Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: Trouble on the Homefront

*SPOILERS*

HomefrontAs your helicopter whisks you toward the Golden Gate Bridge and your final confrontation with the Korean army in Homefront, the pilot puts on "Time Has Come Today" by The Chambers Brothers. It's an awesome song, which you've heard in approximately every Vietnam War movie. The moment is stirring.

Here's the thing: That song was released in 1967; Homefront takes place in 2027. This moment is roughly the equivalent of an American soldier in Afghanistan popping in Perry Como's "Hoop-De-Doo" from 1950 and expecting it to fire up his buddies.

There you have it. Even at its best moments, there's something a little off about Homefront. And God help you during its worst moments.

Homefront's single-player campaign comes up short in terms of story, characterization, and gameplay.

Story

They do put on a good show, however.
I think the "unified Korean invasion" premise has potential, but it stretches credibility. The game seems to agree, as it immediately launches into a lengthy recitation of news events that explains the rise of Korea, complete with real-world news clips. It's not a good sign when a story requires so much set up.

During that and during the similarly tedious "Voice of Freedom" reports that start each chapter, a big green button and the words "Press A to skip" flash on the screen, practically jumping up and down and waving their arms at you. The game seemed to be reading my mind, which was screaming "Just let me play, dammit!"

You can see scriptwriter John Milius' Hollywood background in the game's interesting settings: Korean-occupied Montrose, Colorado; a hidden self-sustaining community in the suburbs; a militia compound; a dramatic final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, these elements are not tied together well, and they do not stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, it's never clear how the self-sustaining community remains hidden from the KPA. Likewise, it's never clear why they shelter the Colorado Resistance, if they just want to be left alone. Their eventual fate is grotesque, but not surprising.

The militia camp feels similarly disconnected from the internal logic of the game. They are heavily armed, have a helicopter, and routinely capture and kill Korean soldiers. Not sure why they haven't been bombed out of existence!

Characterization

You play as a silent former Marine pilot who mainly contributes to the story with his trigger finger, which is not unusual for this type of game.

The happy couple
An interesting dynamic is set up between Resistance soldiers Connor and Rianna, the two main NPCs. From the beginning, they are at each other's throats. Connor is brusque and brimming with hatred for the enemy, to the point of risking his friends' lives to get at them. Rianna places a high value on human life, even the lives of those who exploit and murder innocent people all around her.

How would this play out? Would I be able to support one or the other, maybe even affecting the ultimate path and moral stand of the Resistance?

Nope.

The two simply argue their way through cutscene after cutscene with nothing ever coming of it. Connor repeatedly acts like a lunatic and endangers the lives of his teammates. Rianna constantly whines about the brutality of the fight, even as she strangles a Korean soldier who had the misfortune of standing in front of door she needed to walk through.

As with the larger story, these character traits ultimately don't pay off. The gameplay could have been plunked down into almost any situation without change.

Gameplay

Good gameplay can easily paper over story problems.

Unfortunately, Homefront plays like a mediocre version of any of the last five Call of Duty games. I don't mean to slight the developers who worked hard to build this game, but the comparison is inevitable and Homefront falls short. The controls are twitchy, and some of the placements are head-scratchers. Press left-stick to run? Really?

Pathfinding glitches are abundant. As I walked down a set of stairs with Boone, the leader of the Resistance, he stopped and I proceeded to walk right up on top of his head. He continued walking and talking as if nothing were out of the ordinary. More than once, my character and another would get stuck in a doorway as we both tried to go through. Even worse, several times I could not advance through an open door, apparently because the story demanded that my teammates go first!

A side note about doors: none of the characters ever once uses a doorknob to open a door. Go through chapter one again if you don't believe me. They kick open every damn one!

The making of Homefront
Finally, the game is seriously on rails. Like locked-down, chained-up, you-might-as-well-be-watching-a-movie on rails.

In Homefront, there is only one way to accomplish any given task. For example, at one point you have to sneak across a field behind the back of a militiaman. Why not just shoot him? Or let Rianna do her quiet strangling thing? Nope. It's sneak past or you're sent back to the last checkpoint to do it all over again.

To add insult to injury, the sneaking is easy. The scene carries no tension whatsoever.

That sense of being without options persists throughout the game. In most areas, you are literally constrained to a single path forward by lazy boundaries. In one place, I was completely blocked by an ankle-high fence around a flower garden!

This game was determined to unfold in a certain way, even in the small details, and nothing I did was going to change that.

Recommendation: Don't bother.

I didn't touch on multiplayer mode. Nothing in single-player made me want to go there.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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