Admit it, the premise does seem silly at first. North Korea? Invading the United States? By land? Is this serious?
Of course, it turns out that Homefront's author, John Milius - the guy that wrote and directed cult classic movie Red Dawn - wasn't expecting you to believe that this could happen just any old day. There's a good fifteen years of dark, future history that sees the United States weakened and even crippled, while Korea slowly conquers its neighbors before they're in a position to attack. In the US, gas rose to twenty bucks a gallon, the economy has collapsed, Korea's cheap electronics powering American defense hardware have had backdoors added to their security, and an EMP blast fries the electronics across the nation - and only then does the invasion begin. You play as Robert Jacobs, an ex-pilot that has been trying to just live under the radar in the Korean-run town of Montrose, Colorado, but on the morning of the game starting, you're rounded up by the Korean army. Before you reach your destination, American resistance fighters are able to free you. Now, use that as a lead-in for a first person shooter, and what do we get? Well, unfortunately, after all that setup, we get something that seems eerily similar to Call of Duty.
But that's not really fair, as even Homefront developers KAOS Studios - the core of which created the legendary Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 - has gone on the record saying that the game's single player campaign is really only meant as a primer for the multiplayer, where they spent most of their time tweaking and polishing in this latest effort. And the multiplayer is pretty damn good on all three versions of the game, but let's get to that later. First, let's go into what went right (and wrong) with the campaign.
First, the game tosses you into Future America (tm), a torn-up shell of what it once was. With only a few seconds of intro footage dedicated to telling us how that happened (and with many attention-deficit action game junkies who probably won't see even that, as they're too busy getting angry at the un-skippable intro), anyone going into Homefront blind would have a hard time swallowing all of this. From the first few seconds, suspension of disbelief is broken for quite a few players, and the developers, and even publisher THQ, can't really do much about it. If you dump people into 10 minutes of intro cinematics, they'll be mashing Eject (or the Alt-F4 key combo) before it's halfway done. You put slow-crawling text up on the screen explaining it, and FPS fanboys will have posted a Reddit or Something Awful Forums diatribe trashing your game before the crawl's even halfway done. All that I could see is an in-depth playable-but-non-combat intro, kind of like the first fifteen minutes of Half-Life, but that's a pretty big gamble as well.
From the first second you pick up a firearm in Homefront's meager five-hour campaign, you'll feel very familiar with almost everything you're asked to do: cover your buddies, use grenades, head through dozens of scripted sequences, sigh at the barely-functional AI, follow the corridors, and pretty much do everything according to precisely how the developers planned (and die when you don't). The gunplay is decent enough, and the Unreal engine does a solid enough job delivering the visuals of a run-down (but not nuked) America of the future, but little happens in the campaign to make it feel like you got your money's worth. There are a few locations that will give you pause or maybe even wow you a little bit, but that feeling always fades quickly. Hell, the overarching mission you take part in seems like kind of a waste, especially once you realize that your final objective is kind of a hollow victory for a mildly useless landmark that's surrounded by the Korean army anyway.
While many gamers will buy this game only for the single player, be disappointed in it, and never even start multiplayer - and if that's all you're going to do, then I suggest staying away - I don't want to spend the whole review dwelling on this. Homefront does have a damn solid multiplayer mode that runs nicely on both the consoles and on PC, with some smart little gameplay systems that bridge the gap between Call of Duty's excellent feel of personal accomplishment and Battlefield's much heavier focus on trying to get you excited for a team effort. Both of those games are on either side of a continuum, and while if I had to pick one side or the other it'd be the team effort, even better would be some added features to make me feel like I'm personally making a difference, too.
Homefront's Battle Commander system has a misleading name, especially since in Battlefield 2, a similar-sounding role was played by a person, but here it's an AI that rewards streaks of kills (or other useful team-based activities), and it adds difficulty as you progress by briefing additional enemy players on what you're up to as you become a bigger threat. There's more, too: Battle Points serve not only as your XP for ranking up, but a copy of every banked point is made in mid-match for you to spend on vehicles, special weapons, and other gadgets. This allows KAOS to make these items, drones, and vehicles powerful without letting every player take advantage of them constantly.
The Ground Control mode generally does a good job funneling players into a few choke points on any map, so you can expect some hotly contested battles between a good dozen or so players in one area at a time. The drones and vehicles add a lot of spice to these matches, even on the smaller maps that only allow drones, as this is the only way to spot (or just remotely kill) your enemies. Of course, a rank-up system and perk/weapon unlocks are here, and they're pretty much exactly what you expect out of them.
On an even moderately-fast PC, Homefront looks vastly superior to how it does on consoles. It's got sharper textures, good control configuration, a solid chunk of tweaks right in the menus (including FOV!), and crisper special effects than you'll see on consoles. In the online play, it's got a half-decent server browser, a full dedicated server system that supports 32 players, and mod support should be on the way at some point. (There's no LAN play, but I don't think that's really vital for a game that's aiming for large battles.) The PC version is only $50, too, a nice price tag in the wake of many new releases dropping at the $60 price point. The single player campaign is fine if you're planning on playing via OnLive, but I'd avoid trying to play Homefront's online mode over OnLive, as the added latency just doesn't lend itself well to competitive play.
On consoles, you still get 32 players in a game at once, and all games are run on developer-operated dedicated servers, too, so smooth action should be easy to find most of the time. But seeing as Battlefield Bad Company 2 is Homefront's biggest competition in the multiplayer arena, how does it do? Well, I have to say that I'm still partial to DICE's latest for sheer online fun, but Homefront does offer a more intimate experience where gadgets don't run quite everything.
I'll say it right now: if you're considering buying Homefront today, it needs to be for the multiplayer. The campaign should only serve as a small distraction that you might want to goof around in if you're bored and have already gotten your money's worth out of the multiplayer. And if you can get into the online play, you'll find a damn fine game, one that I find far superior to the blitzkrieg-yet-banal pace set by the last couple Call of Duty games' multiplayer modes, and I think you'll find this more rewarding, too. Of course, you could also just pick up Bad Company 2 in the bargain bin, but hey, there are quite a few people on Homefront's servers right now, just begging to be headshotted by some dude's sniper rifle. Might as well be your sniper rifle...