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North Korean forces invade US soil in the most fanciful FPS you'll play this year...
In Homefront’s future setting of 2027, North Korea has invaded and successfully occupied the United States of America, branding as “insurgents” any of the populace who voice dissent or show resistance against the new regime. Sound familiar? Clearly the brutality and imperialism exhibited by the Korean People’s Army in the game is in no way comparable to the US/British-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but you do get the slight inkling that a mirror is being held up here, even if that mirror is made of frosted glass. It’s hard to tell if these parallels are intentional but, given the heritage of the game’s writer, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some kind of underlying allegory at work here.
It’s one of Milius’ other major works though (1984 flick, Red Dawn), which has the strongest relation to Homefront. Swap the Korean People’s Army for Russian/Chinese soldiers and the plot is almost identical: communists invade US soil and a civilian militia rises up to fight them. This idea will be played out again later this year when a Red Dawn remake comes out in the cinemas, although minus the now capitalist Russian soldiers. It's a plot that taps into America’s paranoid, Survivalist sub-culture and expands it across values that we can all relate to or be fearful of, and Homefront actually does a fairly decent job of transposing that sentiment through a video game.
The story is at times crass and often clichéd; it’s as full of over-the-top dialogue as most mediocre FPS titles and yet, still, there’s something that grabs you about it. In this way it’s not unlike a Jerry Bruckheimer film – it couldn’t be further from a masterpiece but it’s always entertaining nonetheless. In fact, when the end credits rolled we were left genuinely yearning for more; a sensation that’s become less and less common with all the ludicrously overclocked waves of fire-fights that have peppered the closing levels of so many recent FPS blockbusters. Such is the superb balancing of Homefront’s final level, you feel constantly challenged as the crescendo builds to a climax but never irritated or frustrated by the dialled-up enemies; it’s difficult but it’s not cheap in the way it raises that difficulty curve.
On the other hand, perhaps the reason why we were left yearning for more was Homefront’s 5-hour campaign. Reports circled last week regarding the short length of the single-player and we can confirm that they were spot-on. Homefront feels more like a first episode than a standalone storyline and in this light perhaps the fact that you’re left wanting more is to its credit (THQ has made no secret of the potential for sequels). Still, after spending £40-50 on the game you may be less inclined to view it like that and justifiably so, although it’s worth remembering that the Modern Warfare games were both 6 hours in length and this never hurt their prospects. They valued quality over quantity and were all the better for it. In comparison, Homefront is great in places but also quite average for much of the duration – never bad, just a bit run-of-the-mill at times.
Signature Call of Duty game design is dished out in heaped spoonfuls, such as the all-important 'feathered' aiming system and a tightly scripted stealth sequence with an AI partner who tells you when and where to run, what to crouch behind, and indeed who to shoot. There’s even a pretty decent set-piece where you snipe from the bell-tower of a church as your squad covertly infiltrates an industrial complex below. Still, it just lacks the touch of Captain Price’s father-like guidance during that snowy Modern Warfare 2 level, or the poise of ‘Dusty’ in last year’s Medal of Honor – the atmosphere isn’t quite there and neither is the overall design, making the whole section that bit less immersive and believable. Nothing is broken or excessively bland about the level but, then again, nothing is exceptionally well executed either.
It is a well varied campaign though – if you're not dropping squad-mates onto a convoy of trucks by flying alongside it in a helicopter then you'll be remotely raining down Hellfire missiles on a platoon of KPA troops, directing a six-wheeled artillery vehicle called 'Goliath', or (and we say this with much regret) climbing into a mass grave of American citizens to camouflage yourself. That last example is yet another instance where a game developer has attempted to be artfully provocative by utilising excessively shocking tactics and fallen flat on its face instead. It just comes across as tasteless and a bit offensive rather than thought provoking in the slightest. Nonetheless, the fact that there's some variation (exempting the mass graves bit) is to the game's credit, particularly as the standard issue fire-fights are let down by some pretty mediocre AI that falls into whack-a-mole routines far too easily.
If the single-player is derivative, borrowing what it can from the likes of Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty where possible, then the multiplayer verges on plagiarism. It's very literally two parts Battlefield (which makes sense given Kaos' history with DICE) and one part Call of Duty. The flagship mode, Ground Control is essentially a mix of Battlefield's Conquest and Rush modes - Conquest for the control points, and Rush for the advancing fronts of the battlefield (although in fairness the advancing fronts feature was explored in Kaos' Frontlines: Fuel of War first). Vehicles are featured similarly to DICE's series as well, with a significant impetus placed on fully controllable ground and air units such as Humvees and Apache choppers.
It's the perks and rewards that are heavily influenced by CoD, although admittedly the Battle Points system does add a spark of originality to the whole process. Explained simply, Battle Points are awarded for certain actions (e.g. a successful kill or capturing a control point) and can then be exchanged for actions such as a missile strike, access to drones, or respawning in a vehicle. Effectively then, these Battle Points replace conventional Killstreak Rewards, although killstreaks are thrown into the mix by marking players on the map who have successfully notched up a number of chained kills, thereby alerting the enemy to their presence. Should you manage to kill one of these threats then you'll be rewarded with additional Battle Points and XP.
All in all it's pretty well-trodden stuff, albeit with a couple of minor twists on established ideas. Is it fun to play? Well, we've got to say yes really, and it adds a sizeable amount of long-term appeal to the game through a considerable levelling-up tree of upgrades and unlocks. The limited range of three modes does stunt the offering a bit, but it's still got legs nonetheless. If you're a hardcore multiplayer FPS gamer who's played Black Ops and Bad Company 2 to death but loves the format of both, then Homefront could be right up your street in all honesty.
PC gamers will also be glad to hear that Digital Extremes' handling of the PC port has been exemplary. The bells and whistles of DX11 and DX10 features have been well accounted for, particularly where motion-blur is concerned (which has been so heavily applied that at times it's almost dizzying). Textures are that bit crisper, particle effects are more detailed, and the lighting is more vivid. Effectively then, it offers all the kinds of added features (did we mention it has support for dedicated servers too?) that PC users crave.
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