Friday, 22 July 2016

Homefront: The Revolution - Review

Developer: Dambuster Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC

I'd be lying if I said I said there was anything particularly memorable about the original Homefront, other than the fact that I recall it repeatedly forced me to restart my PS3 in order to got the game working again. What I do vaguely remember was its attempt to borrow elements from slower paced shooters, harkening back to the likes of Half Life 2, rather than the typical run-and-gun twitch-fest of Call of Duty. Homefront: The Revolution sees fit to continue in a similar mould, drawing upon a number of less obvious first-person shooter influences in an attempt to carve out its own identity.

Initially, this can seem a bit underwhelming. After a brief introductory scenario you're thrust into the first of the game's several open-world maps, complete with optional side quests and locations that need to be liberated from the North Korean forces. The ubiquitous “Ubi-verse” model of game design comes to the fore here, with the game's various side missions and collectibles forming the backbone of its gameplay. Think Far Cry 3 only a little grungier.

The kitchen sink approach to open world game design has been the core of many major releases in recent years, and I think I've written more about it in my reviews on this site already than I care to mention. Despite this, UK-based developer Dambuster Studios do at least try their hardest to cobble together their own take on a style of game design that's becoming increasingly stale.

Homefront: The Revolution's strongest element by far is its atmosphere and pacing. Dambuster Studios take their time, having you shuffle about across rubble-strewn streets, whilst fellow resistance members taking up sniper positions in blown out buildings, and hulking Korean battleships loom overhead. It's a genuinely striking sci-fi vision at times; Red Dawn meets War of the Worlds with a hint of Escape from New York.

This slower pace is reflected in the combat system. Gunfights are a deliberately cumbersome affair, your movement speed a far cry away from Doom Marine's glide and Master Chief's gravity defying jumps. There's none of that handy auto-healing either, bullets back a punch and the only way to top up that meagre life bar is by burning through one of you med-kits, accompanied by another painfully slow animation. The closest comparison, and a clear influence on the game's direction, are the two Metro games, another series that bolsters its relatively simple mechanics with good atmosphere and world-building, not to mention difficulty.

It's easy, especially in these open world games, to have the main character quickly evolve into a superman, zipping from point to point mopping up objectives. It gives the player a sense of power and (underwhelming) accomplishment, sure, but it robs the game world of anything more meaningful, rendering the game world a collection of bland “to do” lists rather than a cohesive environment.

By stepping back and doing things a little differently, Homefront: The Revolution manages to make the familiar game mechanics a little more refreshing than most games. Its side quests are familiar; capturing locations so that they fall into the rebel's hands, but there's a little more context given to each one, whether it be liberating a police station to use it as a forward base, or hacking a North Korean communications network to get the lay of the land. Granted, it's a minor step up from other open world games, but, along with the focus on pacing and atmosphere, prevents the otherwise cookie-cutter mission of objectives from blurring into one another.

Dambuster do see fit to have the player experiment a little, too. The game's weapons all have various modifications with different weapon-types that can be fitted onto them. For instance, the standard battle rifle and be transformed into a marksman rifle and have a sniper scope stuck on top. Meanwhile, the standard pistol can have a silencer attached for stealthy operations and than switched into a SMG for when things can hairy. Likewise, molotovs and pipe bombs can be but crafted from junk left strewn around. Later on you can become a more violent Kevin McCallister as you attach your arsenal of jerry-rigged explosives to the back of an RC car in order to blow something up. Fun, if frequently impractical.

This is where Homefront: The Revolution begins to stumble. The weapon modification idea is fun but is hardly anything new. Worse, it's contradictory when paired with the game's two weapon carry limit. It's here where the open world sandbox begins to clash with the more grounded, “realistic” approach that the game also wants to take.

This problem expands into the enemy designs. Whilst the first half of the game is enjoyable enough, and a suitable challenge, Dambuster fail to up the ante as the campaign progresses. Combat still boils down to shooting at regular soldiers, which are divided up into basic rifle-toting troops, shotgun types and a tougher unit that crops up later on. Other missions simply dole out side quest jobs as fodder to push the main campaign forward.

To their credit, the developers do attempt to vary the basic structure by having missions take place into two different “war zones “, for lack of a better word. The Red Zone areas are your typical open world warfare, whilst the Yellow Zone allows for a little more subterfuge, as you hide amongst the masses, assassinate enemy leaders and capture locations to prepare for an uprising.

These are undoubtedly the game's stronger moments, and the game maintains its strong sense of pace by bouncing back and forth between these two styles of gameplay. Without the contradictory combat, and a focus on a more methodical, stealthy pace, the atmosphere is once again allowed to shine when you're sent to the Yellow Zone. Each side quest or rebel act you carry out, from destroying Korean propaganda to freeing prisoners, pushes the occupied closer to all out riot. And it begins slowly, with revolutionaries turning up on side streets and angry mobs smashing up cars or even attacking lone troops.

It's a missed opportunity that, for all Dambuster Studios skill at crafting an incredibly vivid world, their writing fails to match. Homefront: The Revolution doesn't have a good script but, as with Mirror's Edge Catalyst, it's the kind of game that would have been greatly elevated had it nailed this aspect down. The game's lead comes from the Gordon Freeman school of acting, and so spends the entire game silent, but it's the other characters and plot which surround him that struggle to meet any meaningful resolution.

Initially, the bickering between the three leaders of the revolution has some potential. Jack Parrish is the all-American leader, willing to do whatever it takes to win, whilst Dana Moore is the loose cannon, more interested in getting revenge than liberating the country. It's down to Sam Burnett, a rebel doctor, to act as a contrast to the two more gung-ho members of the band. Whilst the game never really delves into the groups ideological differences in any great detail, and whenever it manages to, it does so in an awkward ham fisted way (Burnett is against killing; he's a doctor, the other two think he's soft) with a bit more work there could have been potential here.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the game's story is that it avoids the flag-waving jingoism that is could easily have devolved into. One striking moment involves Parrish and Moore hiding the resistances stash of missiles over at Burnett's clinic. Naturally, Burnett is furious when he finds out, but with some more work this could have been a striking and interesting moral quandary to put to the player; what lengths to you go to in order to achieve your objectives?

Sadly, the campaign rushes towards it's finale during the final act as the game's budget begins to dry up. Rescuing a kidnapped resistance leader, which forms the basis for most of the game's story, is quickly jettisoned as the game sprints towards a sudden conclusion. Characters start making bizarre decisions, sacrificing themselves for no reason, and the final areas you're left to explore feel more like padding than anything else. Meanwhile, the ending cut-scene is sequel bait rather than a satisfying conclusion; a punch in the face to what had otherwise been, mediocre story or not, a game that focused on immersing the player.

The biggest complaint however, has to be levelled at the game's technical problems. Seven patches have already been put out for a game that's barely two months old. Homefront: The Revolution is buggy, sometimes absurdly so. Characters will float, the sound will inexplicably cut out, and the game still devolves into a slide show every time it auto-saves, with the framerate seeming to drop into the single digits.

And yet, despite all these problems, this is a game that's hard not to like. Despite it's shortcomings, there's an attempt to craft something that, whilst not revolutionary (pun intended), is at least enjoyable. Like the B-movies that inspired it, it does have its own personality, provided you can overlook it's more derivative ideas and technical flaws.


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