occasionally called in. Using a nifty remote targeting scanner that you are given from time to time, obliterating enemy targets using obscene amounts of ordinance never really gets old. Goliath bounds around on its six wheels like the mutant offspring of an Abrams tank and a pit bull and is a lot of fun to play with. Someone out there is probably making a stuffed Goliath to match their plush Companion Cube right now.

Even Goliath can’t save the single player by itself, however, and reaching the end felt more like a slap in the face than as a welcome finish. The game’s cliffhanger ending felt as if I had just gone through a five-hour advertisement for the next installment in the worst way. Despite an occasionally stirring soundtrack that adds more polish to the action than the surprisingly lackluster graphics, Homefront’s greatest strength is clearly what the single-player was meant to do: prepare you for the multiplayer. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Kaos Studios’ previous title, Frontlines, basically did the same thing with an even more forgettable apocalypse.

Multiplayer, on the other hand, turned out to be quite fun, but players hoping to resell their copy of the game won’t like THQ’s use of online pass codes. It’s not required to play against others, but it is needed to keep your online profile advancing within its Call of Duty like leveling system. Additional modes and items, such as Battle Commander or the Tactical class, are unlocked only at specific levels that go beyond the ceiling. If you don’t have one, you can opt to buy one for $10, otherwise you simply won’t advance past level 5. Still, that isn’t so much of a problem when I’ve seen low leveled players do well on the battlefield regardless of the ones in their thirties or forties.

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A point system also encourages players to cap objectives or kill as many of the enemy as possible.  Outside of leveling up, these are used as currency during a game to do things such as call in remote-controlled miniguns on treads to buying a tank to spawn into the next time you die. The dynamic ebb and flow of the battlefield can often change when someone with enough points suddenly begins raining down lead from a helicopter, forcing the other team to find cover and breaking their advance in a heartbeat.

The maps themselves are large, but not too large to need vehicles just to get to the other side, and are filled with plenty of debris and cover to kneel or go prone behind, underneath, or just off to the side. The game has two major modes: 24-player Team Deathmatch and the 32-player, objective-based Ground Control. The large player numbers complement the maps which are filled with plenty of spots to snipe, ambush, and harass enemy players from. You might not be able to blow through walls as you can in EA’s Bad Company series, but at the same time, it’s not so bad with as many options – ranging from napalm to remote controlled drones – that battle points allow you to play with. If you liked Frontlines, this will feel like an upgraded taste of the same experience.

Obviously, multiplayer is where the war is in Homefront – it certainly isn’t the single-player no matter how much potential the story has. That’s also a huge surprise given the lavish attention paid to promoting it in the past year only to discover how little of it there really was, or how bare the gameplay actually feels. It does have its explosions and furious firefights, especially when you bring Goliath into the mix, but at the same time, there are other games out there that won’t leave you feeling as if you had paid full price for only half the battle.

Homefront
THQ / Kaos Studios
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on the PS3)
Rated: M for Mature