18th Mar 2011 | 09:00
This game is scared of you. For all it's uncompromising posturing, and bold themes, Homefront is terrified.
It's scared that you'll get lost; scared you'll get bored; scared that you're jaded from playing a myriad FPS games before it; and most of all, it's scared that you won't like it.
And through constantly jumping at its own shadow, it loses that confidence that makes all the difference between a good shooter and a great one. Not sure why - we really enjoyed it.
Homefront stumbles in the very first minute. When you start a new game you're greeted with a smart, well-put-together intro movie that sets the scene, explaining how Korea came to successfully invade and occupy America, the most powerful nation on earth.
This opening cut-scene is thoroughly researched, terrifyingly plausible, and pleasingly slick - so when a message pops up along the bottom of the screen and stays there, informing you 'Press X to Skip', it completely ruins the atmosphere (and covers up some important scenes).
Look, we're all for skippable cut-scenes, but without this intro the rest of the game loses meaning.
We watched the whole thing. Homefront's back-story is fascinating, and this attention to rather nightmarish details continues into the game itself.
The opening scene sees you waking up in a squalid first-floor room. Sunlight streams through the window, tattered books sit on tattered chairs, and a plant grows in a rusty pot in the corner.
It's a strangely beautiful post-disaster scene, and although not Killzone 3-handsome, it sets the tone for what turns out to be a (mostly) great looking game.
Peace is shattered by a knock at the door, and no sooner have you answered it, then you're being dragged outside and into a prison bus by a sinister Korean storm-trooper. It's here that Homefront really hits you with its harshest stuff.
In summary: executions, sobbing kids clutching the corpses of their parents, brains splattered on the bus window, men and women lining up for concentration camps - it's a relentless assault on your senses that smacks of an attempt to ram home just how horrific this game is. And it works.
By the time you've busted out of the bus and the shooting starts, you're ready to return fire. However, we'd have preferred a more considered, sinister introduction - one that hints at there being 'something wrong' before building up to the shock reveals later in the game.
It's something Half-Life 2 (a game heavily cited as one of Homefront's influences) does very well, and something that would have given this game's shock scenes extra emotional punch.
The shooting itself is a decent cross between Call Of Duty's twitch and Killzone's beefier-gun combat. You feel powerful as your rifle punches bullets through the air, but you also feel human as even short exposures to enemy fire threaten to rob you of life and force you to cover.
This makes the fire-fights challenging, but they never seem unfair, as you choose some moments to push forward and others to hide and regroup before you attack.
Make no mistake, you'll die a few times, even on Regular difficulty, but won't ever resent the game for sending you back to the Checkpoint. This is how shooters should be - balanced, considered, and well-paced - not an 100mph sprint through a corridor filled with fireworks and shouty men.
Sadly - in its desperation to ensure that you're having a good time, and not crouched behind a barrel or endlessly searching for the next objective - Homefront barks orders at you every few seconds and bombards you with on-screen prompts.
Yes, we know we have to 'take out that f'ing Sentry Tower'. You've only told us about ten times and marked it with a glowing red arrow! Occasionally, it's justified; mostly, it's completely unnecessary.
Levels are linear, objectives obvious; there's very little here that needs spelling out in such a cloying way. Ignore the yelling of your comrades for a second and you begin to appreciate how rich and detailed Homefront's world is.
There's an enormous amount of detail here, but you're constantly told to ignore it and just crack on. Odd decision, especially as the game won't last you longer than around five hours. Yes, five hours.
That short, short length of the main story may seem like a major sticking point, but it isn't as significant as you might fear. Homefront is relentlessly brutal and constantly puts you in new, unusual and memorable scenarios, varying the pace to keep things interesting.
Sure, we were left wanting more at the end, but not because we felt that the story was lacking or that we hadn't been playing for long enough - we were just keen to keep playing.
Even poignant scenes, which are traditionally handled very poorly in games, resonate here thanks to excellent animations, good voice acting, and a canny ability to press the player's emotional buttons.
No spoilers, obviously, but when someone dies in Homefront you actually care about it, and when the game throws a 'big moment' at you it feels genuinely 'big'. That seems to be the lesson learnt from Half-Life 2, and while Homefront's campaign lacks Valve's subtle mastery of story-telling it does offer a more cerebral shooting experience than the majority of its FPS competitors.
The multi-player here, though, leans more towards Battlefield, but can't help occasionally stepping onto Black Ops' turf.
COMMAND AND CONQUER
Online, it's US army vs Korean army. No longer hamstrung by whatever guns and ammo you can scrounge off of the dead, you're free to play with all of Homefront's impressive toys. Well, once you've unlocked them.
The guns really come into their own in multiplayer, and when a match fills with the meaty sounds of SMGs and M4s it all feels as deadly as it should. Throw in drones, tanks, helicopters, APCs then counter that with perks and a fantastic selection of weapon load outs, and it becomes obvious Homefront's multi-player campaign will burn on longer than the solo outing.
The star of the show is Battle Commander, which comes as an addition to the standard death-match or objective capturing modes. Here each team has an AI Battle Commander, which assigns on-the-fly mini-objectives determined by how well either side is playing.
In English? If one of your enemies is on a kill-streak that player will be flagged up to certain members of your team as a gold dot on their radars. He's then a wanted man: the player who takes him down gets a big boost in Battle Points, and - let's face it - a huge inflation of their ego.
It feels so good taking out a Wanted target, reminding us of the thrill of claiming an opponent's dog-tags in Battlefield. Multi player's other highlight is Battle Points, a system put in place to keep matches balanced.
Basically, every kill or objective completed rewards you with Battle Points, which you can then use to buy vehicles, drones or temporary perks. Stuff like tanks and helicopters cost megapoints and it can be frustrating to save up all game, finally purchase a bad-ass chopper, then see the 'match over' screen. Overall, though, it works well and games rarely feel one-sided.
As a nod to COD you can also personalise your weapons, and the range of load-out options is pleasingly deep. Unlike COD, though, the kit you take into the fight makes a big difference - choppers, for example, are almost indestructible without Air Burst launchers - so some level of coordination between team mates is required.
Battle Points keep play sessions balanced, but they're essentially a selfish device, so the Battle Commander is Homefront's answer to encouraging players to work as a unit. It's a smart move. The end result is a team of individuals, which fortunately, offers this game something of a niche in between online genre leaders Black Ops and Battlefield Bad Company 2.
As a five-hour solo-player game, it's clearly rental only. For online players the value is far greater - a solid, varied, Call of Duty rival, with fresher weapon load outs, plus vehicles and drones. Visually, it's no match for Sony's technically dazzling Killzone 3, but, for our money, more inventive - and a better paced, absorbing, solo campaign than Black Ops.
It falls short of Modern Warfare (offline) and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (online), but they're both truly great games. You really shouldn't be frightened of trying the game that's frightened of you...