REVIEW / Homefront (X360)

The United States hasn’t had an enemy both sides of the political divide could rally against since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Kaos Studios’ Homefront thinks North Korea could fit the bill, with a little creative license. Kaos Studios and John Milius, the writer of Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now, have created an almost post-apocalyptic vision of an America weakened by economic collapse, widespread disease and scattered military. But that’s just the build up to the main event. In this speculative future, Kim Jong-un, son of North Korea’s current pint-sized dictator Kim Jong-il, has somehow managed to turn the poverty-stricken, famine-ridden nation into a conquering nuclear superpower capable of annexing Japan, seizing Hawaii and eventually invading and occupying the United States with an evil zeal that would make Stalin proud.

The game opens in Montrose, Colorado in 2027, two years after a Korean People’s Republic satellite blanketed the country with a powerful EMP blast, marking the start of an invasion that has culminated in brow-beaten detention camps and bombed-out suburban wastelands. You enter the fray as former marine pilot Richard Jacobs, a KPA-detainee who is liberated from a bus ride to a bad place by the resistance. Technically, by a car crash, but the resistance was behind the wheel. From there you launch into the typical trappings of a first-person shooter, with levels littered with weapons and targets and, above all, designed to keep you moving in a fairly obvious linear path. The guns handle nicely, with good aiming and accuracy, but the real treat is the vehicles. It would have been nice to have more direct control, but it still feels good raining death on the enemy with drones, helicopters and your remote-controlled tank, Goliath. You’ll need all the high-tech help you can get, as the one thing Homefront really nails is making you feel like you’re the underdog, fighting against an overwhelming, overpowering enemy force. It could be all the monster closets, but you really feel like part of a rag tag group of freedom fighters, not an elite super soldier.

That being said, there are some fundamental flaws that bring the action grinding to a halt, namely the lack of a decent cover system. Kaos has taken steps in Homefront’s multiplayer to discourage camping, but what’s to stop the single-player’s NPCs from breaking out the s’mores – too many times you’ll find yourself taken out by an RPG fired from three blocks away because you couldn’t tuck yourself just so behind a piece of cover. You can only duck and sprint, thankfully without ever getting winded, but with the constant rain of bullets you’d happily trade your cardiovascular fortitude for the power to press against a damned wall. And then there’s the fact that your companions, who are overly helpful when it comes to issuing instructions, practically holding your hand between objectives, are often useless in a firefight. Don’t believe them when they say they’ll cover you. That’s resistance code for letting you get shot in the face. Consider yourself forewarned that there is a definite bias in the game’s AI toward targeting you over your computer-controlled companions.

Overall Homefront holds its own amid similar war-themed shooters, not breaking any new ground in terms of gameplay or graphics. But that’s not news. Since the early days of development, it’s been the storyline and setting that Kaos hoped would distinguish Homefront from the rest of the Call of Duty clones. And admittedly, the opening is gripping, as KPA soldiers round up crying women, beat unarmed men and gun down parents in front of their children. There are several well-scripted moments crammed into the seven-chapter single-player campaign, including an epic showdown on the San Francisco Bridge. Sure, the plot falls apart the moment you start thinking about it, but Milius’ shock and awe approach to the story, combined with a Hollywood-blockbuster worthy score, keep you from worrying about how plausible it would be for one of the poorest countries in the world to launch an overseas campaign against the third largest country in the world. I don’t care if they’re the most militarized country in the world, it means nothing if they can’t afford to feed their people, let alone fuel their planes.

Homefront’s premise is compelling, contrasting familiar scenes of man’s inhumanity toward man in an unfamiliar setting. It’s the same atrocities that have been perpetrated in other war games, but it’s like we’re supposed to care more because it’s happening in America. I would fault Kaos and THQ for their hypocritical American attitudes if it weren’t so damned effective –  as a fellow hypocritical American, I begrudgingly admit it’s more shocking to see scenes of violence and brutality played out against the backdrop of White Castle than some starving third-world village. Where it falls short is in the pacing. There are way too many hands-off moments where you’re forced to watch while others do, following in the AI’s footsteps rather than leading the charge. An unforgivable amount of the game’s already brief 5 hour playtime is going to be spent waiting for your companions to push over fridges, crawl under fences, or open doors. If they feel like it. More than once I stood staring at the latest strategically placed metal filing cabinet, I unable to move it and my fellow resistance fighters unwilling, locked in a bitter stalemate until I was forced to reload the last checkpoint.

The single-player campaign might be filled with quirks and glitches, but the multiplayer shines. The maps are huge, the loadouts customizable and the vehicles varied. There are three traditional modes, skirmish, team deathmatch, and Ground Control, a 32-player conquest mode similar to Kaos’ own Frontlines: Fuel of War that pits resistance fighters against the might of the Great Korean Republic. But plan to spend most of your time in Battle Commander, which incorporates a clever risk vs. reward system. The maps are massive and varied, with plenty of roofs, alleys and windows to hide in, but Kaos has discouraged camping by singling out skilled players. The longer your kill streak, the more character-boosting bonuses you will earn, along with more attention from the opposing team.

Battle Commander’s omnipotent AI alerts players to high priority targets, which includes vehicles, drones and infantry. And just in case there was any doubt, you’re the infantry. Players are assigned stars based on their threat level, with more stars meaning more intel for your enemy on your current position. And they won’t even have to get close to kill you. Everything you do, from capturing a flag to assisting in a kill, nets you “Battle Points.” Vehicles have to be purchased in the spawn screen, but you can spend them in-game on flak jackets and missile launchers. And your enemy can spend them on scout helicopters, drones and air strikes. Homefront also features a leveling system with more than 70 ranks, perks and special weapon unlocks, adding to the replay value.

Ultimately Homefront is not worth the hype, but is still worth playing. Even though it boasts a single-player campaign scripted by the Hollywood screenwriter behind the cult classic Red Dawn, it could just as well have been penned by a team of Kaos interns as predictable as it is. Not that I didn’t enjoy Milius’ blend of paranoia and patriotism, it just felt too generic, and definitely too short, despite its initial promise. Homefront‘s ultimate draw is the multiplayer. Though the online modes are limited, Kaos has incorporated some cool new ideas to keep the matches moving along at a brisk and brutal pace. It could be a good time waster until the next Call of Duty, which Kaos will just have to try harder dethrone, perhaps in Homefront 2.

– Ridiculously short single-player campaign
– Lack of a decent cover system
– Looks and feels like your average shooter, with slightly less than average graphics

+ Excellent multiplayer, particularly the unique twist on team deathmatch that is Battle Commander mode
+ Memorable set pieces
+ Gripping soundtrack