Homefront Review

To say that the film Red Dawn made an impact on me is an understatement. It was released when I was three, so I can’t say exactly how old I was when I first watched it, but I spent the next 20+ years frightened of the impending World War which we have dabbled in many times since my childhood. Even now, when I gaze upon the horizon, my mind automatically imagines a blinding flash in the distance followed immediately by a massive mushroom cloud, and Charlie Sheen is partially to blame.

The opening scene of Red Dawn, in which Soviet paratroopers open fire on a classroom full of children, was devastating all on its own. In the initial spray of bullets, a young, unsuspecting boy is hit, and is left slumped over the broken window, literally killed where he stood. It doesn’t get any more brutal than that. Or does it? Homefront’s opening scene does an excellent job of recreating that sense of horror and gripping “What if?” sentiments, and why shouldn’t it–both pieces of fiction-for-now were written by the same man.

Moviegoers’ first impression of a film is often a lasting one. If the opening scene is filled with blood and guts, and the next 60 minutes are basically an old women in her nightgown watching Matlock, half the audience would walk away thinking, “God that movie was violent!” The same is true of sexual content or vulgar language, and the same is true here in Homefront: The first few missions of the game are used to establish the setting, the enemy, and most importantly, the atrocities the invading Korean forces readily perform on unarmed American men, women, and children by the truckloads.

After that, it’s a pretty straightforward shooter. Not the best ever made, but not at all terrible, and just short enough to keep interest high before the game’s faults wear out their welcome. You can probably complete a single run from opening cinematic to end credits in 3-4 hours, but I’m not one of those parrots chirping out a complaint that Homefront doesn’t meet some arbitrary 10-hour quota. In fact, I prefer the shorter play time, and was all the more willing to start up a second playthrough to go back and work on the achievements for completing the game on the hardest difficulty setting and surviving each level without dying.

Another random complaint I’ve seen thrown at Homefront is that it doesn’t innovate, but sometimes innovation is overrated. Homefront offers up solid, well-established FPS gameplay and a mostly high-quality story, and that’s more than enough to qualify a playthrough. There is, however, maybe a little too much suspension of disbelief here and there (seriously, how many times can you get blown out of a watch tower?), and the final mission is kind of abrupt and unexpected; the rest of the game does a great job of creating this sense of overwhelming odds and a small, rag-tag group of American rebels working towards a snippet of the bigger picture; then all of the sudden you’ve teamed up with US military forces and are storming the San Francisco bridge. It’s a little jarring and, for being so short, it really breaks the flow of the story/experience while simultaneously providing the most stunning setpiece in the entire game.

Gunplay is satisfying, especially grenades. There’s nothing like seeing a group of ragdoll Korean soldiers go flying after a well-placed frag, but shooting works just as well. It’s important that killing the enemy “feel good,” as after seeing (or worse, hearing) all the terrible things they do, you’ll definitely want some payback. I wish they’d taken it even further, really, as I’d like to dole out some Soldier of Fortune-esque body part-specific mayhem.

Whereas most story-based shooters falter in their tacked-on multiplayer mode(s), Homefront rises to the occasion, and it’s this online offering that really rounds out the overall package. Although the near-future setting is only minimally touched upon in the single-player (the sentry towers are cool, but is that the only technological advance made in the next 15 years?), there are far more gadgets to play with in the multiplayer.

Utilizing the “Battle Points” system, players earn BP by killing enemies, saving friendlies, capturing objectives, and marking targets. Each loadout is granted two purchasable slots where BP can then be spent to instantly unlock a flak jacket armor upgrade, a rocket launcher (which thankfully carries over even after death), or a handful of remote-controlled drones such as a mini-tank or rocket-equipped mini-copter. These drones add an extra layer of strategy to the gameplay, but don’t feel broken, out of place, or cheap like the self-destructing RC car in Black Ops. There are a couple of airstrike options, but these are nowhere near as effective as those seen in Call of Duty.

BP can also be spent to spawn with one of several vehicles, starting with a cheap Humvee and moving on up to a heavy tank or attack chopper. Your comrades can hop on board for added mayhem, and the Humvee actually requires a second player to man the gun, otherwise it’s just a really loud battering ram. Again, vehicles are powerful and useful, but they cost large amounts of BP, meaning their availability is limited, and a few solid rocket hits can take any of them down.

Homefront’s multiplayer can best be described as a hybrid of Modern Warfare, Bad Company, and Frontlines, Kaos’ previous shooter. It is certainly not a thorough amalgamation of those three games, but it does take bits and pieces from each and glue them all together well, or at least well enough. Some areas, such as the Challenges and unlock system, are not as fleshed out as they are in other games, but the multiplayer does the rare thing that few others manage: it just feels right. I wouldn’t play Homefront forever, but for the one or two months it will be spinning in my disc tray, I'll appreciate the straightforward approach they’ve taken with all of the meta features.

Unfortunately, what really sets Homefront back is its technical inferiority. Kaos has crafted a concrete shooter that borrows some of the best bits from Modern Warfare, Battlefield, and Frontlines, but it looks like an unoptimized PC port, not an Unreal Engine 3 title that has benefited from years of upgrades and modifications. Likewise, animations are wonky and, although this technically falls under gameplay, why the hell can’t I shoot through a two-inch piece of wood? Surface penetration may have been a gimmick for Call of Duty, but it’s one that needs to be universally accepted into game design, like explosive red barrels or running faster with a knife.

I’ll be honest: I avoided Homefront up till now as much as possible. Not for any particular reason, I just figured I’d see it when I played it. That seems to have worked in my favor, as whatever grand hype and far-reaching expectations the game is supposedly not living up to, I was not aware of them. I just enjoyed it for what it was: an above average shooter.

I also find it intriguing that my journalistic brethren so easily throw a new IP like Homefront under the bus after lavishing perfect scores upon the laughably flawed Black Ops and Halo: Reach. With a few tweaks and a fresher paint of coat, Homefront would have been outstanding, far outshining either of those titles. As is, it’s still worth a playthrough, and the quality multiplayer makes an excellent alternative to your current, aging FPS of choice.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360]