Homefront – the PS3 Attitude review
Story and concept came first for Homefront – they are the things THQ are pushing – so it’s only right that we tackle the singleplayer campaign first before moving on to the multiplayer, Homefront’s trump card.
Homefront’s story takes place in America, in the year 2027, two years after a Korean invasion and occupation. The cruel oppressors are out to crush whatever fight the Americans have left, through whatever means necessary. However, the American people are made of sterner stuff, as we’re sure you’ve already guessed. They’re mounting a resistance, and your character will have a key role to play.
Homefront’s story sounds completely implausible; it mostly is. Therefore, Kaos Studios deserve all the praise in the world for having us sold after only half an hour of playing. Kaos with the help of John Milius – writer of Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn – have worked incredibly hard to fill in the gaps, to turn this into a believable what-if scenario.
It starts with the unification of North and South Korea, then the invasion of Japan. This all happens while the world’s biggest economies are collapsing due to rapidly increasing fuel costs and other banking sector mishaps. As the world-leading nations, especially America, descend into something close to civil war, they become powerless to put pressure on the powerful and politically savvy Korea, who now finds a strong ally in the form of Iran. Crippling America further is a virulent strain of Bird Flue, which kills millions. America is on its knees when Korea launches an EMP blast.
You see all this happen in Homefront’s powerful opening cutscene, but what really cements it all are the tens of newspaper clippings scattered around Homefront’s world, waiting for you to find and read them. They cover the years from today to the invasion, and cover topics as wide and varied as the second collapse of GM to rising racial tensions in Japan. The writers have been thorough. The intro has all the impact, but these newspaper clippings really bring Homefront’s world to life.
It’s just a shame most people will probably skip over these text-heavy dully-presented extracts, because the content is rich with interesting. Surely, Kaos could have found a better way to present them. Some BioShock-style radio broadcasts or some televisions footage (presuming there is still working technology for both) would have been more engaging.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Kaos doesn’t want the player to be bogged down in the contextual storyline. The story is told on a much more human level rather than a political one. It’s about how individuals react to this extreme situation. Do they fight, hide, betray their friends or become animals? We see all examples of all.
We think Kaos has gone down the right route. This branch of storytelling sets Homefront apart from just about every other testosterone-filled first-person shooter out there; however, there is a problem: while Kaos can create an intriguing political background, they’re not as adept at telling the human tale.
The beginning shows promise; your character, an experienced helicopter pilot, is hounded out of his tattered bedroom by Korean soldiers and sent onto a bus. During the ride, he looks out the windows and sees tens of civilians locked in cages. Some are interrogated; others are cold bloodedly murdered in front of their children. The scene takes inspiration from the bus ride in Children of Men. It’s equally uncompromising; it’s very powerful.
Your character would be dead, without a doubt, if it weren’t for the local resistance fighters coming to the rescue. It turns out they need a pilot. Strangely, you never find out why, or at least not until the end of the game. Your newfound friends don’t really communicate much. Instead, your guy is blindly dragged through the game while having orders constantly barked at him as if he’s a dog.
It’s one of the most disappointing aspects of Homefront’s storytelling. You can’t get absorbed into the story when you feel so dethatched from it all. There is no real interaction on a meaningful level; there is no warmth, just a lot of orders. It’s the standard way to tell a story in first-person shooters these days, but it feels so inadequate here. It feels like a missed opportunity. Your character is clearly a person with an interesting back-story – that much is evident from his ruined, empty flat with its stars and stripes proudly hanging from the wall. Why do we never learn more about him, about why he’s fighting?
The same applies to our new friends. The leader is your cliché macho soldier while the female character is your trademark bolshie female, who shows her sensitive side when in tense situations. The other, the technophile, proves to be quite interesting, if only because he develops and maintains some interesting toys (including the Goliath, which we’ll talk about later). We were finally starting to warm to them by the end of the game, but it was too late by then. There should be a bond straight from the off, and it needs to be developed throughout the game.
As for Homefront’s enemy, the Koreans, there were two ways Kaos could have presented them: one, make them as evil as possible; or two, consider the sympathetic route (they are fellow humans thrown into an unpleasant scenario after all). They flirt with the latter route with no real conviction, particularly in two sections of the game (in a car park where you can show mercy, or later in the game when you visit some trigger-happy Americans). They do an adequate job with the former, though. You witness some major atrocities, which make it easy for you to hate the Koreans, but there aren’t any powerful “personalities” within the Korean ranks for you to detest. It’s never personalised. You feel as though you’re just shooting down stormtrooper clones throughout the game.
There are some interesting, moving scenes in the game. Early on, you’ll visit a local resistance camp where you’ll see them trying to continue with their day-to-day lives, doing simple things like sourcing clean water and generating energy. You can even prod light responses from them. The scene is very rudimentary, but it helps make you care about the people. It’s similar to the village scene in Uncharted 2. However, like most of the scenes in the game, it’s too rushed. You’re rushed out the scene before you know it.
The game is full of moments, like that, which should have been developed further. You’ll get double-crossed by someone, but it’s hard to get too upset about their actions because you never get the chance to properly find out who he is and why he’s betraying you. Even the game’s closing moments, which should be epic, fade-out with a whimper. Why is this? Did Kaos lack the budget, time, skills or confidence to go the full way? Whatever the answer, we were left with the distinct feeling that we’re witnessing a missed opportunity.
Homefront’s world is fascinating, full of rich environmental storytelling. The emotions that the characters struggle to convey are at least understood by viewing the surroundings. You’re in the suburbs of San Francisco running through people’s trashed homes. You’re not jet setting between the Arctic to some unnamed Middle Eastern desert – this feels real.
The gameplay is well paced. The action isn’t rammed up to 11 at all times; you’re not constantly bombarded with set pieces. It means that when the big moments happen, you appreciate them more because they stand out against Homefront’s slower moments, the times when you’re flanking vehicles, taking out security turrets or walking around the resistance camp. Although, it should be said, none of Homefront’s big set piece moments are on the same scale as those in Black Ops.
Fans of Call of Duty will be happy with the way the game feels. Your character moves around in the same fast, floaty way and fires his gun very sharply. It’s not necessarily something we’re delighted about; the light arcade shooting and movement feels tired next to Killzone 3’s wonderfully weighted and incredibly powerful shooting experience, not to mention its top notch AI. However, we accept that millions love the way Call of Duty plays, so who are we to complain?
There are a few subtle but important differences between Homefront and Black Op’s gameplay. The biggest difference is that ammo is very sparse in Homefront, at least early on. Being a resistance fighter, you don’t have a huge armoury; therefore, you must scavenge your weapons off dead soldiers. You’re constantly picking up new guns as you play through. It’s a nice technique. Kaos could’ve taken it further by throwing in sections where you’ll just pick up underpowered weapons. This would have mixed things up and created new gameplay dynamics.
One way in which Kaos does create new dynamics is by throwing in interesting vehicle sections using the goliath. Goliath is a remote controlled tank with tractor wheels. It’s very fast and very powerful, and very fun to use. You’ll pinpoint your targets and goliath will take them out. Importantly, these sections never feel shoehorned in.
Possibly the biggest issue that we have with Homefront is its length; the campaign is only five-six hours long, which is short even for a shooter. It’s made worse by the fact that Homefront starts very slowly unlike, say, Black Ops, which throws everything, plus the kitchen sink at you from the beginning. Homefront, on the other hand, ends just as it starts to take-off. We wouldn’t change the pacing, but we’d certainly add two, maybe three hours more to the game.
If you only play singleplayer, you’d rightly feel short-changed by Homefront. Multiplayer fans, on the other hand, will get a lot more value for money. Homefront really comes alive online. Server issues have blighted Homefront’s launch – and they threaten to drive many fans away – but once you’re in, it’s a very enjoyable experience.
It takes the loadouts of Call of Duty – letting you customise your character into your own dream soldier – and lets you use them on large maps, the kinds you’d find in Bad Company 2. On top of this, it throws in tanks, helicopters and drones. It’s large-scale warfare unlike any other out there; it’s more action-orientated than Bad Company 2 but it’s still very tactical, so it’ll appeal to those who find Call of Duty too twitchy.
It also features some nice innovations in the form of Battle Points and Battle Commander. Before entering the fight, you’ll select your specials (e.g. UAV, flak jacket, drones etc.) and each of these will cost a certain amount of Battle Points to use. Obviously, the more powerful specials will require more points, so it creates this interesting dilemma “Do I save up for the better move or use lots of smaller perks instead?” You acquire Battle Points by killing, getting assists and capturing flags etc.
There’s also another way to gain points: take out the most wanted players. In Battle Commander mode, a wanted level is put on the most dangerous players on each team. Their wanted level increases as they kill, and more hunters are assigned to them as the wanted level rises. The radar will inform the hunter of the wanted player’s location, or at least close to where they are. If the hunter takes him out, they’ll get Battle Points. The bigger the target, the more points they’ll get.
This is great in three ways: one, it adds a new dimension to the gameplay, giving you more to do outside the main objective; two, it allows you to be the hero, even if you’re having a really terrible match; and lastly, it makes you feel great if you’re a wanted target – it’s a form of recognition for your talents. In these small-encapsulated moments within a match, you can be a hero even if you’re not part of a winning team or haven’t actually played well throughout.
Homefront’s multiplayer isn’t perfect, much like its singleplayer. It’s a little light, both in modes and in maps. There are essentially two modes, not including the Battle Commander variations; they are Team Deathmatch and a conquest mode called Ground Control. As for maps, there are six of them. It will be just enough to keep us entertained for a couple of months. We could have done with one or two more.
They are nicely varied though – some are set in congested cities, while others are set in farms in mountainous locations. Some are a little sniper friendly for our liking. Thankfully, Kaos implemented a few features to cut down on camping. One is the UAV special. The other relates to how you respawn; the camera will sweep down from high and briefly let you see where everyone is on the map. It makes it easier to spot campers.
Going forward, we’d really like to see more maps included otherwise we can’t see it lasting the test of time. However, for the now, the most important thing is that Kaos sort out their servers. Few games have crashed our consoles quite as many times as Homefront has, and getting into games is often a challenge. It works on some occasions, but not in others. That pretty much sums up Homefront, really. Kaos will need to up their game for Homefront 2.