Frontlines: Fuel of War might not have set the world on fire, but it was a standout first effort from a new studio moving up from the mod scene. For all of its shortcomings, there were many things about it, from a fantastic array of vehicles to rock-solid weapon modeling, that held great promise for their future efforts. Cut to three years later and their future effort is here, Homefront. Set in a similar resource-starved, war-torn near-future as Frontlines, Homefront tells a similar tale of a surprise attack from the East that cripples the West. In this case, "East" is a unified Greater Korean Republic, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, and "West" is the United States. Despite having a character-driven narrative, both titles share a similar fate of a fantastic multiplayer experience being hobbled by a lackluster single-player campaign.
By the end of Homefront's very, very brief tale – think about four hours – I couldn't help but be incredibly disappointed by how such a great what-if scenario ended up being one of the most disposable stories in recent memory. From the outset, it's obvious that things aren't going to be easy for you. Not only does the brief intro seem to throw every possible calamity into the mix, save for alien invasions, but it's also incredibly vague. Instead of providing a solid foundation for the how's and why's, it instead comes across as a random list of Acts of Chaos that is being checked off, and left for you to discover just what's going on.
To fill in the blanks, you are required to track down around 60 pieces of newspaper that detail the events leading up to the current day. Unfortunately, most still leave a lot of questions to be answered. Even after finding 30-some-odd pieces, I'm still not sure as to how North Korea was immune to the global downturn when it depended on so much on foreign aid to begin with; why the Knoxville Cough didn't kill same millions around the world as it did in the U.S. (closing your borders isn't the same as erecting a magical field); why the Republic of Korea was so willing to be engulfed by the North after unification, especially when by all accounts the North would require much of the Republic's resources to get out of its ongoing plight; how Russia, China, and other major powers are seemingly silent during the Greater Korean Republic's great land grab; and why anyone would want the U.S. after its population, resources, and infrastructure had been decimated. Could all of these be answered in the remaining 20 or 30 newspaper pieces? Possibly, but I couldn't find them, and I don't want to replay a game just to figure out why fate seems to be straining to the point of breaking the space-time continuum in order to have Korea take over the U.S. While games like BioShock use a similar system of giving bits of backstory through discovered recordings, diary entries, and notes to add greater weight to events and greater context to an already established story, Homefront relies on them almost exclusively to convey anything. The entire approach is just lazy.
Filling the story are some of the most clichéd characters found in a first-person shooter. There's the angry guy who doesn't care about casualties, the worried female counterpart who is always screaming that he's going too far, and they even have the blundering youth who accidently kills dozens of people and gets off with just a few cuss words. In the middle of all this is you, Robert Jacobs, a helicopter pilot whose skills are required by the American Resistance to help supply the remaining U.S. military with some much-needed resources looted from the Korean People's Army (KPA). Not that they will have too much screen time to annoying you because, at about four hours, the story is compressed to such an extent that it seems to end just as it begins. But thankfully, the levels themselves offer more than the characters.
In the midst of the hackneyed dialogue are some excellent gunfights. Aside from the hammer-to-the-head product placement – amazing how none of the Tiger Direct signs were damaged – the bombed-out locations provide for some excellent skirmish grounds. The AI is decent enough, with enemies and allies largely sticking to a coherent script, though occasionally going off and not firing at someone two feet from them but, on the flip side, also saving your skin. The vehicle portions are uniformly great, with Kaos offering both turret and free-flight missions that are a blast and could easily be expanded into a game by themselves. One of the more innovative missions involved piloting a helicopter around a supply convey to take out its escort and then in to hijack the vehicles. There aren't too many standout moments, but the ones there are really highlight what the studio is capable of when they go all-out.
Like Frontlines, the real reason to play Homefront is for its multiplayer. While the ability to practice is available, and should be to get a handle on the weapons and vehicles before jumping online, the real fun is going toe-to-toe with other players. Kaos actually has a number of their own servers running, alongside those ran by clans and other hosts. So far, the connections have been stable, the games intense, and the action incredibly addictive. An interesting use of the traditional experience model goes a long way to keeping things lively. By using points earned from kills and completing objects, you purchase a variety of items that are gradually unlocked as you level up. There are two purchasable item slots that are allocated before matches start, offering land- and air-based machine gun and missile drones, AI-controlled drones that scan areas and allow you to target two missiles or one phosphorous bomb, a flak jacket for extra protection, and so on. This creates some interesting tactical dilemmas: do you have your kit set to afford a flak jacket for every protection, or do you go for the UAV drone that will scan the map for enemies? Or, do you save them all up to spawn as a tank, Humvee, helicopter, or troop transport? Each vehicle has weapons that can be used either by switching seats or from the driver's seat, with secondary weapons for teammates to spawn into and use. The PC version has three difficulty levels for controlling vehicles, allowing for greater agility at the cost of increased speed for those who have the chops. Since the better vehicles take well over a thousand points to afford, that means that most of a game for all but the most skilled players will go without purchasing anything. There are also counters to going with a vehicle, with the risk being that a well-earned tank is reduced to charred metal after someone broke out their cheap rocket launcher. Then again, a rocket launcher takes up an item slot that many use for drones, so there might be few anti-armor weapons on the field to even worry about. Half the fun is feeling out the other team to find out what tactics will work best.
Even though there are classes, it's not really a class-based game. Instead, the classes are merely there to indicate the initial loadout. So, for instance, the Sniper class starts with a sniper rifle, but it just takes a quick trip to the Armory to replace the primary weapon with an assault rifle or sub machinegun. Likewise, all items can be changed out. All of my classes use the same assault rifle, though they have different sight attachments and camouflage patterns. In addition, each class also has two secondary weapons, abilities, and two purchasable item slots that can hold Drones, Airstrikes, Rocket Launchers, and Equipment. By staggering out item and ability unlocks, the game manages to keep its momentum even after leveling a few dozen times. The abilities are of particular interest because you are given a pool of points to spend on a number of increasing traits that include everything from decreasing the cost of purchasable items to remaining undetected by UAV sweeps to faster reload times. Finding the right match between ability and cost is tricky, but the game really clicks once a loudout is found that complements your play style. Vehicle loadouts are also unlocked, with their abilities being in the form of increased speed burst, damage, health, and so on. The system really works well, and the numerous unlocks means that there's always a new build to experiment with or old one to update.
There are some serious problems when playing online, however. The three main impediments to a good time (and your sanity) are the unbalanced sniper rifles, spawn points, and cheating. Since the game isn't really class based, the sniper rifles are open to everyone. The problem is that they are overpowered and lack almost any sway, meaning their barrier to entry is dramatically lower when compared with those found in other first-person shooters. It doesn't take long for matches to devolve into long-range gun battles that are dominated by snipers hidden amongst the debris and perched on interstate traffic signs and rooftops. Often, the kill cam will follow your game-ending shot to someone who isn't even prone; the sway is so weak that most snipers kneel or lay down just to avoid being seen, not to actually make that half-a-map-away kill shot. The sniper rifles go hand in hand with the fact that spawn points are astonishingly vulnerable. Not only do some maps have elevated terrain that dominate the spawn points, meaning that you'll be sniped just as your game loads, but many are also completely open to the enemy. More than a few games have ended with the enemy simply making their way into my team's spawn point and killing everyone the second they appeared. Lastly, there are the cheaters. It didn't take long for people to work in aim bots and a strange hack that allows them to zip around the screen at an alarming speed, teleporting every few feet. It's not uncommon to see 20-plus people leave a game because of one cheater, which illustrates just how disruptive they are. From my experience, the anti-cheating mechanisms simply don't work.
These are all significant issues that need addressing, as the rumbles from the community are pronounced in-game and the number of active players, while strong now, isn't healthy enough to sustain losses for too long before becoming a ghost town.
And that would be a real shame, because multiplayer can compete with the best of them. Kaos' talent for gun and vehicle mechanics is in fine form, with nearly every item being a blast to use and gain experience with. The gameplay ends up being a mixture of Operation Flashpoint with Battlefield: Bad Company and a dash of Call of Duty, offering a more tempered arcade experience that often punishes bravado while also allowing would-be Rambos the chance to excel if they are just that good. The two multiplayer modes, Team Deathmatch and Ground Control, have Battle Commander variants in which one selected player gives out missions for the rest of the team, and those who do exceedingly well and initiate a kill streak are both rewarded with perks and marked on the map by the commander, and a point bounty is placed on their head. The mechanics strike a balance that offers a style of play that hits a sweet spot.
Finding a game that doesn't have any of the problems is very difficult. However, it's entirely possible to play a game without running into any cheaters and where people respect the spawn points. Whenever I land on a server where everyone is following a gentlemen's (or gentlewomen's) agreement to not milk the design's shortcomings for all the points they can, so that everyone can enjoy themselves, I rarely played the game for less than an hour a go. Ground Control is particularly good, with each team fighting for three checkpoints to fill a meter, with the winner's frontline pushing forward and the opposing team having to hold the line and push back. Although, if I could tweak two minor things, it would be to not have the button to swap factions right near start (my cursor seemed to always pop over it after dying) and a way to select spawn points, to avoid spawning too far ahead after the frontline shifts. But I'd be more than happy to get the sniper rifles balanced and cheaters booted.
Homefront is really a multiplayer affair; if you aren't into online play, then this is, at best, a bargain bin purchase. However, if you don't have a problem mixing it up with strangers from around the globe, then you're in for a treat. At the moment, though, the game is at a delicate stage where it's in danger of losing its momentum due to balance issues and cheating. Going by in-game chatter, many players don't feel as if there's any immediate assistance forthcoming, which is especially disheartening when there's hacking involved. But there are a lot of great gamers out there, and once you find a good server, you're bound to be hooked.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)