Thoughts on Homefront

on Sunday, May 6, 2012

  • THQ, Digital Extremes
  • Action, FPS
  • Release: Mar 15, 2011 (US)
  • Platforms: PC (version reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3

Homefront is an encapsulation of the problems that plague many video games. While it has the polish and technical prowess of a top of the line, AAA gaming experience, it falls totally flat due to its inept conception.

The single player campaign finds the player's character, an American pilot, captive to the Koreans, who have invaded and conquered much of the United States in Homefront's near-future setting. Soon, however, he teams up with a resistance group, with whom the player endeavors to throw a wrench into the Koreans' plans by unleashing a whole lot of violence. As implausible as the premise sounds, that is not the game's problem.

Nor are the graphics. The game is powered by the Unreal Engine 3, and the developers have managed to adapt it to beautifully render some lovely, open, outdoor landscapes. Because the game centers around a American resistance movement, the setting is is a battered version of suburbia. The battlegrounds are neighborhood streets, the aisles of large abandoned stores, and the open spaces of parking lots and sports fields. It is a competent representation of the premise the story puts forward.

The control and mechanics work adequately as well. The gunplay holds it own with titles like Call of Duty, and there is no shortage of weapons with which to experiment.

So why does the single player campaign fail so totally? The answer lies in the story and how the gameplay was used to convey that narrative. These choices are at odds with the game's strengths. The appeal of the implausible premise and setting is the novelty of fighting for a world that attempts to be the some one that the player lives in. One gets to see the destroyed suburbia, and those fighting alongside you are normal, scared people like yourself. A game that makes the most of these strengths would allow the player opportunities for exploration of the environment, perhaps by providing multiple possible routes to achieve objectives. Such a game would develop the characters; their back stories would provide motive for the fighting while exploring how terrible situations change people. The prejudicial tension between Americans of Western European descent compared to those of East Asian descent given the invasion of Koreans could provide fascinating plot points to be explored.

Homefront, however, does none of these things. The gameplay is linear to a fault. There is frequently one path forward, and that path is always highly scripted in both time and space. You cannot climb a ladder or crawl through a hole until the characters with you go first, and, even then, you will simply press a key that tells the game to do the crawling or climbing for you. You cannot explore the neighborhoods that you must fight through. Only one path forward will be allowed, so there will be no opportunity to look in abandoned houses, stores, or other scenery. It is all merely a backdrop. The other characters, too, are merely a backdrop; though they fight alongside you, they are shallow, undeveloped shells of characters. The main group consists of a tough black guy, a scared woman, and a featureless, techy Asian. Each is an empty stereotype that is present only as a nod to diversity, and none contributes to the story. With no characters to care about, a world that feels tiny despite its large size, and no freedom to accomplish anything, it is very hard to care much about the game as a whole. As a result, there's not too much fun to be had, and there's nothing interesting to think about, either.

How about the multiplayer? It is highly derivative of the Battlefield series. The maps are pretty decent, and the different game types are standard of the genre. Homefront mixes things up a bit with the introduction of "Battle Points." These points are earned by doing things like killing enemies or achieving objectives. Then they can be spent on vehicles (tanks, trucks, etc), accessories (flak jacket, RPG, etc), or special abilities (like deploying a drone). This adds a touch of new strategy, but in practice it doesn't work too differently from just spawning the items at intervals. The vehicles seem underpowered in this game, and I think much of that issue arises from the non-destructible environment. In Battlefield: Bad Company 2, for example, a tank can force it's way through a flimsy wall or fence; in Homefront, on the other hand, the tank can do nothing to a flimsy fence and is thus easily trapped. This renders the use of vehicles fairly uninteresting. As a whole, the multiplayer can be enjoyable, but it is clearly inferior to several other games.

As a whole, there is much to learn from Homefront. Despite its high production values, it makes numerous mistakes in its construction of gameplay mechanics and its botched attempt to create an interesting narrative. Further, it has no idea how to combine that narrative with those mechanics, so each fails completely and separately. One can have some fun with Homefront, so perhaps players that simply want a different FPS to play will find enjoyment. But, ultimately, it's a shallow and unfullfilling experience.


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