Route 66 is full of potholes and Wal-Mart is out of asthma medication. A high school football field is being used for mass graves. These are facts from a video game world, facts designed to make a gamer angry.
They're the truths of Homefront, a March video game that somehow merges an unfathomable near-future event with a mood that makes its warfare feel more modern than any Call of Duty.
In the world of Homefront, an emboldened North Korea, having unified with the South, consolidated power in Asia to invade the U.S. A fake news reel that starts the game combines real footage of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and an angry Tea Partier with faked footage of oil crises and invasion. The video stresses to presumably skeptical gamers who will be looking down the barrel of this new first-person-shooter that this what-if could be what-happened.
But it doesn't matter if North Korea could do this in the near future.
It matters that the American frustration and resistance it portrays feels like something not from decades hence but from now.
We've seen video games that celebrate the themes of American triumphalism (charge forth as the U.S. saves the world!) and games that wallow in American cynicism (shake heads knowingly at the inevitable corruption of powerful people!). After years of recession in the United States, however, Americans have been given few games that present as their playing field a U.S. facing the fear that its momentary problems are permanent, that its decline from dominance is well underway, and that what worked so well for so many in the 20th century may be bankrupt in the 21st.
Homefront isn't a defeatist game nor is it remotely anti-American. Made primarily in New York by Kaos Studios for publisher THQ and scheduled for release in March on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the game puts the player in control of an American pilot who, in the opening seconds of the game, is violently freed from Korean occupiers in Colorado and is cajoled by a hail of enemy bullets to join a scrappy, multi-ethnic American insurgency. This is a game that once was about a triumphant reassertion of American power on its homeland, though its creators have told me that they, encouraged by creative partner and Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius, shrank the scope to tell a simpler tale of Americans trying to win one battle, not the war. (Material saved for the sequel, perhaps.)
I've played the first three levels of Homefront and continue to be struck, as I was when I first saw the game last spring, how deeply immersed the game is in the mood of modern America trying to fight back against a current of despair. Its version of the United States sucks. Fear dominates. Talking points of both political parties have been realized to their squalid extremes: debt-ridden economy in shambles, military budgets drastically slashed, American exceptionalism superseded by the aspirations of an Asian rival. Homefront's U.S. is worse than ours, but the gravitational feel of a downward slide and the dream to reverse that force is present in real America and in the video game one. The parallel is unavoidable.
The difference in helping real and virtual America is in tactics. The stakes are higher in America, the bad guys plainly outsiders, the resistance therefore uncontroversially bearing arms.
Where there's fear and frustration in this game, there's a virtual gun to shoot and targets who feel legitimate. Chapter one is the breakout, our hero allied with a few other 21st-century rebels against the kind of occupier that shoots parents in front of children and tries to gas a house that contains a wailing baby. Chapter two is a fight in the suburban dark, lowlighted by the sight of mass graves and a chilling conclusion. The third chapter takes the battle to cleared-out superstores. In the midst of this there's an appeal to American ingenuity, many mid-battle heated exchanges of ideas — of battle philosophies involving restraint or ruthlessness — and a refreshing feeling that, no matter why America is on its knees, by playing Homefront, the video game version can be stood back up. At last, we the gaming people can have a way to help a struggling U.S. This is the simple relief of entertainment soaked in the mood of frustration.
We will save America in Homefront by shooting its foreign, occupying enemies. If it was devoid of themes, Homefront would feel like nothing more than a Call of Duty, an achievement its creators would happily enjoy if the game sold, say, nothing more than a Call of Duty. For players, it will feel familiar, borrowing from Activision's mighty shooter series as well as from the careful pacing and attention to scenic detail of Valve's Half-Life 2. Its gameplay is not as ingenious as its latter inspiration. Its combat is straightforward with limited variation or demonstration of ideas not seen in shooters before. There are certain enemy structures that must be flanked, careful attention to be paid to spreading fire and the occasional empowering use of a remote-controlled, helicopter-killing urban tank. Your health recharges, if you take cover.
Homefront commits the occasional Call of Duty crime, releasing a stream of enemies toward the player in the name of trigger-reaction fun but at the expense of believable scenario or down-to-earth mood. But it drove me forward, turning a planned two-day play session into a one-night barrel through. It achieved this not through gameplay but through its presentation of America. I cared. I wanted to see the fate of the schools, read the discarded newspapers, mill about in a prison camp. I really wanted to talk to the Muslim American who I found praying — one of the first Muslims I've seen in a game who wasn't trying to kill me — but he just kept praying (the limits of canned animations in video games, I guess). I wanted to save the neighbors.
I want to help America, and in Homefront, I'm the only person who can do it.
(Note: These impressions are based on a preview build of the game's first three levels. While they appear to be complete, there's no telling if they're locked in. I've neither seen nor played the rest of the game and haven't tried its multiplayer.)