Homefront: It's like Call of Duty, except without the good parts

| Sunday, August 7, 2011
This post has spoilers. Don't worry about them. Nothing is spoiled because the game is already rotten.

Due to a Steam sale and a cool concept, I bought Homefront. It's about a group of resistance fighters in America, fighting against a North Korean occupation. Neat idea, right? I mean, who can possibly not enjoy a bit of "America! Fuck yea!" and killing those damn foreigners. Er. That one specific group of foreigners, right, no generalized anti-foreign attitude here.

I really like the idea of a FPS. After years of WoW, I enjoy a game where I press the mouse and something happens and where that something does not have a roll associated with it. I click and bullets hit bad things. It has immediate feedback, positive and negative. It's satisfying in that way. But I don't play a lot of FPS games. The last two I played were Stalker (sandbox game), Call of Duty 2 (rails on rails), and Half Life 2 (science!). Due to WoW there is basically a 4-5 year empty space in my game knowledge.

Then I saw Homefront and got a computer to run it. Since the game looked really fucking awesome, I was excited. At the risk of repeating myself, I loved the concept. Asymmetric warfare with us on the fun side? Hell yes! Who doesn't love a righteous defense of one's homeland and freedom? Oh man, I was really looking forward to using a variety of pilfered weapons and unusual tactics to defeat a numerically superior force.

If you've ever played Call of Duty, you're probably aware of the extremely on-rails nature of it. Maybe at best you have a courtyard that you can assault along the north or south walls, but that's about it for decision-making. In general it's point-and-click violence with few options. And you know what? That's fine! Sometimes I want to follow along shooting Nazis or North Koreans (surprisingly similar these days, though the Nazis were a lot more aggressive than Mr. Kim Chicken).

Given that the gameplay won't be filled with decisions, fun has to come from other sources, like the combat being fun, perhaps by having interesting gun choices, or from the feel of it, the atmosphere if you will.

Call of Duty had some pretty fun gun choices. Also, a lot of variety, thanks to carrying a small armory on your back. I rather liked the German assault rifle and the Soviet "no accuracy but a lot of bullets" SMG.

In contrast, the guns in Homefront feel more or less the same. They're all ridiculously accurate and recoil isn't much of an issue. There was a gun with a gigantic magazine which then reloaded really damn slowly, but that was about it for significant variety. Just keep an eye out for one with a reflex scope, since the iron sights aren't that great. Speaking of which, I hope you love staring through a reflex scope for the entire game, slowly creeping along, because firing from the hip isn't going to get you anywhere. Is this realistic? Well, I guess so. But when we're talking about what appear to be North Koreans in stormtrooper armor with no regard for personal safety and a player character who can recover from RPG blasts a foot away just by panting a bit, reality isn't really the name of the game.

But it gets worse! In what was apparently the climactic battle, notice that I say apparently, because I didn't realize it until the deus ex machina sacrifice ending (by which I mean, we're winning! No wait, the enemy magically has a ton of reinforcements! The only solution is to tell the air support to bomb the hero and the enemy!), I was surprised to see a friendly AI kill a hostile AI. Yes, I was surprised that the AI was something more than a source of noise. You know how in WoW there will be the endless battles between scripted NPCs and they just respawn forever? Imagine that, but instead of respawning, they are incapable of killing each other. At times I'd find myself seemingly done with an area, only to get killed by an enemy standing right next to a friendly AI.

While we're on the subject of gameplay, it's just plain not fun. Mowing down faceless enemies just doesn't feel very engaging. To make it even worse, the scripting doesn't seem to quite line up with the state of the enemies, so you might get yelled at to run to a location, but there are at least a dozen enemies in the way ready to mow you down the second you stand up. So kill them all, while getting yelled at to hurry up, and then run over, only to then wait around a bit for the scripting to remember what the hell is supposed to be happening to create the illusion of urgency and action. I'm at least thankful that the enemies do not appear to have infinite respawns based on the script, as they did in Medal of Honor.

If for some ungodly reason you decide to play this game, I hope you like repeating cinematics and scripted events, because there appears to be no quicksave function. Yep, start over from the last checkpoint. And guess what, it doesn't save dropped weapons, so I hope you had enough ammo then. This lack of a quicksave may be a blessing in disguise, since the AI likes to hang out sometimes, hiding, to shoot you, and only you, in the back when you run ahead when the objective is a generic "follow" or "regroup". Remember the useless friendly AI and incoherent scripting? Yea.

The uselessness of friendly AI isn't a new, unique problem. It doesn't even have to be a problem. I don't mind being the hero. Call of Duty had plenty of instances of "you're the only guy who can use C4/rockets/sniper rifles and must save the game". But here's what made things different: much of the time in those situations the AI was actually pinned down and hiding or in some way justifiably incapable of doing it themselves, rather than just being arbitrarily useless. On the subject of AI: If I and the AI can both die in a few hits, then they should respond to covering fire by covering, not by charging straight into my bullets.

Moving on to atmosphere...

The game spends a lot of time and effort trying to set up a gritty, occupied, oppressed country. You see mass graves and concentration camps. There is at least one betrayer. Early on a child watches as his parents are executed on the street in front of him. Later someone important dies. And yet somehow it doesn't quite work. In the end you're just running around, or slowly slouching, while shooting stormtroopers through a reflex sight and all that stuff just goes to the side. It's something that happens between the action and seemingly has zero effect on or from it. There is one fight in a house with a mother trying to shelter her child, but the extent of the influence is that it cries the whole time and the resistance leader yells to shut it up. Maybe I was supposed to shoot the baby? That doesn't seem likely, but it would fit with the general theme of him being an unlikable, abrasive jackass. So I guess there's a tiny bit of character development.

Here's how Call of Duty did atmosphere: Soviet campaign begins and you're on a transport boat crossing the river into Stalingrad. For the record, this was one of the most horrible battles of the war, partially a war unto itself in terms of casualties and destruction; making most war seem like a picnic compared to two sides fighting inch for inch in winter, with low ammo, low food, and psychotic leaders on both sides who refused to ever, ever retreat. So how do you get that idea across? How about seeing the boat next to yours get sunk by a German plane? Then someone jumps in the water to flee and the officers spend scarce ammo shooting him. Upon landing you get ammo, and no gun, instead being told to follow a guy with a gun and take his if he dies. You never get a gun, instead acting as decoy for a fellow Soviet, a sniper who kills German machine gunners, and also a Soviet officer (you needed to move back a couple yards to get to a radio and he didn't like that). Second mission, more soldiers are shot, and you as well, if they don't run out in the charge (still no gun!) at German fortifications. It isn't history class, but it sure does a good job of showing, making you feel, the extreme desperation and horrible situation for everyone involved.

In Homefront I never felt as if I was part of some besieged, desperate group. I never started a mission without full clips and ammo. In fact, the areas where I had a fucking semi-autonomous, nearly invincible robot with machine guns and missile launchers on it, made me feel as if I was part of an official and fully-funded army. Speaking of which, the rails problem isn't a problem when the game puts you in an army. Soldiers follow orders and have things like plans and commanding officers. Resistance fighters might be expected to have a bit more autonomy, not anarchy, but perhaps choosing to do something that hasn't been shouted at them. Homefront could have worked very well as a sandbox FPS like Stalker, with some definite missions and a central plot line, but with flexibility, not just in what to do, but how to do it and the path to take getting there.

One last thing before I wrap this up: what was so important about the Golden Gate Bridge that it called for what appeared to be the total commitment of US forces in the area? And while we're at it, why did the Koreans not take out the forces while they were seemingly just hanging out maybe half a mile away? We know they had air forces nearby, based on the first thing to happen being a bunch of helicopters getting shot down by North Korean jets. Also "I just need a password" is possibly the least plausible "I'm almost there and only need a minute" declaration from a supposed hacker. What's next, stealing a car and hearing "I just need a key!"

I want to end on a positive note, but I won't, so I will second-to-end with a positive note: Taking off in the helicopters for the final battle and hearing them start playing Time Has Come Today. Even then, I think there could have been better choices. But let's face it, less-than-perfect, but still good, music choice is pretty damn good in comparison to the rest of the game.

So to wrap it up: This game is worth, possibly, maybe $5-10. I wasted $25, lured in by a 50% off sale. It's terribly disappointing, since the backstory was so awesome. This is why I should just stick to my $5-10 rule.

P.S. Maybe the multi-player is good. I didn't bother to try, since the peak of FPS multi-player for me was many summers back playing the medal of Honor: Spearhead demo when having DSL meant I was screaming along and kicking ass against the pitiful 56k losers. Since then it has been all downhill. Except TF2, which is great for its silliness. And pretty good balance and amazing diversity of classes.

P.P.S. I forgot to mention the technical problems, such as crashing during the intro cinematic (best part of the game), which eventually turned out to not be a driver, hardware, or anything my fault problem. And another one again later in, which might have possibly been a RAM issue, or just terrible programming. Flip a coin.


Chris said...

I got a THQ bundle for like £30 that had DoW2, STALKER, Company of Heroes and Saint's Row 2 (games that I wanted that I've sunk hours into since getting it). Homefront was included with said pack, so I'll probably end up playing it at some point out of boredom.

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