Developed by Kaos Studios, Homefront's emotive story-telling and uncomfortable imagery give the title enough personality to separate it from its nearest peers, even if the game's core mechanics stay true to the genre's hallmarks.
The plot-line — which depicts a united Korea capturing and controlling the United States — plays strongly off America's territorial paranoia, but fails to live up to the "this could really happen" PR buzz that has surrounded the game's release. Penned by Apocalypse Now's John Millius, Homefront does a great job pulling you inside an emotional reinterpretation of suburban America, but fails to explain why the antagonizing Korean army are so evil. The game seems disinterested with asking "why?" and more concerned with filling you with hatred. Which, to the game's credit, it achieves magnificently through a series of a cringe-inducing narrative techniques. Unlike recent first-person shooters such as Killzone 3 and Bulletstorm, Homefront uses its first-person perspective strongly, often forcing you to look at things you'd rather not.
In addition to its single-player campaign, Homefront boasts a multiplayer component that blends the points-driven unlocks of Counter Strike with the mainstream appeal of Call Of Duty. While the single-player will only run you a stingy four to five hours, the multiplayer definitely has the staying power of any top-tier shooter.
The plot might be patchy and contrived, but Homefront does a great job of using interaction to connect you emotionally with the narrative. Unlike its immediate peers, Homefront is not afraid to turn the pace of its gameplay right the way down, and is daring enough on one mission to guide you through a garden that the inhabitants dub "Eden". With the Korean's conquering so much of North America, Eden represents the escapism that the American people crave in their now war-torn country. The mission, while flat from a gameplay perspective, adds so much to the fiction. Strolling through the vegetable patch, chatting with the gardeners and watching a child play happily on a swing invites a dynamic contrast with the rest of the game, filling the universe with context without spelling things out to you. The mission's designed to build emotion, something Homefront does well throughout its campaign, either with pacing techniques or shock tactics. You get the first taste of Homefront's ability to draw a reaction on a bus-ride early into the campaign. As you ride through the war-torn streets of a small, urban town, you witness a couple pleading with their child to look away. As the duo are gunned down by Korean enforcers, the child runs towards his critically injured parents with an eerie sob. The instance is just one example of Homefront's ability to shock the player, which it achieves consistently throughout the game's campaign.
One of our main concerns going into Homefront was that it would succumb to the patriotic tone that often plagues similar storylines, but Kaos has crafted a game that is actually refreshingly reserved. Homefront chooses to channel much of its patriotism into the player, taking them on a journey through familiar American hallmarks without beating them over the head with it. The amount of product placement in Homefront is staggering, and yet totally suitable for the game's context. An early shoot-out in a White Castle fast-food restaurant is later developed into a full-blown bloodbath within a TigerDirect.com warehouse. It would be cynical to declare the product placement obtrusive, because it actually strengthens the sense of the game taking place in modern day, commercial America. The game's not reliant on America's commercial benchmarks though, opting for more straight-forward imagery in other parts of the campaign. One mission encourages you to use a child's treehouse as a vantage point to cover your NPC partners, which feels natural and yet uncomfortable at the same time.
Vistas.Homefront is not the most technically accomplished title to grace the PlayStation 3, but one thing it does exceptionally well is provide you with some staggering vistas. These are often used to convey the subtle changes that have occurred across the war-torn North America. On one occasion you walk up some steps to get a glimpse of the city skyline, only to see it ravaged by smoke and debris. It still looks like an American city skyline, but the situation is clearly dire. These moments are probably the most ambitious in Homefront's arsenal, and they provide a good sense of scale that the rest of the campaign lacks.
While much of Homefront does its very best to imitate the success of the Call Of Duty series, the multiplayer actually takes things in a different direction. It maintains the mainstream appeal of Activision's shooter franchise with perks, weapon loadouts and XP, but mixes things up with a Counter Strike inspired Battle Points system. PlayStation 3 players will be familiar with a similar mechanic in the recent Modern Combat: Domination. Essentially the dynamic rewards you with BP for every kill you make. There's additional BP on offer for avenging team-mates, and getting kill-streaks. When you eventually die, you're giving the choice to save up your BP (it stacks over the course of a round) or spend it on a luxury item. Luxury items include helicopters, tanks, rocket launchers and more. It works in a similar regard to Call Of Duty's kill-stream system, but it adds a much more tactical risk-reward dynamic. Do you waste your BP early on a rocket launcher that might take out the enemy's tank, or save it up to buy a helicopter that will ultimately wipe-out the entire team? It's a really cool mechanic, that adds a totally fresh flavour to Homefront's multiplayer in comparison to its nearest adversaries. The maps are pretty good too, drawing influence from the game's single-player campaign. The Hooters and White Castle restaurants return for an urban team deathmatch, while denser countryside maps provide the perfect cover for objectives-based team battles. The emphasis on Battle Points tips the balance out of the hands of frequent players, and provides a much more even playing field with enough customisation options to suit everyone. With vehicles on offer and a good array of maps, we actually think the multiplayer's stronger than Call Of Duty, even though the game's shackled by the frame-rate and technical limitations of its engine.
If THQ envision Homefront to be a long-standing shooter franchise, they have to advance the game's technical proficiency. Compared to the latest Call Of Duty, Homefront looks and plays like it is a good few years old. Playing the game after Killzone 3 is further worrying. It would be shallow to suggest the game lives and dies by its visual merit, but playing Homefront reminded us of Resistance: Fall Of Man. Undoubtedly an excellent game, but an unfavourable comparison considering Homefront is releasing in 2011 and Fall Of Man was a PlayStation 3 launch title back in 2006. The game has its moments — some of the previously mentioned vista viewpoints, and a dramatic climax atop San Francisco's famous bridge jump to mind — but the whole package is bogged down by rough textures, flat lighting and a real lack of clarity. We'd attribute part of the problem to the game's use of the frequently disappointing Unreal Engine, but the recent Bulletstorm changed our perception of what's possible with Epic's technology. Homefront looks like it would benefit from a few additional layers of polish. Simple things like the animation triggered when throwing a grenade look awkward and shoddy. Hopefully it's top of Kaos' "to-do" list for the inevitable Homefront sequel.
You'll nearly always be accompanied by a squad of AI team-mates throughout Homefront. While this makes the experience less isolating, it does highlight some pivotal issues with the game. In one mission we're trapped in an open house setting, with Korean forces ambushing us from all sides. A woman is hiding at the back of the house, cradling a baby. She insists we push the Korean forces back for the sake of her baby, and while our AI team-mates spew some rhetoric about a "damsel in distress", we can't help but notice that we're the only person shooting out of a group of four. Our team leader is stood facing the corner of a wall, while the rest of the team crouches behind boxes doing absolutely nothing. What's more, the Korean soldiers are rigid and collect in three or four scripted spots around the house. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes you can almost read the code behind Homefront and it pulls you out of, what is primarily an immersive experience.
We don't really have any qualms with Homefront trying to immitate the success of the Call Of Duty franchise. It is, after-all, ultimately the most successful video game franchise of this generation. Unfortunately, Homefront has too many similarities to Activision's series. For our money, Homefront tells a much more cohesive, and better paced narrative than CoD, and it deserves kudos for that. But when it comes to the pure gameplay mechanics, it's constructed in an almost "copy-cat" regard. There's an obligatory stealth and sniper section, a level in which you pilot a helicopter, and one of those missions where you use a laptop to control air-support. Functionally the gameplay is well executed, but it's all too predictable. When Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare first released, these gameplay segments were exceptional benchmarks for everyone to beat. Now they've become cliche and hallmarks of every military first-person shooter released.
Despite being a layer of polish short of its nearest adversaries, Homefront's ability to command emotion through interactive story-telling techniques is ultimately the game's greatest strength. A well-designed multiplayer component sweetens the deal.