The hot potato of gaming, tossed from publisher to publisher, is somehow complete. Homefront: The Revolution [official site] is out today in the US, and then anachronistically, for no bloody sodding reason, delayed for Europe until Friday. (Is there still a shop that even sells PC games?) In development for five long years, can it possibly hold together? The answer for this open-world shooter is an interesting one.
Homefront: The Revolution has so little to do with the previous game that it’s damned confusing, even with publishers’ dizzying fear of new IPs, that they used the title. People either haven’t heard of the first game and don’t care, or they have heard of it and are therefore aware what a massive pile of shite it was. The association doesn’t seem to offer anything positive. Something that appears even more peculiar when you discover just how different a game it is. This is no four hour linear FPS, this is a massive open world recreation of North Korea-invaded Philidelphia that’s five parts The Division, three parts Far Cry, and with a dash of Metal Gear Sold V. Albeit such a concoction that really could have done with another year in the oven.
The opening is not exactly great. An interminable tutorial sees you glacially slowly introduced to the mechanics of another game, from jumping to hacking to weapons, spread across swathes of Philadelphia, before then going on to be nothing like any of it. I appreciated that it was so slow to put a gun in my hands – that often makes for a potentially more interesting start – but gosh there was a lot of sitting and watching other characters lean weirdly far into my first-person view to talk to me as if I were a baby in a pram. It was weird when they didn’t start with, “Coochee-coochee-coo!”
And then, suddenly, it blossoms. You’re limited to particular sectors of Philly at first, but each is an enormous sprawl of an America that’s been taken over by the North Koreans. This time out the conceit is at least somewhat better justified – in this alternative timeline, NK started funding the US’s endeavours, and became their primary source of weaponry and warring equipment. But rather cunningly everything had been fitted with a backdoor, meaning at the moment of N. Korea’s choosing they just took over the US military with the touch of a button. After millions of their troops, the KPA, arrived in the country, they easily took over, and now present themselves as offering hope and a chance at recovered prosperity to the American people.
Something that doesn’t convince a rebel organisation, of which you are the latest recruit. The story revolves around the capture of this resistant group’s leader, one Walker, and attempts to steal and adapt enough heavy firepower to launch a rescue at an upcoming faux trial. This involves your gradually switching the chunks of town from red to blue, by taking over key bases, blowing up propaganda devices and, er, retuning radios. There’s a lot of retuning radios.
Each of these open, freeform sections plays slightly differently, which is perhaps what makes Homefront feel like a step forward from the Ubisoft template it so clearly borrows. Some, red zones, are out and out warzones, where you charge around with your guns out, shooting countless “Norks” (a term the game uses so frequently it begins to feel incredibly racist) in their faces. (Do aim for their faces – you get a little “beeooorrpp” bass drop noise for that.) Yellow zones are more nuanced, with the option to move relatively freely about the streets, so long as you’re not looked at for too long by a guard, or scanned by a drone. Combat is a last, last resort here, while you scamper about finding hidden locations, rescuing civilians, taking out loud speakers, and yes, twiddling with radios. This all affects the area’s “Hearts & Minds” rating, which at 100% sees the public turn on their overlords and the area switch from tense peace to out and out rioting.
Betwixt these sections come plot-centric sections in which you’re required to rescue some person, or steal an enemy tank, or the like, at which point all the worst crap like “You are leaving the mission area” starts appearing, and it becomes utterly hateful to play. They are mercifully brief, if woefully balanced, and they highlight the astonishing pile of issues from which the whole game suffers.
As if the last 200 years of gaming never happened, Homefront: The Revolution makes mistakes that otherwise seem to be dying out in AAA releases. The AI, for instance, is abysmal. NPC teammates will incessantly block doorways to ensure you get killed, and here, with no quicksave, this can ruin giant amounts of hard work – carefully pick your way through an enemy enclave, meticulously take out baddies, and make your way toward your goal, and then one of the arseholes traps you in a room and gets you scanned by a drone, ensuring the entire mission is down the drain.
Enemy AI is equally poor. Baddies will alternate between standing and squatting behind the same bit of cover no matter how many times you shoot them, and there’s a fairly good chance you’ll take them out as they jog eternally on the spot with their faces pressed into a wall. Their stupidity seems to reach the remarkable extent of not knowing when they’re dead, with apparently perfectly placed headshots not registering frustratingly often, and some of the silliest bullet sponging I’ve seen in a while, despite blood splattering everywhere. Red zones seem to possess an infinite number of enemies, too, meaning you can end up surrounded by comedic towering piles of enemies as you laboriously pick your way through them waiting for a gap to go complete a task.
It has a day-night cycle that bears no relation to anything like time, which is exacerbated by the utterly ridiculous winding forward after every base is captured or task completed. And this is a problem because night time is a mess. The game in the daylight looks amazing, just ridiculous levels of detail in the humongous city. At night it’s a smear of grey drear, enemies appearing from nowhere, details nearly impossible to spot for finding hidden hideouts and treats, terribly lit and infuriatingly more tiresome to play.
And boy does it get tiresome to play. The extraordinary amount of time and effort that’s gone into Homefront 2 is breathtaking. This game is so bloody big, and not just via filler – there’s acres of story, character dialogue for all the side jobs you do, and a constant sense of progression and environmental change as you spread around the city. I’ve been playing it for days and days, desperately trying to get somewhere near an ending to review it, and by the map’s coverage I’m only two-thirds through. This is a big ol' game. Which makes it agonising that it feels like it needed another six months or a year in development to be the game it deserves to be.
Goodness knows what a miserable tale there is behind this development, from being caught in the death of THQ, then being passed around through Crytek, and eventually finishing with Deep Silver. It can’t have been easy. It also must have hurt like ten thousand daggers when The Division came out and did everything they were setting out to do, but rather better. And the result is something that feels only half cooked. Enemy AI is possibly the largest part of that – it’s tragic to see a game so thwarted by the sorts of brainless goons that gaming finally seemed to be shedding. This is never better exemplified than by the batshit pathfinding for the enemy vehicles, which will repeatedly slam themselves into dead-ends, making dreadful pained noises as they beat themselves slowly to death against a wall rather than reversing.
There’s no pattern to enemy movement, no logic to when they hold back or rush in, and definitely no teamwork between them. Instead they just bob up and down behind a wall, waiting for you to beeooorrrp them in their faces, while others spawn behind you and kill you in two shots.
Movement is the other deeply problematic area. I confess it was far too long before I realised an “aim assist” setting was responsible for the sluggish mouse movement, and that switched off dramatically improved things. But it did nothing to address the farcically terrible running and jumping. You’re often required to jump gaps to reach areas, but unless you’re sprinting your character will choose to just fall three storeys into the pavement rather than grab at a ledge. Tiny gaps require hilarious run-ups, while mantling is deeply broken, and randomly executed. Which is to say nothing of the motorbikes.
They’re scattered around the city, and “useful” for either travelling long distances, or leaping off ramps to reach certain areas. But bugger me, they’re dreadful. Have you ever been to a fair and they’ve got one of those wobbly bikes that are impossible to ride? This is them, motorised. It is over seven hundred million percent easier and faster to just run everywhere than try to balance on those daft disasters.
Death is very minor, but endlessly annoying. You awake in the nearest safe zone you’ve captured, your only loss any “valuables” you were carrying. These are items scavenged as you play, worth about $10 each, so it’s a minor inconvenience. Most of your progress is maintained, bases generously respawn health kits and ammo each time. But death comes too quickly, too easily, and far too often not at your own fault, and can be a hefty setback if slogging through a particularly poorly designed base takeover. (Although it has led to my discovering that often you can expedite matters by running past all the baddies and dashing to the end goal and hitting “E”, rather than playing properly.)
And yet, despite all these enormous flaws, there’s so much to celebrate in Homefront: The Revolution. It really is a huge accomplishment, an attempt to step on Ubisoft’s toes, and in so many ways a successful one. Whereas Ubi’s games from The Division to the Far Cries have fairly ubiquitous-feeling cities/islands to explore, Homefront’s Philadelphia is really impressively varied. The shift in approach from a red to a yellow zone is both very welcome, and far more interesting. Getting to walk about in the streets, being extremely careful, but not having to shoot everything that moves, is great. Carefully negotiating your way through back alleys and finding routes up rubble-strewn buildings to reach hidden stashes, then creep across board walks to reach a distant balcony, jumping (when possible) for a ledge, and reaching an enemy target without having had to set off alarms is completely splendid. As can be picking them off one by one with your sniper rifle.
Weapons are given a novel and interesting approach. You can carry three at a time, one of them being a pistol, but each can be transformed into two others. My battle rifle (for which I recommend you start saving the moment you start playing) can be changed into a marksman rifle (sniper) or Freedom Launcher – a form of rocket launcher. Quite the conversions. The crossbow ludicrously can become a blunderbuss or flamethrower! It’s very daft, but at the same time, gives you a broad array in your arsenal (once you’ve unlocked them). And ammo is free – the weapon cabinets from which you buy new bits and bobs automatically fill your bullet pockets each time. Splendid.
As well as the big weapon changes, each (and each variant) can be adapted with different scopes, handles, muzzles etc, letting you craft a very specific weapon that suits you. Then alongside these are equipment improvements, scavenged items that are used for crafting various incendiary devices, and the best thing of all, RC cars!
These toy cars are used to carry explosives, hacking bomb things, and the like, driven where you want them, and then remotely detonated. They are, like so much in the game, oddly poorly implemented (seeming to suffer from ridiculous amounts of static interference for no good reason), but tremendously satisfying to successfully deploy. Get into a good hiding place, drive your car under a (very convenient) slot in the enemy defences, and then have it blow up a padlock on the other side of a door, and you’ve got yourself a way in!
My guess is that Homefront: The Revolution isn’t going to score so well in the land of game scoring, because it’s quite so replete with issues. And that makes me sad, in a way, because there’s quite so much here. The story, while meagre in depth, isn’t bullshit for once, and the city itself is superbly designed. It feels like it could have been the step forward from Ubi’s stale format, had it only been given more money and time, better resources for AI, and a good few more passes for bugs, glitches and the like before release. (I've gotten stuck in scenery far too often, and once fallen out of the edge of the world. Oh, and you know when your phone goes weird and won't stop telling you you've got a message you've read. The in-game phone has that bug. Argh.)
But at the same time, it's one of the most interesting games in the genre, trying to be so much more than the usual icon hunt such open-worlds offer. Scripted sequences may be generally dire, but they're there with a goal to offering yet more variety alongside the hugely different tones to different zones, the different tactics needed to approach different atmospheres, and weapons that can be a treat to use.
It's complete madness that the game is sullied with the utterly awful Homefront reputation, and no, thank God, this game doesn't feature the instruction, "HIDE IN THE MASS GRAVE". All such revolting attempts at "commentary" are gone, replaced with a daft, paper-thin tale about rescuing some guy for some reason - you're not watching parents getting executed in front of their infant children this time out. (Wow, Homefront was a hateful piece of crap.) This is a whole other thing. But it's a clumsy, annoying thing, despite its epic ambitions.
I want to be able to recommend it so much, but I'm also aware how much time I spent bellowing at the screen because NPCs wedge themselves in doorways, or the godforsaken airships spawn immediately above your head and scupper all your hard work. I'm aware how dreadful the AI is throughout. I'm aware that despite its attempts to move things on it's extremely derivative of a genre that's wearing itself thin. But I want to recommend it anyway. It's got this weird bubbling heart underneath it, a clear desire to be a great game despite not being able to reach it. It's packed, varied, and so bloody enormous. It's a real muddle, and a muddle for which I've developed a real soft spot.