California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Homefront

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April 21st, 2011 at 4:13 pm

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Homefront box art
Homefront

Release Date: March 15th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Windows, Playstation 3
Developer: KAOS Studios
Publisher: THQ
Genre: Alarmist Propaganda FPS
ESRB: M for Mature

CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆


If you’re looking for originality, Homefront will make you more than a little Kim Jong-“ill.”

What’s a publisher to do when faced with the fact that gamers across the world have shot, stabbed and blown up pretty much any decent faceless, non-morally ambiguous enemy in the oversaturated first person shooter genre? After all, what hasn’t been done? Which bogeyman hasn’t been used and isn’t of middle-eastern descent (since that would actually be too topical)?

Apparently the answer is to turn to alternative history scenarios based in militant paranoiac fantasy! After all, this worked wonders in 2009’s Modern Warfare 2, where a quick regime change and a technological McGuffin allowed for a semi-plausible Russian invasion of American soil.

“Yeah” I can hear the developers at Kaos Studios saying to themselves, “That worked and sold really well. So let’s do another video game retelling of Red Dawn! Only it can’t be the Russians otherwise we’d be accused of infringing upon another’s intellectual property. So who’s the bad guy?”

Says his boss,” What about North Korea? I mean, weren’t they in the ‘Axis of Evil’ or something?”

“Nah. That would be too ridiculous. I mean their country can barely manage to feed its own populace without international aid and is slowly crumbling under the weight of its over developed military industrial complex.“

“True, but who actually pays attention to the plot in these things? Besides we can actually get the writer of Red Dawn to help, so we can have the tacit approval to basically remake the thing . . . again.”

“Alright, but if you’re wrong about this, we’re sending you to Guantanamo Bay.”

“Well, then at least I wouldn’t have put up with my wife! Zing!”

*Cue laughter from the studio audience*

. . . and that conversation is (probably) why we now have Homefront.

Homefront

Don’t worry, that guy’s just asleep. The Occupation Army heavily enforces naptime.

If the dialogue above seems like I’m accusing the developers of ripping off others, it’s probably because they did. Unless you are very new to the gaming scene it’s impossible to play Homefront without an overwhelming sense of deja vu because you’ve probably played this game at least once before. When it was called Call of Duty.

Seriously, Homefront follows the formula laid down by Activision’s hit series almost point for point: the default controller layout and movement abilities are copied precisely, you follow your squad and wait for them to remove every obstacle along the highly scripted and constrained levels, and even the HUD crosshair and hit-confirm icons are the same! There’s even a bit straight out of Call of Duty: Black Ops where you drive a vehicle around blowing stuff up as music from the Vietnam War plays in the background (in this case Jimi Hendrix rather than the Stones).

So though the setting has changed from Modern Warfare 2, being more middle-America and west coast, a little more futuristic and dystopian, and all the uniforms are different; the actual experience feels very familiar. More like an elaborate downloadable mod rather than the AAA studio effort you might have been expecting.

Homefront

I dunno; a tank, APC, and helicopter just to defend a Hooters? That’s going pretty far for some cleavage. The White Castle I understand.

Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes using the same formula established by others in a genre can be a good thing. It worked surprisingly well with last year’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Vanquish. Except those were different genres: the spectacle brawler and cover shooters, respectively.

First-Person Shooters though, are often pretty much the same as it is. The ability to look around and pull the trigger on various guns you pick up and go prone are requisites at this point. You really have to bring something new and fresh to the table if you want to stand out from the pack, but apparently Kaos missed that memo. Perhaps because they set the game in a more “realistic” setting, the developers felt that adding any sort of new gameplay mechanic would be deemed distracting or unnatural?

So instead they try the other route of separating themselves; by creating a different atmosphere and plot. Here they succeed, at least in part.

Homefront

It’s a blue light special on human misery!

Starting the single player campaign, you’re greeted with news footage of Hillary Clinton addressing the media about North Korea’s 2010 attack on the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan. The video shifts into montage mode as years and increasingly unlikely events tick by in order to justify the plot of the game. Some events are within the realm of plausibility, like the escalating scarcity of oil and continued Middle-Eastern turbulence depressing most of the global economy, but then North Korea somehow peacefully reunites with South Korea despite the generations of intense animosity the two nations have for each other. But hey, whatever.

This slick info-blitz commercial of destruction ends with the electrical grid of the U.S getting shut down as the newly fashioned “Greater Korean Republic” invades after already claiming Japan and various other south-east Asian territories. They claim the west coast and proceed as far into the country as Colorado, with American military forces scattered and unable to mount a formidable defense. When you finally are given control it’s two years after the occupation and you’re in the body of former Marine pilot Robert Jacobs, whose first name you will never hear again.

Yes, you are yet another mute cipher joining the long history of silent video game protagonists who are only referred to by their last name (despite never being in the military for the course of the game). No sooner is control given before it’s wrestled away again as occupational police shove you onto a bus which seems to be taking a local tour of human misery. You can only watch as the bus drives by a series of ever-increasing-in-atrocity-level war crimes that the Koreans commit on American citizens. Civilians are rounded up and processed, dissidents are beaten, mothers are executed in front of their screaming children.

Homefront

Worst game of ‘Simon Says’ ever.

Now, I may be a heartless, desensitized bastard for saying this, but the whole sequence fails to involve as much as it could, mostly because it happens so conveniently fast. Still trying to process a rush of information provided by the montage, you’re faced with more and more brutality until its “All right, we get it, Koreans are bastards apparently.”

With that said however, even though the developers are laying on the it’s-really-serious imagery with all the subtlety of monkey wrench to your kidneys, it still ends up working to invoke a tone of genuine melancholy and unease. This is especially the case with the various settings you visit throughout the game. Everything is set in a familiar locale, such as a suburban neighborhood or hardware store, but they’ve all been turned into pale, war torn versions of what they once were.

If the developers had simply let the player wander more of this twisted version of the American experience and take in the atrocities at a slower pace, or added some more levels that showed the increasing escalation of the American blight all of this could have been highly effective at making the audience actually care.

But this also has to be a blockbuster action game! So the plot literally crashes into your bus via a Mack truck, and you’re introduced to the primary reason most of the otherwise decent narrative trappings fall flat on their face: Conner Morgan.

Homefront

While other NPCs in games may have been annoying, Conner Morgan sets a new golden standard. I despise him.

“There’s no going back. You’ve got Korean blood on your hands — you’re in the resistance now.”

Conner mutters these words after you kill the first soldiers trying to apprehend you after he and fellow resistance member Rianna’s downright insane plan to break you out of the prison bus barely succeeds without killing everyone involved. While this is true, whose fault is this?

Conner’s. In fact, as the game progresses it seems like every single obstacle you encounter is at least partially, and often directly, because of his actions. So much so, that one gets the sneaking suspicion that if the character were written to be more intelligent, he would have been secretly working for the Korean Army the entire time. But no, he’s just an inept idiot.

If he were just a character that was included in the opening level this would have been fine, but for the entire story you’re stuck with him. Rianna and token tech-guy Hopper join you for these escapades as well, and though they often clash with Conner as you undertake a mission to capture tankers of jet fuel and deliver them to an enclave of the U.S. military, it’s his increasingly deranged plans that the team is forced to follow despite the numerous times he completely screws everyone over while switching from two distinct emotional states; “unlikable occasionally racist hothead” and “functionally retarded ***hole.”

Homefront

Oh here’s a likable character. Why the hell can’t she be in charge?

Not only must you follow Conner during the elaborate attempts at suicide he calls strategy, but he and the others spend much of the game explaining things that Jacobs should have already known, since he’s been in Colorado for the two years of the occupation. Usually the point of having a foolish character like Mr. Morgan is so they ask the dumb questions to prevent the protagonist from seeming the idiot, but here Jacobs, and thus the player, is treated as an imbecile.

Perhaps the game’s writer, John Milius, famous for penning a number of successful screenplays from Conan the Barbarian to the aforementioned Red Dawn, was trying to avoid this particular trope. Or maybe because he’s new to game writing, he didn’t factor that the new member to the team who fits the “dumb guy” role well would also be the person playing the game, but it results in a constant stream of down-talking exposition that’s very unappreciated.

To be fair to Milius much of the rest of the game, from the larger action set pieces and the scattered newspapers you find that fill in the back-story with a bit more plausibility, are decently scripted. There’s also a definite tinge of right-wing fear mongering throughout the adventure, but considering the nature of the plot, it would be more surprising if there wasn’t. At any rate, there’s no overt declaration that Liberal governments have caused the world to be in a shambles; it’s just heavily implied.

Homefront

This is the unmanned tank the resistance calls Goliath. It has absolutely zero personality, and is really completely boring — and I still prefer it to Morgan.

So is there anything that could redeem Homefront from its achingly familiar mechanics and the antithesis to all that is good in the world in the form of one NPC?

Well, sort of. First off, the single player campaign is very, very short. As in, I beat it on hard during a single evening, with interruptions of dinner and watching a feature length film. In many games this short length could be a detriment, but the sooner you can begin repressing the memory of Conner Morgan, the better.

Then there’s the multiplayer mode, which is still pretty much Call of Duty, but with a few tweaks that differentiate it just enough to be unique. Notably, there are a whole bunch of vehicles and unmanned drones you can take control of that add some interesting strategy, as you can access many of them at any time without having to gain a kill streak. This is because the game utilizes a system where kills net you “battle points” which can then be spent mid-match to deploy your gadgets and heavy ordinance strikes. Oh and of course there are all the standard progression based accoutrements – levels, perks, weapons, gear, etc.

Multiplayer centric fans should be happy to note that the game uses dedicated servers, and the maps are generally rather large. This helps considering the vehicles and the fact that they support matches of up to 32 players (64 on PC). The only real problem with multiplayer in general, is that while a good bit of fun, it’s (like the single player game) pretty much a heavily modified CoD without actually being CoD.

This, I think is the real dividing line on Homefront.

If somehow you’ve never played CoD, or are sick to death of it but for some reason don’t want a brand new experience, only a slightly altered one, then Homefront is actually something that might be worth checking into, ideally after the price drops. However, if you’re looking for any sort of truly new experience, or at least one that just isn’t mostly like Call of Duty, then there’s really nothing to recommend about the game. Not the gameplay, not even the decent but sure-to diminish-over-the-next-months multiplayer, and certainly not the story.

But if you’re still curious about Homefront, but don’t have time to nab a demo, I do have a solution: play Modern Warfare 2 with the regional settings on “Korea”, and repeatedly hit yourself in the head with a sack of Valencia Oranges in order to imitate Conner Morgan’s effect on the human brain.

It would both be cheaper, and a lot less painful in the long run.

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Homefront Trailer

  • http://twitter.com/johnsunol John Christopher Sunol

    future wars of such could be fought like this

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