Situated in midtown Manhattan, Kaos Studios is quite used to seeing its home turf ravaged by bombs, aliens, zombies, and the occasional giant monster. The very same associations with wealth and prosperity that make New York a target for real-life terrorists make it the capitol of fictional disaster. But for much of America, terror and the ensuing wars to combat it are distant, impersonal concepts to be discussed around water coolers rather than something that could ever happen in their backyard. With Homefront, Kaos tries to show us what a full-blown war could do to a sleepy Colorado town, with as much detail and realism as they can muster, and in so doing give its horrors the context they inherently lack for many of us.
Homefront is, in many ways, a pretty direct continuation of the Kaos’ earlier work, Frontlines. Their first game for THQ was full of potential, with its compelling dystopian scenario set in a near-future in which the diminishing fuel supplies have resulted in a global turf war. Alas, it was simply not able to stand-out in the crowded shooter market, and, despite a well-developed back-story, its single player campaign felt almost tacked on, with a thin story and generic environments.
Kaos is the first to take responsibility for this. There is simply no room in the market for mediocre first-person shooters. For their sophomore effort, Kaos Studios and THQ have challenged themselves to develop a true AAA title capable of standing out from its competitors. This means not just delivering a strong online game to keep gamers playing, but a single-player campaign to bring them in. To help give their solo game the kind of cinematic polish that Frontlines so sorely lacked, they’ve enlisted screenwriter John Milius, most famous for penning classic war movies like Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn, to write a compelling single-player scenario.
Milius, also a veteran of EA’s Medal of Honor series, establishes a plausible – if unlikely – chain of events in which America’s declining economic and military power coincides with a new era of expansion and aggression on the part of North Korea, eventually culminating in a full-scale occupation of America under the rule of Kim Jung-un. Its story opens in what was once a sleepy Colorado suburb, now transformed into a boarded-up war zone where Americans are being rounded up and placed in forced labor camps.
At a glance there seems to be a certain Roland Emmerich bent to this sort of perversion of the familiar, but while movies like Independence Day and 2012 turned heads by destroying famous landmarks, Homefront’s Anytown, USA feels closer to home. The suburbs make such a perfect backdrop precisely because of their universality. Travel 20 miles outside of any city in America and you’ll see the same strip malls full of the same chain stores, and the same shady streets full of cute, two-story houses. It is perhaps this sort of cookie cutter nature that even excuses what would otherwise be gratuitous use of licensed chains like White Castle and TigerDirect as sets for the game’s battles. The commentary here is obvious, but resonant: Every war takes place in someone’s home town, but setting it where we all feel furthest away from the tragedy of war drives that point home in a way many of us seldom appreciate, at least not when playing a videogame.
Kaos has studied its competition closely, and crafted a heavily scripted, linear campaign full of dazzling destruction, with a story that unfolds around the action. Although playing as part of a rag-tag rebellion fighting against a heavily armed occupation gives the atmosphere some heavy Half-Life 2 tones, the gameplay sticks much closer to Call of Duty. Like its popular contemporaries, this is a game with very little in the way of puzzles, and the simplistic, non-aggressive enemy AI that is happy to volley fire from a safe distance. In a way these modern first-person shooters remind me more of an evolution of Time Crisis than they do of the labyrinthine shooters of the ‘90s, but they’re very much in fashion now, and Homefront compares favorably to the likes of Modern Warfare or Battlefield: Bad Company 2.
Although fairly brief at about five or six hours, the single player campaign is very well paced, ramping up to a climactic finish. For its brevity, it never outstays its welcome, which is an achievement for a repetitive action game. Like the vast majority of games of this type, its long term value is dependent on the strength of it multi-player, and those uninterested in online play can easily finish the game in a rental.
Homefront’s online component is a direct continuation of their earlier efforts with Frontlines, centering primarily on the 32-player “Ground Control” mode where two teams vie to occupy sets of capture points and push forward into enemy territory. In both theme and gameplay, the multi-player mode bears little resemblance to its offline counterpart, with a military theme and an array of gear that the rebels in the solo mode would have killed for. You’ll have some snazzy gadgets like the remote-controlled drones from Frontlines, and you’ll get to take control of tanks, helicopters, and APCs. Coupled with a Call of Duty-style leveling system, the result is like a faster, more arcade-styled version of MAG.
Homefront may not be a holiday-season blockbuster, but Kaos has proven that they have what it takes to compete. There is nothing terribly innovative here, but the successful pairing of tried and true gameplay with a unique setting are reason enough to take notice. THQ may have some more work to do before they become leaders, but Homefront handily proves they know how to keep up.