Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Digital Extremes
Release Date: March 15, 2011 (US), March 18, 2011 (EU)

About Mark Buckingham

Mark Buckingham is many things: freelance writer and editor, gamer, tech-head, reader, significant other, movie watcher, pianist, and hockey player.


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PC Review - 'Homefront'

by Mark Buckingham on March 11, 2012 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Homefront is set 10 years after the economic collapse of the United States and follows the American Civilian Resistance as they fight to reclaim their homeland from an oppressive North Korean occupation, featuring a personal, story-driven single player campaign and a full suite of multiplayer options.

How much you enjoy Homefront is going to depend greatly on your answers to a few questions. First, did you love the movie "Red Dawn"? Second, what do you demand more satisfaction from, single-player campaign or multiplayer? Third, is your PC more than a year old? All of these can be deal breakers for some, so let's dig in.

The story for Homefront is penned by John Milius, a veteran also credited with writing the story for the movie "Red Dawn." Whether or not you like the 1980s movie about Soviet invasion of rural America, it has a different flavor than most other war games. Seldom do games broach the subject of what would happen if the United States weren't the world power that it is today. Through a regime change (creepily predicted between the game and real life), Kim Jong Il passes away, and his son kicks off a conquering spree, starting with Southeast Asia and Indonesia, Hawaii and, through deceit and militaristic momentum, cripples America with a large-scale electromagnetic pulse attack.

The first 20 minutes of the game are a kick in the gut because the dictator in question isn't using a stupid gimmick to gain control of the world like some laughable Bond villain. His approach is determined and measured. The growth of power takes several years, and our faltering economy and continued strained ties with allies make the middle of North America a place very few people want to be. It feels like something that could happen, and that makes it more gripping than your usual "hunt down some elusive madman in Europe/the Middle East." The first few minutes see brutal executions of parents in front of children, mass graves filled with American citizens, and the rubble that used to be Smalltown, USA. You're fighting for your own freedom on Main Street, not for someone else's in a nondescript desert.

Milius' contributions to the story are not subtle. There are names and locations that will feel familiar to fans of "Red Dawn," and by familiar, I mean lifted out of the movie. The local high school team is called the Wolverines. The football stadium is converted into a concentration camp. There is a double-cross by a trusted ally. Things have been updated, including more near-future weaponry (automated sentry turrets, remote-controlled Goliath antipersonnel vehicle, and UAVs) as well as throwing in some current-day brands like Jansport, TigerDirect.com, and White Castle. Whether it was a way to get some advertising support for the development budget or designed to lend familiarity and authenticity to the environment, it works without feeling heavy-handed (I'm looking at you, excessive Burger King billboards from NFS: Underground).

The structure of the story has also been a sticking point with many. It's short, but it'll take you longer to play through the game than it did to watch "Red Dawn" from start to finish, and with 100% less Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze. The narrative reflects the brutal events of the film well, as does the unresolved finale. Homefront wraps up with you storming San Francisco to reclaim the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was psyched to see how they would represent fighting street by street, block by block, with recognizable geography and landmarks to reclaim the city, but alas, after a big, climactic sacrifice in the waning moments of the bridge fight, the credits roll. It's pretty disappointing in a world expecting three-act, happy-ending storytelling, but if you go back to "Red Dawn," the story ends with the last two surviving characters, wounded and exhausted, shivering to death on a bench in the town they had to destroy to drive out their oppressors. It's not exactly a "happily ever after" by any means, but at least they turned the tide before bowing out. The talk of the battle raging on in a sequel quieted once it was announced that Kaos Studios shut its doors. Things picked up again after hearing that CryTek — the technical wizards behind the Crysis games —  would be taking over the franchise. Whether the German developer can appropriately realize the tension and energy of America freeing itself from oppression remains to be seen. But that's another review.

Homefront drops you into the shoes of a man being hauled off to an internment camp for interrogation, brainwashing, and assuming a role in the Korean fighting force. Some rebels set you free because they need a veteran military pilot (that's you), and apparently their plans cannot move forward without your help. There are a number of plot twists and turns, generally not in favor of your resistance movement. It's one downer after another. You can easily clear the single-player portion of the game in one day, so if you value a strong campaign and nothing else, it'd be a rental at best.

The multiplayer, on the other hand, while not replete with modes, brings some interesting things to the table that have since been copied by other, bigger-ticket FPS games that rhyme with "hall of snooty." You get standard team deathmatch for 24 players; Ground Control for 32 players; their own take on capture and hold; and Skirmish, which mixes the two modes into rotation. These battles represent the fighting in America between our military and the Korean invaders prior to the events in the single-player campaign, where the military is largely in disarray. With that in mind, it makes sense that there is no free-for-all mode, though I would've understood if they threw it in for kicks. That's it: two modes of play.

Once in-game, things feel very similar to other genre standbys, like customizing kit loadouts, unlocking new gear via a combination of kills or experience, interesting extras in the form of gadgets and heavier attack weaponry, and character perks that are restricted by a points-based system. You get more points with a higher level, but you can never load out with an unstoppable monster set of perks. This leads to some interesting and dynamic character builds that allow you to play very different roles on the battlefield from one moment to the next.

For example, one of the gadgets you can get is a minicopter with a camera that can tag enemy targets so they show up on the HUDs of teammates. This makes your role as a support player incredibly valuable, and I've managed to turn the tide of a few multiplayer rounds by focusing on this. To make the player more effective, there are character perks that make you invisible to UAV scans of the area, give your drones longer battery life, more armor, and greater speed. Properly speccing your character can make you formidable on the battlefield even if you never fire a single shot. It's telling that on the scoreboard, I can have only one or two kills, but two dozen assists. While the scoreboard favors kills, the Battle Points requisition system evens things out.

You can also equip different types of air strikes, from direct, small area-of-effect rocket shots to large-scale phosphorus deployments to even larger-scale cluster bomb drops, each of which costs Battle Points that were awarded for contributing to the battle. If running and gunning isn't your specialty, equip this with the Penny Pincher perk (lowers cost of special items), get your helidrone out there, tag enemies, rack up Battle Points, and then call in death from above. You could also deploy the little Wolverine remote tank drone equipped with a heavy machine gun, park it in a corner or behind some rubble, and wait for enemies to run by and blast them. These indirect support roles make the game stand out against the too-straightforward nature of the Call of Duty games. It's one of the strongest ways Homefront differentiates itself, and it was clearly seen as a good thing as similar gadgets showed up in later CoD games.

Several maps permit the use of helicopters and armored vehicles, throwing in a little of that Battlefield flavor. Now, if it only had destructible environments. Commandeering a vehicle isn't always a suicide mission, as a nice balancing addition is that players have to spend Battle Points to purchase things like rockets and other high explosives. This keeps the game from devolving into rocket spam and forces more sniping and CQB play in addition to the pilotable drones and vehicles.

Also welcome is the engaging Battle Commander element in some matches. With this on, you will periodically be shown a highlighted area on the map and assigned to track down and kill or destroy certain players or targets that have been putting a hurt on your team. The more kills an enemy player gets without dying, the higher priority he becomes, and the more of your teammates are assigned to hunt him down. There will still be players who get ludicrous kill streaks that will have you screaming, "He HAS to be cheating," but this system helps cut down on camping and forces good players to be even better as the pressure mounts against them. It reminds me a little of Section 8's DCMs (Dynamic Combat Missions), where random objectives are dropped into the middle of a match, mixing up things and keeping players on their toes.

There are some big mitigating factors that have the potential to bring this entire house crumbling down, though: audio/video sync issues, bugs, overall performance of the game and questionable system requirements.

Minimums are:
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E4600 2.4GHz or AMD Athlon 64 x2 Dual Core 5400+
GPU: Nvidia Geforce 7900GS or ATI Radeon x1900

I ran the game on two different PCs with the following specs:
CPU: AMD Athlon 64 x2 Dual Core 3800+
GPU: Nvidia Geforce 9800GT w/ 1GB

CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo T8300 2.4GHz
GPU: ATI Mobility Radeon HD 2600 2/ 1.5GB

Admittedly, the CPU on the desktop is a little below par, but I hoped the video card could make up the difference or run passably on low resolution and low detail. It did not. The frame rate never got out of the teens, even at lowest details. This makes precision shooting difficult in a firefight where enemies like to duck and dodge, and spotty hit detection had me unable to hit heads or other body parts sticking out from behind cover. There were some sound synchronization issues that ranged from awkward to hilariously bad. We have dialogue that doesn't match the mouths or gestures, and I saw an enemy soldier digging what appears to be a grave. You find out it's his grave as his captors execute him. Then the dialogue goes on as they argue over who gets to shoot him and yell at the digger not to stop. He'd already been dead for 20 seconds at that point. When learning what to target to protect the Goliath tank, my targets were relayed after they'd already fired the projectile explosive I was meant to prevent.

What about the laptop? With beefier specs and the ability to run Modern Warfare 2 full clip without a hiccup, it should have been able to handle what Homefront would throw at it. Nope. It experienced the same problems.

Add to those technical problems issues like getting stuck on invisible walls, not being able to jump or vault over low obstacles, the game freezing up periodically, on-screen prompts that tell you the alternate button for interaction instead of the primary, the game forgetting your invert mouse settings (correctable by inverting the controller settings, which I wasn't even using), dialogue getting clipped short (better turn on subtitles if you want to know what's going on), friendly AI getting in your way often and taking the best cover points, the constant use of monster closets, and frequent scripted scene issues where you have to wait for an arbitrary event or dialogue before moving forward.

I found the game difficult to run via Steam after installing, with regular errors coming up on first run, possibly caused by antivirus programs or Windows user account control. Hopefully yours won't have similar problems, but be prepared to improvise and/or spend some time with Google or the Steam forums to make the game work properly.

For the sake of comparison and to see if the same horrible technical problems persisted across platforms, I tried it out on PlayStation 3. It ran much more smoothly, but still probably 30fps instead of the steady 60fps of Activision's behemoth military shooter franchise. The game froze on me during the campaign once in three missions, and twice more in several hours of multiplayer. At one point in PS3 multiplayer, I signed in at level 27, and when I joined a game, I was suddenly maxed out at level 75. It's been that way ever since. I don't really mind being saved all that time of grinding levels, but it's still weird. All in all, Homefront is an experience that could use polish, but it performed much better on standardized console hardware.

I have a hard time recommending the PC version of Homefront. It's a decent game with a unique take on world events, and its fresh and fun new ideas for two-mode, bot-less, online only multiplayer kept me coming back long after I'd waved adieu to the single-player portion, but the performance and playability on this platform is far eclipsed by the stability found on consoles.

Score: 7.5/10

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