Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fighting on (and About) the Homefront

What exactly is it that you look for in a first person shooter?  Is it a plethora of weapons with which to exterminate your opponents?  Is it a good fighting mechanic?  Is it a great story?  Eye-popping graphics?  Is it just multiplayer goodness?  The latest release from Kaos Studios and THQ, Homefront, attempts to be all of these things, and as with so many games/movies/books/stories that attempt to be everything for everyone, Homefront ends up falling a little flat on all counts.  Kaos is clearly swinging for the fences here, and while they didn't strike out, what they have is little more than a ground-rule double.


Highly touted with Homefront is the fact that its story is penned by film legend John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn, Clear and Present Danger, and Medal of Honor: European Assault are among his writing credits).  Unquestionably there is a great background story at play here, but it's a background story that doesn't really ever make a difference in terms of the game.  As the tale goes, the year is 2027 and the Greater Korean Republic, led by Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un, has managed to take over a substantial portion of the world.  They have even successfully detonated an EMP in near-Earth orbit over the United States, destroying anything with an electrical circuit (GoldenEye-style), and taken over much of the U.S. 


There is, naturally, a resistance, and that's where you come in.  You are the new guy in the resistance's Northern California arm, and you go out on a bunch Homefrontof missions designed to aid the good guys in various ways (steal the plans, hijack the device, that kind of generic thing). 


It's quite the in-depth background tale and there are even various "hidden" (they glow so they're not terribly well hidden) papers you can pick up as you go through the game which provide even more information about the world.  Should you perish for whatever reason, while the game reloads to the closest checkpoint (it's an autosave title with no option of creating multiple save spots), you get a still image of some moment from the Korean occupation.


That is all great, that background tale of how the world went from where we are today to its version of 2027 is fantastic, it's just also completely irrelevant in terms of the actual game.  Homefront is an FPS which sends you, almost without exception, down a single navigable path, asking you to kill anyone who may get in your way, and if you're good at what you do, you do it without ever getting close enough to see the whites of their eyes.  That means that it doesn't matter who the enemy may be and what background story may have been created for the game.


Homefront funnels you down this single pathway by placing debris everywhere it doesn't want you to go.  The U.S. is in tatters in the story so there ought to be fallen objects blocking your path everywhere you turn… Homefrontkind of, but not really.  It's really just an excuse to keep you going where they want you to go.  Very few titles offer you the opportunity to actually dig into a clearly moveable pile of debris and forge your own path, and the fact that Homefront doesn't break this mold is certainly not a knock against it that can't be applied to any number of games.  No, the related specific knock against the title is the fact that it removes your agency as the player on a regular basis, not just by forcing you in one direction. 


Although there are voiceovers provided between missions, the missions themselves don't really feature cutscenes – everything takes place from your perspective.  Early on in the game this is used to shock you as innocents are murdered on the streets and you're helplessly tied up on a bus.  This would indeed be shocking if we hadn't seen this sort of thing repeatedly in movies and games – here it just feels like a poor attempt to convince you of the severity of the U.S.'s plight.


Within most missions though, Homefront doesn't bother handicapping you from helping folks by placing an object (like a bus) between you and them – it simply decides that you ought not be allowed to help.  When the game wants to deliver a little bit of plot (and within the missions there really is a only a little bit of plot), it tends to—oh so helpfully—remove your gun from your hands so that you can't actually do anything but listen.  On the occasions that it doesn't bother removing your guns from your hands, your bullets pass through everyone without affecting them.  It's as though the game is telling you, "Don't you get it, if you kill this guy who is about to tell you to keep heading straight and to fight the Koreans ahead of you and then steal the plans, you won't possibly know what to do.  You need him to drone on right now and that's why we're going to let that bullet you just put right between his eyes leave him unfazed."   


Whether I'm right or wrong with my potentially indiscriminant in-game killing, if I'm playing a first person shooter, I like the idea that my bullets actually do something all the time within the title.  If bullets can't hurt good guys as much as they hurt bad guys (and they can't), to me that removes a whole lot of realism to whatever the story may be.  Once you remove that level of realism you can't then ask me to accept that anything taking place is remotely real, and Homefront certainly wants you to buy into the mythology its creating wholesale.


Moving on before I find myself too bogged down in the story and agency problems of Homefront… time to discuss the actual firefights.  They're not bad.  They're not great, but they're certainly not bad.  As you would expect as a member of the resistance, you're hopelessly outmanned and outgunned on a regular basis, and that forces you Homefrontand your NPC buddies to come up with ingenious tactical maneuvers to defeat the enemy.  If only the game required ingenious tactical maneuvers to be used or allowed you to in any way coordinate your attack with said NPC buddies rather than having them just yell out to pull a flanking maneuver as they run from one bit of cover to the next without purpose.  Gosh, and then if there was some sort of cover mechanic that allowed you to just peak out a little bit from behind whatever sort of barrier your crouched behind, that could prove truly useful.  Yes, you can crouch in the game and you can even go prone, but you can't lock yourself into a spot behind a barrier and just peak out to shoot. 


Heading back to this "outmanned and outgunned" thing for a minute, it is wholly possible in Homefront to run out of ammunition… when the game wants you to and only when the game wants you to.  To be fair, that is most of the time, but it is exceptionally odd that should your mission require you destroying something with a grenade you are, for that moment, provided with an infinite number of grenades.  Yes, your HUD will only read as you're having a set quantity (we saw up to four grenades at a time), but if you run out they automatically refill. 


This may not be so hugely disappointing if there weren't terribly obvious ways around the problem of requiring something to be blown up when the player has, moronically, used all their explosives.  In fact, every gamer knows how you solve the problem of getting a character more weapons when he's exhausted his supply and there is no cache available – just spawn enemies with the weapons you need the player to use, the player can then kill the enemies and grab the necessary weapon.  It's not as though Homefront doesn't regularly spawn enemies either – if you happen to be looking in the right direction during certain fights you can see bad guys magically appear out of thin air.


The graphics, too, aren't really everything you'd want them to be.  There is certainly a lot of detail, but if you take a moment while you're trying unsuccessfully to shoot a friendly NPC, you're going to notice the jagged lines that make up the edges of their body  As for the voiceacting, it gets really old really quickly.  NPCs tell you the same things over and over again during a firefight and those who minimally advance the plot but take forever to do so very well may cause you to waste ammunition on them.


Homefront does feature extensive multiplayer capabilities, which will certainly add to the title's life and your enjoyment factor while playing.  The two main online modes are Ground Control and Team Deathmatch.  HomefrontWhile the latter plays out exactly like a deathmatch ought (and is a good deal of fun), Ground Control asks you and your team to control a set of objectives – hold them for longer and you win (again, it's a lot of fun).  Win, kill folks, and play well and you level up, allowing you to purchase new and better stuff.  Folks buying Homefront used should be aware that you won't be able to pass the fifth experience level if whomever owned the title previously used the included "battle code."  It is possible to purchase a new battle code on the PlayStation Network, but to expect to incur an extra out of pocket cost if you're buying used.


Lastly, it should be noted that there is an entirely different, potentially more important discussion about this game which didn't take place in this review as it is somewhat, but not wholly, outside a review's scope.  The story, with its near-future time period and basis on real people and events from today verges on fear-mongering.  Obviously FPS games need bad guys and interesting settings, but there are more than a few uncomfortable moments in Homefront when the story is unfolding and it is ascribing negative characteristics to the in-game avatars of real-world individuals.  Potentially valid arguments exist on both sides of the representations offered in the title and they are certainly things one ought to consider before, during, and after gameplay.


Homefront is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Strong Language, Violence. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.




Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Homefront on Blogcritics.

No comments: