You never get a second chance to make a first impression, as the true, but trite, saying goes. So when I stuck Homefront into my Xbox the morning after its release here in the UK, and it prompted me to install an update, I was a little disappointed. It’s unfair to suggest that it’s indicative of a game that has been rushed to release, as there is in reality a reasonable window between a game being finished and being available in stores. Indeed, one could argue that only a developer committed to providing a gaming experience of the highest quality would continue to support the game so vigorously post-launch as to already have improvements by the time you get your hands on it.
Having updated the game and restarted my machine, I was then presented with a gamma slider that insisted I adjust it until an image was barely visible. Unfortunately, at its brightest I was unable to view even the slightest hint of whatever image I was supposed to be obscuring, so had to settle for ‘as bright as you will go, though clearly by your own standards not bright enough’. Not a reassuring sign. Finally, having jumped through these additional hoops in order to play the game, I was greeted with a welcome screen informing me that the dedicated servers would be down for routine maintenance and unavailable this weekend, should I wish to attempt the multiplayer. Suffice it to say, from this point on Homefront was going to have to pour on the charm for me to forgive its initial clumsy impression.
What followed in the intro FMV was not exactly the charm I was looking for, being as it was one of Kim Jong-Il’s more vivid wet dreams. Using a mix of fabricated and real news footage, they paint a picture of the events leading up to the ridiculous plot of the game (a united Korea invades the USA for reasons that remain unclear) that is both novel, well-executed and, at times, incredibly crass, considering the genuinely harrowing real-world circumstances behind some of this borrowed video. So, North Korea is a legitimate threat to major world powers (OK, whatever), they grow in influence under Jong-Il’s son to take over the South Korea, Japan and most of Asia (somehow), and then, what the hell, they decide to nip over and occupy the USA, while the rest of the world refuses to give a shit/do anything about it. China is neatly omitted from the whole thing, partly because they were originally going to be the bad guys in this game, and also because someone suggested that insulting one of the USA’s most important trade partners (and our soon-to-be commie overlords) was probably not the wisest choice. Anyway, the Reds are here and it’s time for middle America to rise up and fight back, just like they would love to imagine they would have the tiniest hope of doing in the face of an organised, military occupying force.
If this sounds a bit familiar, then you’ve probably seen the silly 80s cold war fear-mongering flick Red Dawn, where the Russians invade an American high school and only the Voltron -esque power of a Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey combo backed up by a pre-insanity Charlie Sheen can repel them. That’s because this game was written by the same guy that wrote that, John Milius. He’s also the guy who wrote Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, Clear and Present Danger, and even had a hand in the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Jaws. I know, I’m as surprised as you: it’s rare that games ever care enough about someone this important who isn’t an actor to bring them into the development process. To his credit, though the plotting would be considered lazy and overly-simplistic for a film, we’re used to a lower standard in games, and as such it’s one of the most well-rounded and interestingly plotted I have seen.
Compared to the phoned-in, generic or just plain non-existant plot of most FPS’s these days, Homefront comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. The opening scenes are really excellent at pulling you into the world of the game, as you, former marine helicopter pilot (wonder what you’ll be doing at some point in this game?) Robert Jacobs, being forcibly escorted from your crappy derelict home (apparently the Koreans took down everyone’s wallpaper and stole all the good bookshelves when they invaded) and onto a bus to be taken to a re-education centre. What follows is five minutes of plot exposition by the stranger in front of you and some deliberately disturbing scenes of people being manhandled, lined up, executed by firing squad and generally oppressed by the damn commies. Since your rapid demise would shorten the game even more than it’s already considerably brief running time, you are promptly rescued and inducted into the resistance, wherein begins your adventure.
You and your freedom-loving buddies then start out in a fairly standard meat and potatoes modern FPS, running linear missions against the occupying Korean forces with an utterly interchangeable array of automatic weapons and a massive semi-autonomous attack droid/tank thing to spice things up. The settings of the missions are largely generic, though there are some nice touches in the plot that make things seem a little more fresh than they otherwise might. You get the sense that you really are part of a guerrilla underdog force, rather than a highly-organised and well-stocked military power, with accidents, unplanned consequences and against-the-odds standoffs a staple as the game progresses. There is a genuine emphasis on plot, dialogue and visual imagery that is as commendable and interesting as the majority of the action is repetitive and pedestrian: a pretty gruesome scene around a discovered mass grave is equal parts exciting plotting and tedious gameplay, unfortunately a trend that only worsens as the game continues, reaching its nadir in an execrable helicopter-piloting level, where the controls are genuinely the worst of any game I have ever played, and that includes the Dreamcast version of Sega Rally that you could control by shaking the Samba di Amigos maracas. Why does every modern FPS have to include a section where you fly air support for some ground troops? Is it a law or something?
Homefront could never be accused of outstaying its welcome, however, as just as things start to progress, the game ends, leaving you feeling decidedly like you’ve just played the first act of a bigger game, rather than the whole thing. As the action gears up towards a full-on confrontation, things are quickly resolved with a fade to black and a newscast that is the equivalent of ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ (eventually). This ludicrous running time really undermines the good points of the game, and means that however much it might be nice to see a bit more time given over to plot and writing, it can’t make up for the fact that the game is not only insanely short (<5 hours easily) but also blatantly rushed to conclusion. Just like this review.
Format: Xbox 360
Progress: single player campaign completed, 5 hours. No multiplayer
Apparently the only surviving businesses after the Koreans invade are White Castle and Hooters?