‘Homefront: The Revolution’ a gorgeous disappointment
Not a lot of people know this, but North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world, up there with China, Russia and the United States.
That’s good material for political propaganda, of course, and it also powers the narrative of “Homefront: The Revolution,” a very pretty and very ambitious game that never quite realizes its potential.
The set-up: In a near-future alternate-history America, North Korea has deep-sixed the U.S. military by way of sophisticated cyberespionage. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) now occupies all major U.S. cities, trampling liberty, justice, etc. Your mission is to join the underground resistance and restore America to glory.
The general vibe is straight out of a jingoistic Tom Clancy novel circa 1988, and the game’s overarching story and dialogue never rise above knucklehead action movie tropes. Which is a real shame, because in terms of design and world-building, “Homefront” is gorgeous.
In the Red Zone
The level of visual detail is astonishing, and the designers have gone out of their way to provide a detailed milieu. The action takes place in the ruins of Philadelphia, but depending on what sector you’re in, you might find yourself in a bombed-out subway tunnel or an idyllic suburban neighborhood.
Either way, the perpetual presence of aggressive, heavily-armored KPA patrols tends to harsh your mellow. “Homefront” presents a near-future setting with hovering drones and massive airships. But your guerrilla fighting team must make do with cobbled-together weapons and DIY incendiaries.
“Homefront” takes an interesting approach vector to format. It’s essentially a first-person shooter outfitted with RPG and open-world action-adventure features borrowed from other popular franchises. For instance, fans of the “Assassin’s Creed” series will find the mini-map and stealth elements awfully familiar. You can wander about at will in the Yellow Zones, but soldiers and aerial drones will attack on site in the occupied Red Zones.
The upside of this is that, as with “Creed,” you can play big chunks of “Homefront” in stealth mode, avoiding conflict and sneaking your way past obstacles. The limited crafting system lets you build quiet sniper weapons – I like the crossbow – and employ stolen stealth technology.
The downside is that, in the crowded Red Zone missions, enemy AI is extremely unpredictable. Bombed out buildings rise several stories above street level, which is itself pitted with craters and tunnels. With space-age dirigibles overhead and little tank drones popping out of sewers, danger is everywhere.
I found it almost impossible to effectively gauge line-of-sight cover among the crumbling ruins. In playtesting, most firefights ended up with me in full Monty Python mode (“Run away!”) as swarms of KPA baddies nipped at my heels.
Yellow Zone more fun
As such, the Yellow Zone missions tend to be the most rewarding, and there’s fun to be had here ambushing KPC patrols and deploying radio-control toy cars packed with explosives. These areas are more thematically well-developed, too. You’ll find yourself doing those little things that make resistance fighting so rewarding, like busting up propaganda speakers or hacking the KPA’s surveillance infrastructure.
This will also give you time to appreciate the game’s design strengths. Each sector in “Homefront” is populated with roaming civilians and finely detailed environments. I liked lingering over the odd details, like street vendors cooking I-don’t-want-to-know-what on indoor grills improvised from old computers and file cabinets.
“Homefront” suffered through a famously chaotic development cycle, changing design teams several times, and it shows. I didn’t encounter many technical glitches on the PlayStation 4, but the online forums are full of horror stories across all platforms.
The haphazard development clearly took a toll on the storytelling, as well. Unlike the original 2011 “Homefront” game, which was built as a traditional multiplayer shooter, “Revolution” was obviously designed to have a strong single-player story.
But the characters are few, the themes are shallow and the dialogue is a real problem. It’s like a movie with a screenplay that needs a new draft or two. Or twelve.
“Homefront: The Revolution” is now available on OS X, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.