Reviews: Multiplayer is where the fun is.
The once implausible plot of Homefront seems a little more believable given the perilous global events that have led up to the videogame's release on Xbox 360, PS3 and the PC. An earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Japan in March, the threat of civil war in oil-rich Libya in February and the coup-resulting series of protest in Egypt in January all play into the speculative fiction from THQ and developer Kaos Studios. Their first-person shooter envisions a chaotic world in which Kim Jong-il dies and his son, Kim Jong-un, is able to reunite North and South Korea. Upon testing out the game for the first time last fall, I found it to be very eerie to arrive in San Francisco and turn on CNN in my hotel room to find out that Kim Jong-il had appointed his son the rank of Daejang, a symbolic move that is thought to indicate Kim Jong-un's eventual succession.
Further east in the game, war breaks out between Shia-controlled Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and it causes oil to soar to $20 a gallon. In the real world, gas prices are at $4 a gallon here in Los Angeles and, last week, Saudi Arabia moved 1,000 troops into Bahrain in attempt to quell Shiite protestors. The Saudi kingdom fears a potential overthrow of the neighboring country's monarchy, which could lead to further influence from Tehran. The Iranian vs. Saudi Arabian conflict seems like a second Homefront prediction that could pop up on cable news in the years or months to come. The price of oil is one of the many reasons that the United States experiences a double-dip depression and hyperinflation in the game. A new strain of bird flu is another. In a reverse of the norm, Canada and even Mexico close their borders to American refugees and the U.S. government withdrawals all of its forces from South Korea and Japan to focus on the domestic unrest. In addition to leaving North Korea free to seize control of the south, this paves the way for Korea to annex an economically weakened Japan. Of course, the new ?Dear Leader? doesn't stop there. An EMP wipes out the U.S. power grid and allows his country to invade the mainland in 2025, taking over everything west of the Mississippi.
This surreal vision of the real world stands in stark contrast to first-person shooters that project storylines of pure fantasy. Space-set FPS games and ridiculous secret agent and wartime titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are a dime a dozen and have never been able to bring ripped-from-the-headlines drama to consoles. THQ and Kaos have a unique concept on their hands. But while this magnificently crafted setup makes you want to immerse yourself in the fight for freedom, the characters and their immediate story don't live up to the hype of the events that lead to 2027.
Homefront feels like an aged first-person shooter on the PC instead of a slick FPS meant for this generation of consoles. That affects the story's presentation as much as it affects the core gameplay. Look at Bulletstorm, another recent release from the same genre. It's fast-paced, dynamic and, most importantly, has a ton of input from its protagonist. Homefront, on the other hand, doesn't contain a peep from its main character because the developer chose to frame it as a point-of-view FPS. That was cool back when first-person shooters were a new and evolving experience and we wanted to imagine that everything that was happening to the main character was happening to us. But the videogames of the last couple of years have been building intricate stories and featuring casts of engaging characters. This game's never-see-the-protagonist concept, sadly, made me feel detached from the main character and his supporting cast. I still loved picking up intel to read deeper into the incredibly creative global backstory, but I seldom cared about the loosely tied missions I had to complete.
Another reason that the boring narrative of the missions feels so detached from the game's stellar backstory is because the first six missions take place in Montrose, Colorado and two unnamed suburban areas that are similarly generic in their design. It's not until you get to San Francisco in the seventh level that you see Korean soldiers occupy a national landmark, The Golden Gate Bridge. From a helicopter blaring the classic rock song ?Time Has Come Today? by The Chambers Brothers and flying in a formation akin to the most memorable scene from Black Hawk Down, you can see the enemy crawl on this iconic structure of American ingenuity on which, from afar, they look like ants. As I climbed up the world-famous Golden Gate towers, Korean soldiers rappelled down the suspension bridge cables and I picked them off in this chaotic battle. You can't help but feel a little outrage by this provocative scenario. At the same time, I couldn't help but feel like this adrenaline-pumping moment should've been the first level of the game, not the last.
Beyond the disappointing presentation, the campaign mode's core gameplay fails to deliver the slick and dynamic FPS package that we're so used to with Call of Duty. But thinking back to Call of Duty 2, the first console iteration of Activision's top-selling franchise, I remember plenty of comparable oddities. Because Homefront is the first game in this new IP that will hopefully become an improved series, its kinks can be worked out over the course of a decade much like Infinity Ward did for CoD. That being said, the game's main issues revolve around linear gameplay, objects beneath your field of vision that you get stuck on and bug-filled, non-playable characters that are too often running in place or stopping right in front of your path.
Aiming down the sights is also a problem as is only helps you to pick off enemies by automatically zooming toward targets instead of right to them. It's almost as if the developer thought that automatically marking enemies was too easy, so it places your iron sights a little bit away from the closest enemy, not on top of them. But it's too easy to overcompensate when having to manually move the sight ever so slightly, especially because when gamers are used to the standardized aiming and firing mechanic used in every other FPS game, from BioShock to Red Dead Redemption. Inserting manual adjustment in the ?aim, then fire? repertoire slows down the core gameplay considerably, throwing a monkey wrench into the familiar FPS controller mechanic.
Believe it or not, Homefront's best moments are in its 32-player multiplayer, where its creative premise is of little concern and aiming down the sights doesn't matter ? auto-targeting is rarely incorporated into the multiplayer modes of videogames. Ground Control and Team Deathmatch are the two main game types here and, while that might not seem like a whole lot, they include a variety of options that allow this to be a faster-paced, more unique mode. For example, the in-game economy, Battle Points, allows you to immediately exchange your XP and strap on extra armor, shoulder a rocket launcher or take the helm of a vehicle or air drone. Waiting for the menu of the subsequent round to equip upgrades is a thing of the past in Homefront.
Battle Commander, available in the Ground Control and TDM game types, borrows Grand Theft Auto's five-star ?wanted? rating, which rises as you kill the opposition and complete objectives. The higher your star rating is, the more you are a prime target of the other team. But, don't worry. The high XP bounty on your head also makes you more powerful with extra armor and perks.