Smirk all you like about Homefront - and you probably will - but at least it’s a game with ambition. It’s a game that wants to step into the ring with Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and give them some real competition. It’s a game that wants to push the storytelling aspect of the military FPS and make a real emotional connection. It’s a game that wants to thrill you with moments of action and spectacle, but also move and shock you with the horrors of war and occupation. It’s a game that wants to give you not just an enemy to fight, but a reason to fight; this kill is for America, for the slaughtered parents, the murdered kids.
There’s just one tiny, little problem. Homefront’s aims might be ambitious, but it is hopelessly ill-equipped for every task. Beyond the fact that it feels too much like a clone of Modern Warfare, its ploys are too obvious, its graphics too unpolished and its storytelling too crude to make the grade. It’s portrayal of a shattered America crushed by brutal North Korean troops might have its arresting moments, but it teeters on the brink of parody. More than any Call of Duty game it feels like propaganda, but if you don’t feel gripped, you’ll alternate between laughter and revulsion for most of the game.
The fact that Homefront is such a Modern Warfare clone isn’t actually that much of a disaster. The familiar look and feel makes it easy for anyone who’s played Modern Warfare and its sequel - e.g., most of the adult gaming population - to get right into Homefront from the start, and the core combat is very competently handled. We get a satisfying range of assault rifles, SMGs, tactical rifles and heavy weapons. The enemy AI is solid, aggressive and not painfully predictable, and the action encourages you to move from cover to cover without constantly punishing the gutsy scramble or heroic rush. Your AI-controlled allies don’t always cut the mustard as freedom fighters (there’s mucho shooting, but you bear the brunt of the hard work), but they’re not a total loss. If you want simple duck, run and gun gameplay, Homefront gets all the fundamentals right.
Nor is there all that much wrong with the level design. As in the last few Call of Duty games, your route is forcefully prescribed and often ridiculously linear, with frequent doors and ad-hoc barriers that block your way until everyone comes and stands in the right place. All the same, the running battles and major set-pieces are well-paced, and each level has a handful of genuinely memorable moments. When you’re piloting a remote-controlled, rocket-firing drone around a wrecked Californian suburb, firefighting in what used to be out-of-town restaurants and electronics stores, or battling to retake the Golden Gate bridge, Homefront doesn’t feel like a B-grade Call of Duty; it pretty much feels like the real deal.
Bar a disastrous helicopter level, then, Homefront’s gameplay works. The problem is all the stuff that surrounds it. The story is partly to blame. Even in the unlikely event that you can swallow the ridiculous premise, where North Korea reunites with South Korea, takes Japan and attacks an America in the grip of economic crisis, the minute-by-minute experience of the narrative is ham-fisted and inept. The Norks (as they're known) are so utterly and irredeemably evil that Homefront makes the Modern Warfare 2's infamous No Russian chapter seem like a model of restraint, while Kim Jong-il will be shouting “Come back Crysis, all is forgiven.”
Within the first couple of hours you'll have seen numerous public executions, watched parents being gunned down in front of their children, attacked a concentration camp and hidden in a mass grave. This kind of stuff can and should have a place in games, but here it’s used purely to manipulate, to ensure that you feel (a) bad about what's happened to America and (b) good about shooting those motherfreaking Norks. And, no, throwing in a level later on where deranged Militia-men are torturing captured North Koreans doesn’t count as adding balance.
To make things worse, the dialogue and characterisation is appalling. We know that Homefront was written by John Milius, the writer of Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian, but if you didn’t know better you’d swear that it had been written by South Park’s Cartman. Your usual squad-leader, Connor, is such a spectacularly irritating barrel of hilarious war movie cliches that Homefront is at least 50% more entertaining if you imagine Cartman doing the voice as well.
And Homefront has another major problem. If you’re going to take on Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Battlefield, then you’ve either got to have your own distinctive visual style, or you’ve got to ensure that your production values are really, really high. Sadly, while Homefront uses the Unreal 3 engine, the visuals are best described as mixed, with some lovely lighting and scenery in places, but rough looking character models and gruesome, patchy texturing in others. The music might be cinematic and the sounds of battle convincing, but the graphics just don’t measure up.
Now, all of this might not matter to you. You might feel differently about the story, you might be prepared to live with the graphics, and the gameplay, well, that’s pretty good, right? You know what? Good for you. But there’s still one issue remaining: length. The single-player campaign is woefully short. If you can’t clock this one within 4 to 5 hours, then you probably shouldn’t play any more FPS games. Up to a point, we’d rather have "all killer" and "no filler", but we’d also like a game that feels like a proper game, and not like a £20 expansion pack.
Luckily for Homefront, there is some compensation in the multiplayer options. The developer’s last game, Frontlines: Fuel of War, was the first title to make a decent fist of Battlefield-style gameplay on a console format, and Homefront’s Ground Control mode is effectively an evolution, with 32 players on the ground, battling it out over a series of checkpoints on a frontline that moves as the match goes on. It’s a very good multiplayer mode, with a solid, well-balanced class system, a strong weapon set, interesting maps and a nicely done credits system, where points earned in battle can be spent on armour, vehicles and drones with which to assault the enemy. It feels larger in scale than Black Ops or Medal of Honor, and almost a viable alternative to Battlefield: Bad Company 2.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite viable enough to convert those who’re already knee deep in DICE’s masterpiece or its Vietnam expansion, and with Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and sci-fi shooters like Halo: Reach and Killzone 3 around, it’s hard to see Homefront making much traction on Xbox Live or PSN. To make things worse, the servers are currently under excessive demand, and we’ve found ourselves booted from many a game while trying to test. When Homefront works, it’s a good multiplayer option, but is good really good enough when the competition is so strong and the single-player campaign is so weak?
Homefront isn’t a disaster, and it’s worth a weekend’s rental to work your way through the single-player campaign and give the multiplayer mode a try. It’s also clear that Kaos Studios knows how to put together a strong military FPS, and produce levels with the gripping firefights and big moments the genre demands. But there’s no getting past the shortness of the campaign, the sledgehammer approach to storytelling or the unpolished graphics, and while the multiplayer options are much better, they’re not quite good enough to make it a serious rival to Black Ops or Battlefield: Bad Company 2.