War on American soil isn’t a foreign concept for first-person shooters, but few do it with the grim dedication of Homefront. Its chilling vision of life in occupied America is vividly illustrated through lengthy scenes that depict the brutality of military subjugation and the desperation of its victims. This thoroughly developed setting is one of the most engaging the genre has seen in a while, making the campaign worthwhile despite its run-of-the-mill action and unsatisfying length. There is some longevity, however, to be found in Homefront’s competitive online multiplayer. Though the paltry few modes are little more than a pastiche of gameplay mechanics you’ve seen before, that little moretips the scales just enough to create a hectic and enjoyable combat arena. Much of what Homefront offers feels overly familiar, but the dramatic setting and good multiplayer recipe make it a worthy stop on any shooter fan’s tour of duty.
The campaign kicks off with a montage chronicling the next 15 years. As gas shortages lead to civil unrest, the United States weakens while across the Pacific, new expansionist leadership leads North Korea into a golden age. This video paints a satisfyingly plausible picture, and collectible clippings throughout the campaign flesh things out even more. With every image of a bread line and article about the consolidation of America’s armed forces, it gets easier and easier to suspend your disbelief. As Homefront’s vision of the future becomes more believable, the events of the campaign hit closer to home. An introductory travel sequence in the spirit of Half-Lifebrings you up to speed very quickly with how bad things are, and one particularly shocking execution scene will likely stay with you throughout the entire game. Homefront’s most intense moments aren’t action movie sequences–they are emotionally wrenching, human encounters with the horrors of war.
The setting is the standout in Homefront’s campaign, though the story is more of a tour through this rich scenario than a compelling journey in its own right. The characters who accompany you the whole time have a few good bits of dialogue and create some dramatic moments, but they aren’t developed well enough to make you really care about them. This detachment can help you overlook the occasional friendly AI blunders, but don’t expect your companions to carry much weight. As in many modern shooters, you are the workhorse. The action itself is solid and proceeds at a pace that steadily intensifies as small shootouts give way to larger skirmishes. An explosive mid-campaign climax leads into a stealthy infiltration, and a much-foreshadowed vehicle sequence near the end delivers nicely. Despite the fact that you are a small resistance force, you scrounge a variety of powerful guns from the enemy, giving you a substantial (and satisfying) arsenal. Homefront gives lip service to things like having to be frugal with ammunition and getting creative to avoid patrols, but it mostly plays out like a standard, linear shooter campaign.
It’s a shame that the action isn’t really on the same wavelength as the setting, but the environments you traverse reinforce your grim situation well. Though Homefront isn’t a beautiful game, there are a lot of thoughtful details that provide echoes of earlier conflict and show different stages of societal breakdown. There are some issues with screen-tearing and characters clipping through solid objects, but on the whole the visuals are equal to the task. Unfortunately, the campaign wraps up around the five-hour mark. That may not seem terribly short by modern-shooter campaign standards, but what makes it worse is not that you are left wanting more; it’s that you are left expecting more. By spending a lot of time on quality exposition in the early going, Homefront’s campaign sets itself up for a longer story arc, but it doesn’t deliver. It’s an unpleasant surprise when things wrap up so abruptly, but it is still a very memorable campaign.
Homefront’s competitive multiplayer, on the other hand, seems primed to be just another also-ran right from the get-go. With only two core game modes (Team Deathmatch and Capture and Hold) playable in two variations, the options are few. The loadout screen will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a Call of Duty game in the past few years, and the online conflicts play out between the KPA and the US Army (rather than the ragtag freedom fighters from the campaign), so the intriguing setting is little more than window dressing. Though its inspirations are obvious, Homefront does a good job of appropriating tried-and-true mechanics. Earning experience, leveling up, increasing your arsenal, and unlocking new infantry abilities (read: perks) is satisfying, and the maps allow a decent range of viable battlefield strategies.
Things start get more lively as soon as battle points come into play. Earned in the same way as experience, these points are currency meant to be spent during your current match. Each loadout has two slots for purchasable abilities that can give you and your team an edge in combat. Some benefit only you, like the flak jacket and personal radar sweep. Others are meant to score some quick kills, like the Hellfire missile and white phosphorous strikes. And then, there are the drones. Once you’ve found an out-of-the-way place where you won’t be as vulnerable, you can summon a variety of remote-controlled assets onto the battlefield. One relatively inexpensive airborne drone has no attack capabilities, but it can highlight your enemies with big red diamonds that all your teammates can see. Other flying drones come with explosive ordnance, while still other drones scoot around on tank treads armed with various weapons. Drones can be destroyed and will eventually run out of batteries, but their presence on the battlefield is welcome. Not only do they give you something cool and different to do, but they are also powerful enough to affect the flow of the fight.
And if small vehicles aren’t your thing, you can save up your battle points to spawn in an actual vehicle, like a Humvee, tank, or helicopter. Spawning allies can choose to appear in your vehicle, so you don’t have to drive around looking for someone to hop in and make your ride more effective and deadly. Though they, too, are a borrowed idea, battle points invigorate combat by not only expanding your martial capabilities, but also by rewarding you for skillful play in the middle of a match. Furthermore, if you play the Battle Commander variants of the standard modes, your skills can earn you instant battlefield notoriety. As you rack up kills within a given life, you are assigned a star ranking and highlighted on your enemies’ radar. Though you are now a marked target, you gain some automatic perks commensurate with your star ranking that can make you faster, deadlier, and more battlefield aware.
The diverse mechanics that combine to make Homefront’s multiplayer what it is may be familiar to genre veterans, but they are well integrated and achieve a nice balance. Matches in Homefront don’t feel quite like matches in other games, and there’s enough depth here to fuel plenty of hours of combat. Yet, the best part of Homefront is the thoughtful and thorough vision of the future laid out by the campaign. It’s rare to have a shooter pay this much attention to its setting, and the results are some remarkably memorable moments that are often nicely emphasized by the soundtrack. It squanders a lot of potential for greatness, but Homefront’s campaign still fuels much of the game’s appeal, helping to distinguish it among a crowded field of competitors.