Homefront really pisses me off. I don’t mean in that controller-throwing, armchair-beating, small-animal-kicking way that the most difficult and frustrating games elicit (although Homefront has that going for it in spades). I mean in the way that we were so close – so close! – to finally proving that narrative in games is at least as important as gameplay, that to see a game with so much going for it -narratively – come so close to awesomeness yet fail due to lackluster design is crushing.

What the game gets right is to create an effective modern combat shooter with a stirring message. Said message being that we will all be royally fucked in the event of an invasion of the US. That hits close to home, literally. And the game does such a good job of painting a realistic and believable portrait of that suckitude that playing it reminds me that I still have to stock up on batteries and beans and take a few first aid classes.

Homefront‘s story was created by the same guy who brought us the original Red Dawn, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Whereas Red Dawn was about a Soviet invasion of the US, Homefront is about an invasion by the forces of North Korea following a sneak attack by EMP blast that knocks out everything with an on/off switch (as the stewardess says).

Yet the game – narratively anyway – goes well beyond simple post-apocalypsism. The game’s story picks up in the year 2026, 15 years from the present, and projecting the state of the world in the event the absolute worst current world circumstances continue unabated. In other words, imagine the current world economic decline never stops. Imagine the United States military never stops being overstretched. Imagine the Middle East continues to unravel. Imagine, in other words, nothing goes right for the next 15 years – except for in North Korea, who somehow manages to conquer its southern neighbor, assimilate Japan and slowly, systematically absorb a number of Southeast-Asian nations to become the world’s single superpower, taking over from Japan to be the sole proprietor of radios and microwaves for the entire world that is somehow able to buy them in spite of being economically depressed. Then imagine it decides to poke the United States with a stick large enough to set the stage for you to star in a thrilling FPS adventure on American soil. That’s Homefront.

I’m no stranger to post-apocalyptic narratives, but the picture this game paints is so grim it’s almost mind-numbing. The entire first 15 minutes of the game is eaten up with the expository cinematic followed by your character being subdued by uniformed North Korean soldier – in Colorado – then shoved into a bus and made to watch as the bus rolls by some of the most horrific scenes of wartime atrocity ever put into a videogame. By the time the bus reaches the end of its journey you will have either gotten the message loud and clear that these Koreans are bad, bad dudes, or you’ll be sick to your stomach. Probably both. Honestly, I see what the game is going for here, but there’s no excuse for this kind of shock-mongering.

Gameplay-wise, Homefront is straight up modern shooter, by which I mean a Modern Warfare clone. The weapons are numerous and gun-porn-tastic. The enemies are smart and tough. You will die plenty of times while scrambling for cover only to find that that concrete barrier isn’t a tough as you thought it would be. You can only take barely more punishment than the baddies and when you shoot them, they leak blood and crumple in extremely satisfying ways. If you like your shooters gritty and right on the knife edge between realism and “fun to play,” then Homefront will not disappoint.

Where the game falls down is in its pacing and level design. There are some fun set pieces (a high school football stadium, the site of a jetliner crash, a Hooters), but they aren’t strung together in a way that feels cohesive and none of the levels reach any substantial climax other than “time for the next mission.” In fact, the single most notable climax is at the end, after which the game is over, which robs you of the kind of moment-to-moment thrill that makes fast-and-furious shooters so engaging.

Your mission – your single, over-arching mission – is to get fuel to the Army. That this feels like an objective with little more weight than needing to pick up cat litter at the grocery store is a failing on multiple levels. The fate of the country rests on three tankers of fuel? Seriously? Each step of the progression toward completing this mission feels like little more than moving the chains. You shoot people and then things happen. And that’s pretty much the game in a nutshell. The shooting is fun and the things that happen are interesting, but it’s not a cohesive experience, and – except at the most visceral level evoked by the occasionally flawless combat – it’s not fun.

It’s also a short-feeling game. The single-player campaign clocks in at about 10 hours if you’re being generous, but that alone isn’t a condemnation. I’ve played shorter games that felt longer. Homefront fails to manage its short length and still weave together an engaging, satisfying experience. Let’s face it; saying a game is short more often than not means you wanted to play more of it. When I say Homefront is short, however, what I mean is that I wish it had gotten where it seemed to be going faster, and had enough left over for me to have felt like I enjoyed the ride. It didn’t, and that blows.

I didn’t get enough time with the multiplayer to form a solid opinion, so allow me to lean on John Funk’s here:

Simply put, it’s brilliant. I spent all of the day playing Homefront’s multiplayer not just because I was supposed to for work, but because I wanted to – and it was this (and the BP system) that kept me coming back. It takes large-scale, 32-player battles and gives it a more personal flavoring, particularly when you’re the hunter: I am going to find this S.O.B. and take him out. What’s more, is that it can reward newbies as well as veteran players. If you’re the hardcore player who earns a four-or-five-star rating, you feel like a big shot for getting the entire enemy team on your tail. But if you’re the neophyte who won’t ever get the kill streak – but you still manage that one moment of luck – then that victory (and chunk of BP) is your own personal triumph.

You can read John’s entire multiplayer preview here.

Bottom Line There isn’t enough game in Homefront The Game to contain Homefront The Multimedia Concept. It would work great as a film, and works just fine as a game-based counter-culture argument against the complacency of modern Americans. As a game, however, it just doesn’t cut it.

Recommendation: If you’re a hardcore shooter fan and have already blown through everything else on the shelf, you’ll get enough out of Homefront to justify the purchase. It is not, however, a “must-buy” by any stretch.

[rating=3]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

What our review scores mean.

Game: Homefront
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Kaos Studios
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: March 15th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Available from: Amazon (Xbox 360), Amazon (PC), Amazon (PS3)

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