I nearly wept during the opening of Homefront.
Maybe it was the father in me, maybe just that I'm human, but those opening moments, so cleverly crafted to grab a hold of you and pull, succeeded on a level few games have before with me.
Homefront depicts a United States, a Colorado, ghettoized by an invading unified Korean force. It brings together all of the atrocities of World War II and places them in a modern, painfully familiar setting. It's smart enough to know, though, that a country suffering is not nearly as powerful as a single child's torment.
Emotionally charged, with a fiction close to reality, Homefront drops you in control of a former Marine helicopter pilot drafted by the invading force, and then plucked up by the resistance to make things right.
First-person shooters, in their hunt for more realism, more weapons, more settings, could arguably be, at times, accused of glorifying war. Everything about Homefront seems to be promising the exact opposite. The United States are the underdogs here. You fight through internment camps, Hooters, suburbs and the plains of the mid-west. You fight not to help another country, but to defend your own. This could be an emotional, meaningful shooter.
Backstory: The first thing you see when you turn on Homefront is reality. A press conference with Hillary Clinton talking about the very real sinking of a South Korean submarine by North Koreans. That segues into a stark mix of reality and fiction that paints a unsettling picture of our near future. There is no alien menace here, no super soldiers, just a not-too-unlikely future, one created by the collapse of the U.S. economy, the fall of Japan, a North American plague and the rise of a newly unified Korea. Homefront's fictional threat is a collection of the things we see today, fear today, only much, much worse. This created near-reality future helps to lay the groundwork for an experience that is at times emotionally draining, unsettling and almost too close to home.
Poignant Opening: The mixed-reality newsreel that opens the game drops you into the shoes of a former Marine helicopter pilot two years after the Korean occupation of about half of the United States. You wake to pounding on the door in the shambles of a room, one wall made of tarp, a bed tented with an old blanket, a radio telling you you're in Montrose, Colorado. Drafted into the Korean army, you take a forced bus ride through the small town, which quickly becomes a tableau of the horrors of this new war. It is purely a performance meant to grab you emotionally. You can only watch as your creep through the town and see men marched at gunpoint to summary executions in the street, couples separated, a mother begging her small child not to watch, not to think about it, up until the gunshot and the crying. Once you have control, and a gun, you have plenty of reason to play through the game.
Emotional Hooks: Homefront's evocative gameplay doesn't stop with that surreal opening and the emotional first scenes of the game. Throughout the relatively short first-person shooter there are moments meant to anger, engross and repulse gamers. You will find yourself watching soldiers engulfed in flame, clawing at themselves as they stumble toward you. You will bury yourself in the dead of a mass grave. You will grimace at the gallows humor of fellow soldiers. At times it's too heavy-handed, but it never stops being effective.
Bot Tank: You don't to use it much, but I loved having control of the automated tank called Goliath. The squat armored six-wheel vehicle has a .50-caliber machine gun and four mortar launchers. Instead of changing your perspective when you take control of the vehicle, you have to sort of wing it from whatever vantage point you happen to have. Great fun, and a neat twist to the sometimes too-ordinary ground warfare.
The Missions, The Settings, The Gameplay: This isn't Call of Duty or Medal of Honor or Battlefield. You play as a reluctant soldier fighting alongside militia, survivalists and suburbanites with guns. Your battlefield is the local White Castle, neighborhoods and a TigersDirect retail store. Your objectives are mostly to survive and make sure you keep as many frightened, oppressed Coloradans safe as possible. None of this impacts the mechanics of a first-person shooter, but it does change your tactics and most certainly your perspective.
Multiplayer Tweaks: While the multiplayer of Homefront isn't nearly as heavy handed and differentiating as the story-driven elements of the game, it still has some neat little tweaks. Killing enemies and taking objectives gives you battle points, which can then be used to get predetermined items mid-battle, like a flak jacket, drone or rocket launcher. You can also use points at your respawn screen to purchase vehicles. It's a bit like a blending of Call of Duty perks and Battlefield with Counter-Strike's weapon purchasing.
No Reinvention I love first-person shooters, so I quite enjoyed this one. But there are gamers who have started to grow sick of things like trigger points, gameplay forced down a narrow path and the constant trudge of inching forward under fire to capture an objective. Homefront does a lot to change the perspective on war, but it does nothing to change the mechanics of first-person shooter gameplay. If you're not fans of a singular, single-player experience that forces you down a pre-determined path, this game isn't for you. If you like shooters, than I'd say it's worth a play.
Short: First-person shooters continue to tinker with the breadth and length of their single-player campaigns. Six to 8 seems about right to me, if you have a robust multiplayer with multiple modes and maps. This is sub six hours, which seemed a bit too short, especially given the rich subject matter and abrupt ending.
Flat Ending: Oh, so much potential, so many possibilities, so squandered. It isn't just that Homefront's ending seems to run straight into a brick wall. There is so much still to do, just in the sense of freeing the United States from its oppressors. The real missed opportunity, though, is that emotionally, the game never balances out. All of those horrors, all of that set-up never comes to any sort of climax, good or bad. It's like they cut the story in half with eyes toward a quick-turn-around sequel. Bad call.
WARNING THIS VIDEO CONTAINS SPOILERS
Homefront is a game too rich in potential and backstory, too ripe with emotion for its own good. No game could have lived up to the months of pre-release marketing stunts and intrigue. Homefront's powerful opening minutes prepare gamers for an emotional shooter, an experience that is never fully realized. That doesn't make it a bad game. Its setting and humanizing goals are a powerful message about the very real face of modern war. Turning the tables, and making the U.S. the underdogs is a smart way to perhaps put people in the shoes of their enemies. Its mechanics and multiplayer are workable and enjoyable. But somewhere along the freedom fighters' journey from an oppressive Colorado, to that game's climactic battle, Homefront loses its way and its message.
Homefront was developed by Kaos Studios and published by THQ for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360, released on March 15. Retails for $59.99 on console, $49.99 on PC. A copy of the PC and PS3 versions of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the single player on PC and the first chapter on the PS3. Played multiple multiplayer rounds on the PS3 and PC.