Homefront (Xbox 360) review
"Before we even have a gun in our hands, Kaos sends us through a Modern Warfare-esque “sit in a vehicle and watch stuff happen” introductory sequence, during which we’re shown a young couple being lined up on a busy street and shot while their crying toddler watches. By the second level, we see the corpses of American civilians being dumped by bulldozers into mass graves. Jeez. Slow burn much, Homefront?"
I should make it clear right up front that I don’t have much to say about Homefront’s online component, because I’ve barely played it. Last year, I learned that Call of Duty’s particular brand of multiplayer doesn’t have the lasting appeal for me that it does for many, yet I recognize that the series is still the best of its kind, and that it would take divine influence to dethrone it. Yet Homefront doesn’t even seem to be trying. There are a whopping two game types, both team-based (an immediate turn-off for me, as I just sold my copy of Black Ops largely because I couldn’t take an Xbox Live party into a free-for-all match). The maps are way too sniper-friendly, which was one of the problems I had with Medal of Honor last year, partly because I hate snipers and partly because it disrupts the focus on teamwork that both games seem to be striving for. I played just enough to get a feel for it before growing frustrated and bored and returning to the campaign.
Speaking of which, I really don’t have much to say about Homefront’s single-player, either. This is yet another attempt by a publisher who isn’t Activision to capitalize on the current twitch shooter trend. If you’re at all interested in Homefront, I can pretty much guarantee you could recite the game’s entire control layout without even having played it. Quick! What happens when I click the left stick? Yep, I would dash. What about when I hit the right bumper? Yeah, I’d toss a grenade. I bet you would also estimate that the campaign only lasts about four to five hours, and you’d be right about that, too. Seriously, what the hell is up with ultra-short games these days? Okay, I realize most of the people who are into shooters like this only care about the multiplayer, but Homefront’s setting is the most interesting thing about it, so why not commit to it?
Let’s talk about that setting. Homefront is set in a near future in which a unified Korea has invaded the United States. That may sound a bit Modern Warfare 2 to you – albeit with a different and more appropriate enemy – but this game skips over the initial attack (via an admittedly excellent opening montage) and jumps to the point where Korean forces are occupying a large portion of the country and have major American cities under their control. Resistance fighters are rallying, though, and your character, a former military pilot, has been recruited to help with an ongoing battle that’s happening on the Golden Gate Bridge (and possibly other parts of San Francisco, but mostly the Golden Gate Bridge).
I believe Homefront technically qualifies as science fiction, even if there’s very little on the surface to indicate that this all isn’t happening during present day; it only ever feels like The Future when you’re fighting the Koreans’ automated sentry towers, and that’s only because they have blue lights, and blue lights look futuristic. But maybe that’s good. Homefront aims for poignancy, and it’s perfectly possible to take an inherently sci-fi concept, bring it down to Earth, and give it the weight it requires to unsettle us. I always point to the movie Children of Men as an example of this. The story had a fantastical setup – humanity has become infertile! – that was nevertheless haunting because this god-awful future felt only a few steps away from the world we live in today. If humanity did become infertile, then that’s probably what the world would turn into, and it would suck.
But developer Kaos has no regard for subtlety, and Homefront is so intensely programmed to freak us the hell out that it just comes off as cheap and overachieving, ultimately failing at what it’s trying to do. Before we even have a gun in our hands, Kaos sends us through a Modern Warfare-esque “sit in a vehicle and watch stuff happen” introductory sequence, during which we’re shown a young couple being lined up on a busy street and shot while their crying toddler watches. By the second level, we see the corpses of American civilians being dumped by bulldozers into mass graves. Jeez. Slow burn much, Homefront? You go into something like this expecting a few Holocaust parallels, I grant you, but rather than giving us a chance to feel comfortable before disclosing the grim details to us, Homefront blatantly announces its intentions within its opening moments, and loses its impact because of it.
And even then, too much of what transpires in Homefront isn’t attacked with enough seriousness to really sell us on its outlandish concept. Let me set up a scene for you. Korea doesn’t have the manpower to occupy the entire country coast to coast, and rural areas are largely unregulated and ungoverned. The Americans who have survived out there are the sorts of backwater hicks who already had automatic weapons long before the country was invaded, and the grid’s collapse hasn’t made them any less psychotic. They’ll kill Koreans (and hang their corpses and skulls out on display), but only because they’re bored, and if the mood strikes them, they’ll happily turn their guns on any of their fellow Americans who aren’t sporting Southern accents and plaid shirts.
A segment of the game is inevitably spent out there, during which Kaos hammers us with difficult moral questions. We see these survivalists doing terrible things to Korean prisoners. The Koreans themselves have committed some serious atrocities, but are we justified in returning the favor? And are we willing to attack our countrymen when we’re all supposed to be fighting a common enemy?
That’s heavy stuff, and in the hands of a more capable developer, it may have worked. Yet Kaos botches it. The sequence itself is a clone of the Chernobyl level from Modern Warfare, one in which we follow an AI companion through an enemy encampment while sniping designated targets. I still remember the terror of lying face-down in a ghillie suit as enemy troops walked mere feet away from me; if I moved, I’d risk giving away my position, and if I didn’t move, one of the soldiers might step on me. It was the standout mission in an altogether outstanding game, and Homefront’s equivalent is embarrassingly inept. It has a group of four characters in ostentatious clothing walking around upright in broad daylight and talking aloud, and getting away with it only because, by sheer happenstance, all enemies in the vicinity have their backs turned. It couldn’t be less convincing, and that effectively kills an atmosphere that should be drenched in poignancy.
I have no qualms with Homefront from a functionality standpoint, but that’s to be expected; twitch shooters are popular enough that most developers seem to have the basics down, so that’s good. But it’s ultimately presentation that separates top-tier titles like Modern Warfare from second-rate knock-offs, and Homefront has one too many muddy textures, lousy particle effects and poorly-delivered lines of dialog to reach the lofty heights for which it was striving. The lack of immersion degrades the game to yet another criminally short exercise in a genre we’ve had more than our fill of. Homefront has more promise than most, and its sales indicate that the masses still aren’t sick of this sort of thing, but I hope Kaos understands that they won’t be getting another free ride when the sequel rolls around.
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