Homefront was released by THQ early in 2011, with a much-publicised script by John Millius, the co-writer of Apocalypse Now and Dirty Harry, and director of Red Dawn. And it’s a good time to catch up on the interesting but flawed original as not only is a sequel due shortly, but a lower price point certainly helps to justify trying it.
Despite mixed reviews at launch, it sold 375,000 copies in the first 24 hours and went on to record 1 million plus sales, so it must have done something right, but was it just all advertising hype?
Homefront Single Player:
The year is 2027 and North Korea has taken over much of the globe including occupying North America, as relayed in various video clips in the introduction. Some anticipation is built with the use of real news events and clips featuring the likes of Hilary Clinton before the game kicks in.
You take on the role of Robert Jacobs, a former Marine helicopter pilot living in Montrose, Colorado, and after a lengthy opening section which sees you placed on a bus for re-education in Alaska, you’re rescued by American Resistance fighters to join their cause by shooting bad guys. The eventual aim is the slightly underwhelming quest to secure jet fuel to help the remnants of the American military to retake San Francisco.
It’s a short campaign, clocking in around 5 hours or so for completion on even the hardest difficulty settings. But although short, it’s got some moments which stand out, including during the opening bus ride when Montrose residents are being rounded up by the Korean army, the discovery of some of the horrors committed by the occupying army, and sections of the final battle for San Francisco. The idyllic base of the resistance fighters in Montrose also promises something slightly different to most FPS games as you wander around chatting to homesteaders tending their garden or milking goats behind boarded houses.
But the problem is that the game doesn’t live up to the promise of these moments. There were rumours that Millius didn’t do as much work on the script as advertised, and since release developer Kaos Studios has been shut down by THQ – the sequel is being handled by Nottingham-based Crytek.
Certainly much of the attempts at cinematic drama fall a little short – the supporting characters don’t prompt much emotion, particularly as they’re invulnerable in battle and only meet their maker at heavily sign-posted moments. The prospect of the hidden homebase is obviously wiped out early on to make way for plot progression in such a short space of time, for example. One memorable moment is sparked by an ill-advised mortar round fired by an American-Korean character in the main cast, but even this only accounts for a minute of action before everything moves on relentlessly.
Besides the need to move relentlessly onwards, the game mechanics don’t lend themselves to a memorable experience. It’s very much pull left trigger, aim, pull right trigger, fire, and repeat. Occasionally you’re given control of the automated Colossus vehicle, in which case it becomes a case of using your targetting goggles, firing and repeating.
It’s not a particularly bad experience – there are certainly worse FPS games mechanically, and everything has a reasonable level of polish and action. But it’s just not great, and doesn’t help lift the story or the action. There’s the odd choice to relegate climbing ladders and certain moments to a button press, and the clunky controls for a helicopter section which undermine the supposed skill of your Marine helicopter pilot as he careers around aimlessly.
Graphically it looks pretty good – particularly with the ruined scenery of suburban America in a subdued palette. But again, game mechanics undermine this as you can’t go off the beaten path, even when searching for the obligatory and heavily highlighted collectible newspaper articles. Every time I started to sink into the game a little I found myself stuck on an invisible wall, or occasionally waiting for a scripted AI moment which left me unable to open a door or do anything.
The audio is pretty good with some rousing orchestral themes, and the voice acting isn’t bad – just average. Occasionally it’s slightly muffled, and I ended up putting the optional subtitles on to avoid missing anything useful. But there’s always a mission target icon shouting loudly at you to get to the objective, so it’s never a problem.
Inevitably you’re led into various big set-piece bottlenecks which rely on you moving up through cover to allow your invincible team-mates to wipe out the Korean (or at one stage survivalist) enemies, whilst you pop out occasionally to give them a hand. But even the prospect of killing fellow Americans doesn’t phase the AI characters for more than split second.
Overall I actually enjoyed the single player campaign. Although much of the game feels workmanlike, it had enough atmosphere and story to keep me interested in how everything turns out, and the short campaign meant it didn’t outstay its welcome (Although it came close on one particular stage). If each area of the game had just been a little better, the whole experience would have been very highly rated, but as it is, I’d suggest it as a rental or cheap purchase to run through quickly for a break from the CoD and Battlefield worlds.
The good news is that early launch problems were rectified pretty quickly, and Homefront has a pretty solid and enjoyable multiplayer experience. The bad news is a rental or secondhand copy requires an online pass to be purchased for 800 MS Points before you can proceed past Level 5 with your character – considering the age of the game and the downloadable alternatives, that really, really needs to be dropped to something more accessible asap.
Multiplayer itself can be a little tricky to find games, but once you’re in it’s good fun. You get standard team deathmatch or ground control (capture the base) game types, along with Battle Commander which assigns special objectives and highlights enemy players with killstreaks to dish out bonus points.
One unusual feature is that the game’s Battle Points can be spent on the fly during a game – you have an available selection for each class, and you can also buy vehicles. So during a game you can save and spend your points on a rocket launcher or a helicopter depending on how well you do.
There’s a small selection of maps, along with later DLC releases for Alcatraz and a couple more. Again, it’s hard to justify investing in maps and online access when there are a number of other notable shooters available, but if you decide you prefer the Homefront approach, I can understand that.
Homefront verdict: 6/10
I do think Homefront is worth experiencing. The story may not achieve all it was set up to do, but if you approach it as an attempt to set a different scene and world, it’s easy to see a number of good moments and ways it could be spun out for the second game. Certainly the familiar mechanics and gameplay mean the short campaign can be gone through quickly to let you see everything and make up your own mind.
It feels much like the Millius script was always the unique selling point for this game, and the rest of development was more of a box ticking exercise, which results in a decent-enough multiplayer, a decent-enough single player, and a decent-enough game, hence why it gets a decent-enough score. I’m really keen to see how the story side of the game might be expanded for the sequel, as Homefront could develop into a very interesting franchise with the right emphasis on the emotions and struggles of resistance fighters. But if you’re looking for something to amaze you, it’s probably better to wait for the next installment of the big FPS franchises for the time being.
Version tested: Xbox 360.