Homefront didn’t make much of an impact on gaming history. It was nice idea, executed reasonably enough, but didn’t capture the audience in the way the publishers and developers wanted. So they thought they’d give it another go, obviously. Having bought the rights of the series from THQ, Crytek UK began work on Homefront: The Revolution, then got bought out by Koch Media in 2014 (who own Deep Silver) with the staff being transferred to Dambuster Studios along with the development of the game. What we’ve had released in 2016 is the fruits of their labour, and a controversial one at that. At the time of writing the game has suffered poor reviews, negative press after the co-op beta, and nothing but bad words about the performance issues found on console. That said, since I started playing there have been 3 patches and things have improved… has this made all the difference?
If there’s one thing that hits you from the off, it’s the plausibility of the story of Homefront: The Revolution. How do you sell the idea that the USA has been successfully invaded by the North Korean army given the current state of the world’s geopolitical climate? Easy, make everyone dependent on tech. Mirroring Apple, Google and Samsung, the North Koreans have invented the must have smartphone, which in turn leads to other fantastic tech to power everyone’s lives, and the military. Engineer an economic collapse that causes the US to default on its debts and the Korean Peoples Army have a reason to invade, as well as nullifying any resistance from the military by shutting off the defenses remotely. All of a sudden, the State’s are occupied and under the control of the KPA, with no international aid, and very little way of mounting a full scale fight back because none of their weapons work anymore. Cue the resistance and your mission to regain control of Philadephia using tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, sonic electronic ball breakers, nukes, knives, sharp sticks… well, maybe just the last two.
Taking the part of Ethan Brady, your resistance cell is attacked and killed by the KPA, though you are rescued by head honcho Benjamin Walker, who in turn is captured and imprisoned. The rest of the plot then revolves around freeing Ben from captivity so he can unite the people and lead the revolution, whilst in reality it’s your job to free various sections of the city from occupational forces and generally being a one man death squad for the KPA and collaborators alike. Nuance and subtlety are not key phrases in the Homefront universe, characters encountered are firm stereotypes (the former criminal using their psychotic tendencies under the pretense of it’s for the good of the people, the blue collar hard done to everyman, the pacifist doctor); and you’ll pretty much figure out how their stories turn out from the first cutscene or two with them. You’ll also not care one iota about them, just as you won’t care about Ethan. There’s no development of the lead or supporting players, they’re just taken at face value, and unfortunately most of them are dicks with no clear motivation outside “US got invaded, people died”. This might have been enough several years ago, but the expectation in 2016 of the audience as to having a reason for killing scores of anonymous soldiers is much higher; and a voiceless, faceless Ethan with no connection to the gamer doesn’t help improve things. At times I sympathised with the tough job the KPA had maintaining law and order because of the resistance, especially when you fully take over a zone and find it a ruined, riotous hell hole. I think I might prefer the subjugation.
It’s possible to look past the plot and characters if the gameplay is there to provide a rich and rewarding experience, and it’s fair to say there’s potential if it’s somewhat hampered by the capability of the game engine (on console at least). I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail in the environments, with a pretty believable and interactive air being achieved with CryEngine, and the visuals are pretty tasty at times in the motion captured cutscenes. There are two main issues that spoil the work that’s gone into Homefront: The Revolution though – the autosave and the frame rate. Most people would argue that it’s the frame rate that’s most important, however I don’t think that’s the case here. The game is playable even when it runs at sub 30 fps (which is most of the time), and it’s not a twitch shooter requiring precision aiming because the auto aim and hit detections are pretty generous. For me the major hitch is the autosave because it pauses the game for about 5 – 10 seconds every few minutes whilst audio continues in the background, with your screen frozen in place. It’s very disconcerting in the middle of a firefight, frustrating every time you exit from the shop, or just makes you think it’s all crashed after spending an age on a blank screen at the beginning of a level. In fairness though, I didn’t experience a single crash during playing, and I tend to run single player games in rest mode for extended periods.
Homefront: The Revolution is a semi open world in that you move from zone to zone via a loading screen, but are free to explore the environment in that zone at will. Ranging from Red to Yellow to Green depending on the level of KPA occupation and luxuriousness, each offers a distinct visual style and way of traversing the terrain. It might portray itself as a shooter, but there’s a fair amount of platforming and puzzle solving to be done in the name of freedom. Take the Red zones for example. These are fairly large desolate spaces which are heavily patrolled, yet provide the opportunity to jump on a motorbike and blast your way around with relative impunity. It’s no Trials Fusion, but you don’t fall off easily and the bike will go just about anywhere, and also acts as a generator in some instances. The Yellow zones are predominantly living areas and are full of houses, alleys and fences to clamber around and explore. The Green zone is administrative, you don’t really want to go there. It’s actually more than I was expecting, and even enjoyed figuring out how to scale certain buildings, or get old resistance equipment working. It comes with the downside that it feels just a bit repetitive to win the Hearts & Minds of the inhabitants and take over key locations in a zone to free it from the KPA, to then have to do it again. And again. And again.
Now we come to weaponry and combat, and here’s where you can really see the Crytek UK influence. Remember the on-the-fly modding in Crysis 2 and 3? Something very similar is in play here. Buy a weapon and it opens up variants that convert it into another weapon, as well as letting you apply mods to the frame. For example, the handgun can be converted into a submachine gun or a silenced pneumatic pistol, and have sights, laser pointers and silencers added. All of this is done through a couple of button presses so your initially restricting choice of two primary and one secondary weapon loadout suddenly gives you a lot of tactical options: potentially nine different bits of destructive kit. On top of this there’s the throwing items (fire, explosive, distraction and hacking) which also come with a couple of variants. It’s about the most comprehensive arsenal outside a Ratchet & Clank game, yet manages to be accessible and fairly intuitive, and includes the ability to level up. It’s not all sweetness and light though, some of the choices are so good as all rounders you’ll not bother with half the options, and the remote control car explosive/hack tool is a great idea, but I never saw an opportunity to use it so it never got purchased. It’s probably the one area where Homefront: The Revolution over delivers.
Guns aside, there are some other good bits you’ll find in the game, and one that’s had a lot of publicity is the hidden Timesplitters 2 game. Why am I giving an easter egg such valuable review space? Because it does two things:
- Reminds you of the pedigree of the development team and how they’d nailed the shooting mechanics on their previous offerings.
- Creates such a jarring drop back into the game that you wonder if your eyes have packed in.
The discovery of an arcade cabinet with the seminal PS2 game, and a nod to the fan requested remake, is brilliant, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Siberia and Chicago levels on offer. However, exiting back to the main game brings the technical inadequacies of Homefront home to roost. Sure, it’s a port of a 14 year old game so it should be buttery smooth on latest hardware, but to then drop back to a modern cinematic shooter which can’t achieve the same performance is a real kick in the teeth. I almost think it’s something that would have been better left out.
An ambitious follow up to the disappointing original, Homefront: The Revolution is the unfortunate victim of poor engine optimisation, troubled development duties, and the fact the bad guys are persistently referred to as a British colloquial term for breasts (look up Norks, just don’t do it whilst at work). The dystopian future with the crumbled industry, big business dictating the freedom of individuals, and over the top stereotypes all feel a bit Robocop (without the messianic overtones and knowingly camp execution of 80’s action movies) – but without a main character to really rally behind. Philadelphia’s populus need a hero to make the resistance real, and we need characters that make us care enough to be that hero… there’s just no reason given. Whilst by no means is this a bad game, and even though it has its fair share of technical problems, we’ve forgiven greater issues in other games (Fallout New Vegas and Skyrim are two that spring to mind), because we bought into the world and the inhabitants. There’s a high chance you won’t here, and it’s a shame because there are flashes of something special at times.
A PS4 copy was provided by Deep Silver PR for this review, and Homefront: The Revolution is available now on PC, PS4 and XBox One.