By John Walker on March 19th, 2011 at 7:22 pm.
Homefront was finally released in the UK yesterday after a pointless three day delay. Unfortunately a wayward postie failed to deliver our copy in time for a day one review. Day two it is then, because wow, this isn’t very long. But is it concentrated glory, still worth your time? Read on to find out Wot I Think.
There’s this strange bravado amongst games reviewers that I’ve noticed. People like to boast they finished a game in the shortest time imaginable, as if that’s some kind of achievement. It’s nonchalantly phrased. “Coming in at around six hours,” they’ll say, because eight is around six, right? And then someone on another site reads this and thinks, “Six?! It took me seven! Um, I’m going to call it five.” Because god forbid you take longer – it would mean you must be bad at the game! Or, perhaps, you took your time, explored it a bit more, stopped to blow up the roses. Games aren’t a race, and it would be rather nice if my cousins in this business could stop the one-upping. Homefront took me four hours.
I wish I were exaggerating. In fact, because I’ve read so much about the game only lasting four or five, I was determined to time it as honestly as possible. But then people kept interrupting me, IMing about stuff, the phone rang, I had to pee. That all racks up on Steam’s record of how long I was going to take. So quitting out after the end credits I was slightly mystified to see I’d played for four hours. Although, in fairness, I really didn’t want it to last much longer.
Homefront is barely a game. I’m drawing the line here. It’s an interactive cutscene with occasional shooting galleries. So far has the Call Of Duty Copying gone that it is believed the ideal game is one in which the player is barely involved. In Homefront, for the majority of the game, you feel like an unwanted irritant. It’s hard to capture quite how much this game seems to hate you for wanting to be involved, and the extent to which it goes to ensure you rarely are. But I’m going to try.
Oh, the premise. It’s 2027 or thereabouts, and a series of (pretty well argued) events has seen a Korean occupation of North America. You are, in theory, in the resistance, fighting back for territory against the new leaders. But what made Homefront look so unique when it was first announced, and indeed what makes it look absolutely incredible today, is the setting: suburbia. These aren’t warn-torn fields, or post-apocalyptic cities. These are American streets and parking lots, familiar homes and playgrounds to Western eyes. And – when outside at least – it has been stunningly realised. From the extraordinary detail of the trees to the uncanny sensation of seeing war occur in such vividly realised neighbourhoods, it’s a technically remarkable piece of work. Apart from the insanely googly-eyed faces, it’s a massive success. To look at.
Let’s talk about doorways. Alec’s enormously popular Locked Door post from 2009 lamented games’ ridiculous habit of filling their world with doors through which we’ll never pass. Homefront manages to take that idiocy a league deeper. In the entire game you are allowed to open one door. Doors are inert, dead objects when you try to interact with them. They have to be opened by someone else for you. One of your companions. You can’t be trusted with doors. So they may open it for you, but then talk to someone else, blocking the way. There’s no way past them. You have to wait your turn. Your turn is last.
Oh my goodness, do you have to wait your turn. One sequence sees a companion open a trapdoor. I was there first, because the game is so determined that I always be in last place that I spent the entire time fighting to be first just to screw things up. “Don’t fire until I say so!” would bark one of the NPCs. BANG! I would instantly respond, no matter how much more tricky that would make the battle that followed. If they were going to treat me like an imbecile, by golly I was going to act like one. But back to the trapdoor. The guy opens it and climbs down, so now it’s my turn. I walk toward it, I mindlessly press “E” even though there isn’t a prompt on screen giving me permission. But I’m shoved out of the way by the NPC behind me. Oh, I think. After you I guess. But no, not after him, because there’s another NPC who’s more important than me, and she gets to go next, once again physically barging me out of the way to ensure I’m in the last place in which I apparently belong.
Did you ever have to hang out with some bigger kids when you were younger? They were obliged to have you with them, and they were going to make sure their resentment was known. Yes, they have to bring you with them, but they don’t have to let you have any fun. That’s the sensation throughout the first two-thirds of the game, of just not being wanted. On the odd occasion when there’s some useful cover not taken up by an NPC, stand in it and they’ll inevitably shove you out into the open. And on some occasions it feels as though they’re deliberately screwing with you. You’ll see them ahead of you (because even if you do manage to squeeze past them, they’ll magically be ahead again anyway), standing, doing nothing. So the coast is clear, you figure. But no, it turns out they’re just staring at a Korean enemy who will shoot you in your face when you come around the corner.
Perhaps feeling guilty, they do occasionally let you play with the Goliath tank. This is a remotely controlled armoured vehicle with some hefty firepower. You’re give the button that lets it fire. For a few seconds, here and there, inevitably ruined by men with EMP weapons that mean it’s mostly useless. When the game was first demoed in 2009, the Goliath tank was the selling point. In the end it appears in the game for probably a total of fifteen minutes. And it’s not much fun – you target things, it blows them up, the scene changes. Plod plod plod.
OH YES! The walking! My goodness. They clearly knew the game was coming in ridiculously short when they set the enforced walking pace. My grandmother walks faster than that, and she died when I was 16. It’s like a joke, a spoof of how slowly a game may make you move. You’ll hold down Shift to run the whole time, knowing it won’t work, because if you didn’t it would mean you’d given up hope, and then there’d be nothing. I think I’d have finished it in under three hours if it didn’t keep having us play Glacier Races.
I’ve hinted that the final third isn’t as bad, and that’s true. We are of course talking about literally an hour of sometimes decent game here, and only decent. But there’s a nice sequence in which you’re fighting your way through the countryside which feels that bit more tense, a little less being dragged by your teeth. Also, you’re left alone for the first time too, so you get to feel like you’re actually playing. It doesn’t last long, but when it’s replaced it’s replaced with some other interesting things to do, stuff to fly, and so on. It’s far too little, far too late, and still peppered with idiotic pockets of tiresome waves of combat in which your NPCs do nothing other than shout at you to hurry up while getting in your way. However, had the whole game been like this, it would have been something to recommend playing.
It’s interesting to compare this to Bulletstorm. Both games are set in corridors so tight that both your shoulders rub along the walls, and both offer absolutely no freedom for alternative routes or sneaking around the back. But in Bulletstorm you’re the one at the front. You’re the person playing. In Homefront you’re barely necessary.
This seems to be something an increasing number of gamers want. I cannot figure out what has happened to the international psyche when we deliberately seek out games that make us feel so subservient, and so irrelevant. I’m sure I remember the FPS genre being the one that let you feel like a bloody hero the entire time, one man against the world, unleashing unlikely destruction. The CoDs, Medal Of Honor, and now Homefront are determined to take you down a peg or two, remind you that you’re really a nobody, and if you died the world would pretty much carry on the same without you. Gee, thanks games. But whereas Call Of Duty, and to a far lesser extent MoH, carry this off with a slickness and performance that seems to entrance (not for me, sadly), Homefront’s cynical plot and ghastly attempts at commentary reveal the empty format for what it is.
And wow, the commentary is ghastly. From the spiteful scene at the start in which you watch some parents shot against a wall in front of their infant son, who runs to his dead mother, shaking her clothes and screaming, it sets the tone for some clumsy and downright insulting “horror of war” rhetoric. It just doesn’t mean it, at all. The game loves war. It relishes in gory headshots and atrocities, feverishly wanking itself into oblivion every time it thinks it’s Saying Something. The final third’s epic set pieces have all the sensitivity of a Roland Emmerich film (and are just as memorable – I finished it an hour ago and I’m struggling to remember what happened.) So don’t start preaching to me about the terrible ways of mass graves. Especially if you’re going to follow that up with a scene in which I have to lie inside one with an arm draped over my head. You might call it having their cake and eating it too. With a cake made of shit.
So yes, four hours is plenty. It’s interesting how it was beginning to outstay it’s welcome, despite my finishing it in half an afternoon. A sequence crossing a famous bridge about an hour from the end (again, just phenomenally beautiful looking) had me wondering if it would be wrapping up soon, as I was done. But since it’s being released as a full price game, those not interested in investing in the multiplayer might very justifiably feel a tad ripped off.
It’s unquestionably one of the most impressive uses of the Unreal 3 Engine so far, and a significant proportion of my completion time was made up of staring at the individual leaves on the trees, or watching the sun’s rays twinkling through canopies. But spending most of my time inside it feeling like the unwanted little brother, not needed and with little to do, it feels like a massive waste. I’d love to see what could have been doing with the tech and the premise had there been some narrative sophistication and feeling of actually playing. This, however, wasn’t it.