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Homefront

As a kid, reading through every games magazine I could get my hands on, one thing that gave my perception of the medium so much texture was the presence of the ‘6-7/10’ games.

I could never afford to buy them and I didn’t have access to game rentals, so they always existed in this state of limbo. As curious as I was about them, they were too much of a risk to be worth £40, on the rare occasion when I had £40 to spend.

I never got to play a huge number of games I thought I might have enjoyed, and this led to a lot of curiosity going unfulfilled and a lot of lessons about the medium potentially going unlearned.

So now that I’m finally of an age where I have disposable income, I’m hoping to be going for a regular deep dive into the realm of those forgotten 6s and 7s of yesteryear.

These were the games that were just okay in a medium where most of us only bother to play the great ones. We might have forgotten them the first time around – some even deserved it – but we can still learn from them in hindsight.

It seems timely, given the recent release of the unlikely and uncelebrated first-person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, to place its predecessor, Homefront, in the critical crosshairs first.

One thing I’ve seen come up time and time again is a general consensus that the original Homefront, a high-profile Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare imitation set following a North Korean invasion of the USA, was ‘competent’ or ‘unremarkable’, or even just ‘bland’.

I feel that this is a profound misunderstanding, one which I’ll be seeking to address in this column.

Far from simply mediocre, this was a game of staggering failures, a disaster born of a disastrous production cycle, against which Homefront’s reputation has been preserved, seemingly because everyone forgot about it too quickly to notice.

In order to examine Homefront, we must also consider its inspiration and most obvious competition, the revitalising Modern Warfare era of the Call of Duty series. I’m genuinely glad that the knee-jerk dislike of the series is dying down, following the last five or so years of it being held up as the harbinger of everything wrong and impure about the world.

To speak nothing of the commercial and structural revolution it inspired in the industry, it’s remarkable how quickly some people forgot that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is considered by others to be one of the best action games ever made.

Even now, it remains well-served by the tightly-wound clockwork of its moment-to-moment gameplay, its quietly subversive campaign and its deservedly paradigm-reshaping multiplayer mode. Likewise, I regard Modern Warfare 2 as being admirably well-preserved, even if its plot is breathtakingly stupid.

It’s the latter game which provides the most direct influence for Homefront – particularly its middle section, which depicted a home-soil invasion of the US by a foreign power. In MW2, the invading nation was Russia, in a Red Dawn-esque revival of cold-war paranoia.

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This was a dumb plot-point, carried by the emotive proximity of the player to the infamous ‘No Russian’ mission and MW2’s naïve, Hollywood reliance on the ‘Great Men’ perspective of international geopolitics.

Here a few powerful individuals, when suitably pissed at one another, can drive the flow of entire countries divorced from any larger systemic realities. However, these factors combine to create a bubble of absurd alternate reality, where the decision for superpowers to go to war in the 21st century would be plausible if one world leader felt indignant enough.

Like many of Modern Warfare’s virtues, I get the impression that the game’s disparate ‘cool’ ideas just happened to click together coherently, rather than out of any insightful worldview (see also: the AC-130 mission from MW1), but the game carries it off nonetheless.

However, this was a balancing act which could have easily gone wrong; for evidence, look to its imitators, of which the North Korea-bashing Homefront is the most obvious.

Homefront’s shortcomings, as compared to Modern Warfare, begin with the difference in antagonists. Where Russia is at least a plausible superpower, built on a decades-long legacy of being in equal conflict with the US, North Korea is the yappy poodle of international conflict.

It’s a nation built on posturing and bungled public relations, a nation whose military spending is dwarfed by every major nation that surrounds it by at least an order of magnitude. North Korea is a legitimate source of fascination on an international stage, positive proof of the ineptitude of totalitarian states in the face of democracy, but it is not a credible threat to anyone but itself.

Homefront’s opening video, compiled from stock footage and cheaply shot newsreel, presents a completely absurd timeline, simultaneously requiring a stratospheric rise of North Korea and an utterly implausible fall of the United States.

Indeed, apparently American citizens are fleeing to take refugee status in Mexico. And yet, in spite of this, the North Koreans still consider it a priority to invade the fallen US.

Apparently they believe they can make use of resources that completely failed to save the US as a nation enough to justify the manpower and cost, neither of which North Korea will ever be able to afford a fraction of.

It’s also unintentionally hilarious, given that game needs actual North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un to be a much more intimidating villain than real life has shown him to be.

In the game he’s portrayed by a steely-eyed, stern-faced actor, far from the pudgy, awkward oddball he actually turned out to be when he entered the public eye. His weird eyebrows alone should disqualify him from being a credible megalomaniac.

It’s only his disgusting human rights abuses that stop Kim Jong-Un from being entirely risible from the mainstream perspective, and this is a place in which Homefront appears to have possessed no foresight whatsoever. By tying villain-hood to a real person, their main villain lives and dies by his real-life reputation, and Kim Jong-Un is definitely found wanting.

He was supposed to have taken over South Korea by 2013; what’s taking him so long?
This sort of nonsense backstory seems, at first, like it might be ancillary to the actual experience of the game. Almost immediately, however, it reveals itself to be a part of the larger tonal catastrophe of the campaign, with the game’s intermittently enjoyable mechanics framed within a context made entirely of objectionable nonsense.

From beginning to end, Homefront’s conflict is written in a monolithically tone-deaf manner. Most obviously, the racial coding of the antagonists carries a through-line which frequently veers into outright racism.

Time and time again, squad leader Connor’s xenophobia is commented upon with disgust even by his colleagues, but to absolutely no consequence. The game still gives him constant shining moments in which he’s a hero and an effective leader, in ways which continuously fall in line with his hatred of North Koreans.

He hoots and hollers upon killing an enemy with a grenade that “I thought I smelled Korean Barbecue!” He exclaims, “Of course they’re bad, they’re North Korean! You know what those North Koreans are like!”

The game tuts at him, but never punishes his perspective or calls it out on its inadequacies. The right way to handle this could have been to have him let loose in a way that shakes his troops’ faith in him – concern that his judgements are motivated more by racist blood-lust than by insight. After all, they are.

Instead, the game vindicates or prevaricates for him at every turn. In the end, your character functions as Connor’s bodyguard, while he remains the story’s true protagonist – and all the while, every other line he spits out will make your skin crawl.

Homefront makes gestures toward redeeming nuance, but they universally lack the depth or commitment they need to counter its hero’s bigotry. Most notably, the presence of Hopper, a Korean-American squad-mate, is largely wasted. Even when he’s confronted with very explicit xenophobia from another American, and retorts that he was born in Oakland, we never get insight into his experiences in reaction to this later.

Is this unusual? How does he relate to this, as someone ostensibly fighting for a country he’s periodically denied identification with? Does Connor relate this bigotry to his own? We never find out. His experiences matter less than his value as a shield from criticism.

There’s also a weird moment where Connor declares that resistance member Ernie should teach his daughter to shoot, that women have “just as much to fight for”. Where the point of contention in the text is that Ernie doesn’t want his kids to be fighters, I was just confused as to why that needed to be said.

In real resistance movements against occupation, women have been involved as a matter of course. I don’t buy that, at this late stage, a Resistance member would need to be reminded that women have value as fighters – by someone who was currently leading a squad comprised entirely of men.

It’s all part of this weird vocal pretence at progressiveness – shallow gestures towards examination of xenophobia, towards the near-exclusively male composition of your unit. It’s a very obvious result of a clash between the sensibilities of presumably progressive developers and writers and the emphatically macho, regressive fantasy they’ve been hired to indulge.

The real solution would have been for Homefront to set up stakes or consequences, but the game never provides any. I kept wanting someone to die – there are so many moments where this would have added weight to a moment.

When Connor goes mad with rage upon discovery of a mass grave on a baseball field – such bludgeoning ‘corruption of Americana’ imagery, such a bargain-basement atrocity – and charges a platoon of armed North Korean soldiers in a berserker rage, he should have been killed.

The fact that he isn’t met with obvious, bloody consequences undermines the drama of the rest of the level, as well as his own convictions. The piles of dead Americans, the disregard for the lives of his countrymen, it all becomes something he’s only willing to kill for, rather than something he’s willing to die for.

This whole scene ends in the player character’s squad hiding in the mass grave, with North Koreans firing into the pit just in case. “[E] TO JUMP IN MASS GRAVE”.

The single most crass thing I’ve ever been instructed to do in a videogame, and yet nothing, good or ill, comes of it.

If the North Koreans finished firing down into the pit of bodies you’re hiding in, left, and one of your squad-mates didn’t get up, that could be an interesting moment.

If the squad had to weigh up leaving them there versus potentially the added danger of being weighed down, if the decision to leave a Resistance fighter in the same mass graves that outraged them so had been used to highlight the parallels between two sides who both chose militarism, the game could have gained some extra dimensions.
Instead, the scene becomes just another inert, inconsequential and ultimately uninvolving moment that makes the action sections feel frivolous.

Most glaringly, Homefront had the misfortune to launch six months before the great deconstructionist military shooter Spec Ops: The Line, with both containing a scene in which the protagonists utilise White Phosphorus strikes against enemy troops.

Homefront plays the scene for action drama before empathy and it frames the strikes – indeed, all of the atrocities committed by the protagonists – as ‘necessary evils’.

It even inserts a Wilhelm Scream of all things, punctuating someone horribly dying three feet from your face with some kind of sick humour, an in-joke between sound designers.

That must have been a comparatively sweet six months. For six whole months, Homefront’s White Phosphorus scene only constituted commission of a war crime – a sorry thing videogames have never had trouble overlooking.

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Now, it’s a brutish, awkward mirroring of Spec Ops’ White Phosphorus massacre, one of the most horrifying, gut-punching scenes in gaming history.

Call of Duty has always been relatively self-aware regarding this sort of moment – in particular, 4: Modern Warfare was thematically far more in line with Spec Ops: The Line than opposed to it. Homefront, however, blunders into the exact sort of behaviour Spec Ops calls out.

The scene’s core thesis is ‘the use of White Phosphorus can go wrong’, when the point so clearly in front of us now is that the use of White Phosphorous is wrong.

Homefront feigns understanding of what it’s doing, but it never follows through in the way that a real grasp on the horrors its own protagonists’ actions would necessitate.

It lacks the bravery, and now that a similar game exists that has the spine to follow through, the scene exposes the ways in which the game is found wanting. Ultimately, Homefront expresses more sympathy for its automated tank than for its faceless mass of antagonists.

There are so many scenes I want from this game that it will not give me, but they all come down to two things: consistent, meaningful examination of the protagonists’ actions, and consistent, meaningful humanisation of the North Koreans’ actions.

A work dealing with subject matter of this real-world magnitude requires both, and Homefront doesn’t provide either. Its real interest is in creating a scenario which justifies the impulses that power real life militaristic jingoism.

It briefly makes antagonists of the sort of swivel-eyed survivalists whose fantasies the game seems to have sprung from, but the effect of everything that came before still overwhelms.

It’s not even well-performed. The dialogue is stilted and the actors flounder under a seeming lack of direction that leaves their performances without immediacy and grounding in context.

Not a single move is made to give personality to tertiary characters, who have uniformly dull one-syllable responses. The game actually makes you press the action button to hear them grunt at you too, and it’s a mystery why the game’s developers thought it was worth the interaction.

Against the overwhelming failure of the aesthetic and thematic context for the player’s actions, it seems crass to delve too deep into the game’s mechanics as though they might redeem it.

For what it’s worth, I think they’re generally fine. The action of firing feels responsive and snappy, and while the shoot-out scenarios the game concocts vary in quality, many are fun. There’s a great section of moving through an occupied electronics store and a stirring, if abrupt, final level.

It doesn’t build on this modest success in any meaningful way; the guns are uninteresting, and shootouts often spread your attention too thin, appearing directionless and fracturing its own pacing. It does mean, however that as you’re weathering other aspects of the game’s experiences, you at least have the moment-to-moment shooting to look forward to.

Here too, however, the game has its misjudgements. The most frequently inhibiting of these during my play-through is a pet peeve of mine; the ‘crouch’ action is more of a hunched dip that rarely gets you properly into cover, with the game instead mapping crouch and ‘prone’ to different controls.

I’ve never known what fun developers think we’re going to have with dedicated controls for different degrees of lying down or standing up, and this game doesn’t do much to enlighten me on the matter.

Instead, it’s an unnecessary obstacle between the impulse to quickly hide from gunfire and the ability to actually do so in the game. I prefer the binary Time Crisis school of ducking behind cover, where you either are or are not shooting and getting shot at, and games like this aggravate me constantly. It’s a decision that hampers the efficacy of the player’s ability to clearly act in a tactical way.

Likewise, the game’s level design is full of frustration and contrivance – apparently there are ramps everywhere in occupied America (Dukes of Hazzard revivalism maybe?). I guess there wasn’t room in the budget for a satisfying vaulting mechanic – nor for that matter, decent streaming technology.

In order to disguise load times, a non-player member of your team has to open every door you encounter, leaving you waiting for the AI to catch up or get past you to open up the next artificial gate or invisible wall.

This insistent gating speaks to a larger issue with Homefront not empowering you to control the pace of your own experience or even take much action in your own direction.

In more recent Call of Duty games you can famously often get through scenes with the AI squad-mates doing all the fighting, allowing the game to play for you. In Homefront, you need to wait around for the game to finish playing itself.

Ultimately, I found this to be the most striking thing about Homefront; every time it tries to be something other than the most basic sort of shooting gallery, it fails. It’s mired in subject matter it isn’t equipped to deal with and poorly executed in almost every respect.

It’s a gutless, clumsy experience; afraid to commit either to its paranoid militia fantasy or its pearl-clutching faux-sympathetic commentary, and unequipped to navigate its mechanical inadequacies.

The fact that this game was treated so generously by contemporary critics as to merely be considered ‘dull but functional’ baffles me. From start to finish, I consider Homefront to be a boorish, inelegant and purposeless mess.

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