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There’s no doubt that Homefront: The Revolution is a fun game. There are moments when everything comes together and you are entrenched in the story and the missions, feeling a palpable sense of desperation for the cause, and it just feels good, the way a video game should. But there’s also no denying that in-between these gems of chaotic gameplay are a lot of troublesome issues that often break the experience and have you staring at the screen in abject befuddlement. Homefront has all the necessary parts (and then some) to make for a great shooter so its a statistical probability that at some point it will work, but too often is stutters to a halt and leaves you thinking the game is unfinished.
The story is the best place to start. Homefront takes place in future where the digital revolution of the 1970s didn’t happen in Silicon Valley but rather in North Korea, turning them into a world superpower and not the United States. In North Korea, a giant tech company called the Apex Corporation rises to world domination of consumer and military goods, ending up in complete control of the US armed forces and more. When the American economy collapses after decades in debt to the Middle East, the North Koreans use it as an excuse to occupy the United States under the guise of goodwill, a coup that is seen as welcome among the international community. Using a backdoor program installed on the US military’s dependence on Apex, the North Koreans shut down the whole of American defense, leaving ships, planes, tanks, and any other tech-controlled vehicle or otherwise obsolete (and many falling out of the sky).
Players take control of an unseen, silent protagonist named Ethan Brady, a brand new recruit in the Resistance happening in the overrun city of Philadelphia. Expecting a visit from the movement’s leader, a guerrilla fighter named Walker, who has rallied many against the KPA occupation, things go sour when you meet up with the leader and he is shot and captured. Now you’ve got to get out there and face the enemy while retaking districts, raising morale, and generally causing a lot of mayhem. And there is a lot of mayhem that can be caused.
Occupied districts are controlled by patrols of NPK soldiers, armored vehicles, drones and large blimp-like airships that hover low and are steadily scanning for rebels. That’s not to mention the myriad cameras, snipers, traps, and sealed areas that are around every corner. And it is because of these elements that understanding the gameplay of Homefront is vital. This is not Call of Duty or Battlefield. You’re not going in with superior weapons and tactics and mowing down waves of enemies. This is about not being seen until you need to be, avoiding forces and finding ways to break the enemy stronghold through sabotage and subterfuge. You’re going to die. A lot. Or rather, become critically wounded, which in this game is the same thing, ending your current mission and sending you back to the start as it were. Interestingly though, and a nice touch, is waking up from these wounded blackouts with significant time passing so even though you may be in the place where your mission started, it’s now hours later and the patrol you were fighting has moved on.
That’s not to say there aren’t battles. In fact, you could fight your way through all of it, but it would be a slog as there are very rare encounters with just one or two NPK soldiers. They are drawn to a firefight as a single shot raises alarms so the little conflict you think will be easy can quickly turn into a struggle to escape as a battalion of highly-skilled hunters looking to shoot you dead come in from all sides. It’s like Grand Theft Auto and trying to stay clear of the cops for a few minutes before they give up except here it is foot soldiers, tanks, drones, and blimps.
Where Homefront really shines is the world it creates for the player to explore. Dambuster Studios, the game’s developers, clearly put most of their effort in crafting some exceptional environments in which to engage or not. Varied, challenging and full of secrets, the uprooted and debris-filled streets of Philadelphia are always a highlight of gameplay, though there are other areas equally beautiful that are just as visually stunning. And as there is valuable loot scattered just about everywhere, poking around is encouraged. Just don’t stay in one place too long.
Unfortunately, Homefront is littered with problems that makes a lot of that exploration a chore. The first and most concerning issue is being seen. It’s a roll of the dice whether crossing that wide intersection will get you spotted but so too is squatting in shadows behind a crumbled brick wall. Conversely, you might see a lone soldier heading your way, not see another patrol in sight or on the mini map, take your shot and suddenly be overrun by a squad of soldiers and vehicles. Or, the guard ten feet is utterly oblivious. It’s never predictable.
So you think, fine, I’ll go in like Sam Fisher and stealth my way through but that mechanic seems to be a secondary thought, which is odd considering the mission types and maps. While you can’t go prone, the real head-scratcher is the inability to hide bodies, something Fisher was doing 14 years ago. Dead soldiers are found quickly and alerts send you running away from objectives or caught in an escalating firefight. It interrupts the flow and feeling of accomplishment, almost as if silent kills are a punishment. You can tag enemies with your in-game smartphone, a device that functions mostly well in practice, but since the mini map not only shows where enemies are at all times, complete with a cone of awareness for each soldier, there’s really no need.
There’s a great variety of weapons, gadgets, and tools at your disposal though and used well can give you access to much better weapons. And this is another aspect of Homefront that finds it mark. There is a robust upgrade and jerry-rigging system that isn’t too complicated and also fun to use. The economy built into the game is relatively basic, with you just scrounging around picking up parts from the debris and using them to improve your guns. It’s satisfying and worth the effort to collect, especially a crossbow (a trendy shooter weapon) that is a distant, silent killer and a must for later missions. But there’s also big things that make big booms and all sorts of other essentials any well-prepared saboteur should carry.
There was a game in 2003 from IO Interactive called Freedom Fighters, a third-person open world tactical shooter for which Homefront owes a huge debt. With a very similar story of an invading army (in that case, our trusty old pals, the Russians) taking over, leaving a rag-tag team of rebels to go about reclaiming districts and putting down the occupiers. That game, like Homefront, wasn’t too concerned with the politics once the intro was done, and focused on the action. The selling point of that sneaky subterfuge classic was its ability for the protagonist to recruit fighters to join the quest, up to twelve at a time. Homefront plays out almost exactly the same way, and includes a recruiting element that strangely is not ever once mentioned in the game and is something you just stumble upon if you happen to walk up to a fellow rebel (an indicator pops ups asking if you wish to include them in your mission). That is a great feature and very helpful, though they are mostly fodder and help draw away a few guards, but still, it accomplishes a very important thing: you feel like part of a larger cause. In fact, often times, as you make your way to missions, you will encounter groups of rebels on their tasks and you can hear and see battles and conflicts happening that don’t involve you but do incite you. That is a really nice touch and one of the things that also make the game so frustrating since that level of care simply wasn’t spread evenly throughout the experience.
And this brings up the biggest flaw in the game, its thoroughly forgettable co-op missions. If there was ever a title that demanded co-op play, it is this, a game about rebels working together to overthrow a malevolent army. The online only co-op missions for Homefront are weak and disappointing. They feature a very noticeable graphical downgrade from the single-player campaign and offer only six missions, none of which last more than 10 or so minutes. With a single player campaign that is admittedly well-crafted and lengthy, it’s a real shame the developers couldn’t have allowed a drop-in/drop- out feature for players to team up and play together in larger story-based missions that had a bigger impact. It’s a real oversight in a game with tremendous potential.
As I mentioned at the start, Homefront: The Revolution has some truly great moments of fun. After the long intro and set up, once you get the feel of it and the lay of the land, there are many inspired moments of action and redemption. You want to keep going. Unfortunately, these are fringe moments and the core of the game is marred (scattered freezing, character lips don’t move in sync with dialogue, load times are epically long, uneven difficulty, incoherent mission tracking, etc.). I never want to tell gamers not to play a game because gaming is personal, and so I won’t say avoid this because indeed, there is some value here, but there are better as well. Die-hard shooters fans though shouldn’t hesitate.
Developer: Dambuster Studios
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, OS X
Release: May, 2016
Genre: First-person shooter
Modes: Single-player, multiplayer