Homefront wants to be thought of as the Red Dawn game. Seventeen years later and without Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Gray, and, yes, Charlie Sheen, I'm not 100 percent convinced that "from the writer of Red Dawn" works as strongly as its promoters hope. That might be to Homefront's advantage, though, because the game barely manages a hollow caricature of the movie.
Homefront follows in Red Dawn's footsteps as if they led the way to freedom. A unified Korea replaces the Cuban/Russian coalition of the movie, but other than the change in uniforms, the divide-America invasion strategy looks the same. And like the movie, the story picks up with a band of rebels in a small Colorado town. We do get to be adults this time, with the player taking the role of a pilot who the resistance breaks out of captivity for a special mission.
In the journey that ensues, Homefront goes out of its way to depict a soul-crushing vision of the horror of occupied America. If Red Dawn served as a measure of Cold War era fears, the fact that the brutality and ruthless mass-murder in Homefront doesn't immediately come off as implausible makes a saddening commentary on the modern state of the world.
It's all over soon enough, though. I'm not one to watch the clock, but many will breeze through Homefront in one sitting. Besides feeling short, that brevity undermines its ability to give the characters or their story much depth. Homefront seemed content to take the brute force approach anyway, clobbering me over the head with its imagery of the violence and atrocities being visited on America. Then, just as it seems to find its stride, the game ends. I felt like I'd finished a prologue.
Be that as it may, the bigger issue with Homefront comes from the fundamental difference between a movie and a game. Regardless of how well it aged, I can sit back and watch Red Dawn; I have to play Homefront to see how it unfolds. Mediocre execution as a game ensured that whatever campy fun there might have been to be had never got much chance to develop.
From the moment I grabbed a gun, I knew something was amiss. Homefront feels less like seeing things through the eyes of the game's character and more like watching a remote video feed, guiding a camera through the world. The clump-clump of each step makes matters worse. It's hard to imagine myself walking around when it sounds like I'm dragging a broken wheelbarrow along.
It didn't get much better when the bullets started flying. Despite the detail in the guns' appearance, none of them delivers a satisfying punch; nor is there much to differentiate them beyond a scope or their rate of fire. Homefront also lacks any sense of ballistics. Each pull of the trigger results in the clinical modeling of the impact of a bullet wherever the crosshair happened to be at that moment.
My well-meaning fellow freedom fighters who came along on every mission also wound up getting in the game's way. Several times when I needed to follow our leader, I wound up waiting around for him to arrive and then carefully moving around to find just the right spot that would get him to move forward. Closed doors were also fun. We'd stack up and if I happened to stand in anyone's way they plowed through me, sliding me out place so they could hit their mark. At least they didn't need babysitting. No one died, unless their script called for it.
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While I expected better, I went into Homefront thinking of the single-player as a tune-up for multiplayer. The game's developer, KAOS Studios, formed out of the team that made the legendary Modern Combat mod for Battlefield 1942, and their first game, the multiplayer-only Frontlines, showed plenty of promise.
Multiplayer pits American military forces against the invading Koreans in team-based combat. And like many modern online shooters, it features an experience system for advancing in ranks and unlocking new gear. Homefront tackles how all the toys get used in the fight a little differently, though. Vehicles and special items cost 'battle points', a currency earned in each match by killing enemies and accomplishing goals. Everyone starts with a base amount of points but at the end of the match any unused points are lost.
This set up a two-tier strategic decision making process for me. In game, I faced an ongoing dilemma of whether to spend my battle points as soon as I had enough to use an item or to bank them and save towards something more expensive like a vehicle. Once I got a feel for the way I wanted to play, then I needed to start tailoring my loadouts to fit how I planned to spend my points.
This system works because KAOS got the cost-to-impact ratio right for the most part. For instance, an armored vest costs very little--it can be equipped right away most every time--but using it every spawn will make it hard to build up points for a larger purchase. On the other hand, saving up to spawn in a tank or helicopter can take a while and puts the pressure on to earn the points lest the match end without ever using anything.
Coordination among teammates also becomes tremendously important as a result. For a team to win it needs some players burning the cheap upgrades as soon as they can to keep a constant watch on the enemy with spotters while others save up to bring heavy weapons and vehicles into the fight. When it works, it creates a satisfying sense of being part of an orchestrated attack. When it doesn't, or worse yet does, but only for the enemy, it leads to frustrating defeats.
With so much going on multiplayer matches escalate pretty quickly. By the middle of a game it's common to have a couple of light vehicles, maybe a helicopter, roving the battle, supported by remote drones spotting targets from the air, and all manner of ordinance raining down from larger predator drones. All of which sounds like a lot of fun, but, like single-player, problems hold it back.
Lack of bullet penetration and destructibility in the environment significantly detracts from the tactical value of having so many weapon options. Ducking behind a wooden fence offers as much protection as a concrete wall whether against a 9mm or a .50 cal. And teams will hole-up in houses because even direct hellfire missile strikes won't do any damage. I've also faced crippling lag in most every game I played. THQ has promised additional server capacity but be aware that getting a good game could be hit or miss.
I don't see myself staying with multiplayer that long, though. For all the thought that went into its systems, it surprised me to only find team deathmatch and hold the control point modes to play. An interesting AI 'Battle Commander' gives them a clever twist by offering a bounty for taking out priority targets. But once that novelty wears off, the lack of modes make an extended run unlikely.
Still, that's longer than I would recommend spending with the single-player. It came off as a disposable copy of Red Dawn unable to tap into any of the film's charm and less satisfying than similar games judged solely on its merits as a shooter. More than any of its individual shortcomings, though, or maybe as a result of them, Homefront left me wondering where the game I'd been promised went.
[This Homefront review is based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher, THQ, played on an Xbox 360]