The year is 2027. Over the last sixteen years, North and South Korea have reunited and have quickly become a new Asian communist superpower. The United States -in decline after a series of epidemics and fuel shortages- have been invaded and occupied by the Korean People’s Army. The American people live in fear and oppression.
On that compelling prelude (told by means of an impressive intro sequence), Homefront kicks off. You are being arrested by the KPA and put on a prisoner transport headed towards the nearest labour camp.
During the busride, you’ll see some of the horrific conditions the American citizens are living in. Innocent bystanders are being rounded up or simpy beat down on the street. Everyone is required to register himself and those who oppose, are shot without mercy. In an especially shocking sequence, you’ll witness two parents being executed in cold blood by two soldiers, as their young daughter stands idly by. It immediately dawns on you that Homefront’s campaign could turn out to be something quite unique.
And there are plenty more shocking moments, especially during the first half of the game. Your liberators are living in a small hidden community, where they try to survive by growing their own vegetables, keeping a few goats (“to feed the children fresh milk”) and generate electricity, using primitive windmills. You’ll also come across a football stadium the Koreans have turned into a mass grave
You’ll even have to hide between the corpses to evade a KPA patrol. Kaos Studios put a lot of effort into Homefront’s background story and setting and it clearly shows: they’re the highlight of the game. And don’t make the mistake of thinking the resistance fighters are a bunch of goody two shoes, as they aren’t afraid of committing atrocities themselves. For instance, during an attack on a Korean stronghold, they’ll send in a white phosphorous strike, which makes the PKA soldiers light up like human matches. Letting them burn even earns you a somewhat misplaced trophy. For the most part, Kaos succeeds in telling an adult story in a dignified and sometimes very gripping way, which makes the occasionally bad design choices twice as painful.
Take the second half of the singleplayer for example, which completely revolves around finding a helicopter that can aide you in lifting the siege of San Francisco. All too often it feels like your usual Call of Duty-esque shooting gallery and therefore lacks the careful pacing and storytelling from the beginning of the game. Brainless shooting it is, save for a certain stealthy infiltration mission (think of Call of Duty 4’s Chernobyl level).
Furthermore, pretty much all of the characters you’ll meet feel like cartboard cut-outs. The average voice-acting and sometimes laughably bad dialogue aren’t helping either. Kaos wasted a clear opportunity to create believable, fleshed-out characters that you can actually care about. The controls are intuitive, but the actual shooting is linear, scripted and dreadfully unoriginal. The Koreans aren’t the brightest bulbs in the tanning bed (though, for some reason, they always seem to hit you from miles away) and your fellow resistance fighters often stand in your way, at least when they’re not getting stuck behind some walls. Thank God they’re immortal. Not very original -but actually very fun- are the times when you can call Goliath, a six-wheeled tank, armed with a cannon and missiles that gives you very useful support. The penultimate level is also very exciting, though it feels like the exact opposite of the start of the game. It puts you in the cockpit of an armed helicopter, in pursuit of some fuel tankers you need to hijack and then provide air support for.
The game’s shortness is a clear downside. You’ll breeze though the singleplayer in under five hours, which is even less than the average Call of Duty campaign. Quite an insult, if you ask me. Homefront also feels like there are pieces missing. The story makes some weird leaps and bounds in the second half and the ending further adds to the suspicion that Kaos originally had a lot more in store for us.
Luckily, you can squeeze quite some extra value out of the multiplayer. Homefront plays like a potent mix of Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. You’ll fight for victory with up to 32 players in the expansive and well-designed maps. There are only three basic modes (team deathmatch, capture and hold and skirmish), but that’s not a big issue, as there is also the unique battle commander mode.
If you perform well as battle commander (with killstreaks, good support etc.), you’ll earn a star rating. Players with a lot of stars will gain some very useful special abilities, but they also gain instant notoriety. As a five-star soldier, you can be pretty sure the entire enemy team will be gunning for you, as they’ll also know your location. When you finally meet your demise, you’ll have to build your reputation again from scratch.
There are two kinds of experience to be earned in multiplayer. The classic XP increase your level and unlock all kinds of weapons, perks, modifications and drones (more on those later). Battle points are the second type. They’re not permanent and can only be used during matches. With them, you can order things like body armour, rocket launchers, Hellfire missile strikes or even a tank or Humvee.
You can also use them to summon the aforementioned drones. As soon as you found a quiet place to hide, you can send your drone out. They come in all kinds and sizes: you have aerial recon drones that can spot and mark enemy players, but there are also attack helicopters or tracked drones with machine guns. The online multiplayer is littered with possibilities and therefore certainly worth a look. Homefront brings just enough innovations to feel fresh, but it’s definitely not groundbreaking. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if Modern Warfare 3 suddenly featured some form of battle points.
Homefront fails to impress technically. Despite the exemplary design (hats off to the game’s art designers), the game looks dated. The textures lack detail and everything looks incredibly jaggy. In 2008, this would have been a decent looking title, but when the competion is called Bulletstorm or Killzone 3, that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Homefront’s musical score is mostly unremarkable, but the sound effects are quite decent.
I can’t shake a feeling of disappointment over Homefront. This could have been so much more. With a campaign spanning twice as many hours, better character development and more attention to the graphics, this would have been a real hit. The game’s atmosphere and tone are unique and it features an excellent multiplayer component. If you’re willing to take a chance every once in a while, this might be the game to do so. The rest should probably wait for the sequel.