Homefront was released in 2011 from THQ and developer Kaos Studios. Most people remember the game as being terrible and having received low scores. This is an interesting case of how the public and the outlets remember games that received a lot of hype but didn’t meet expectations. The scores for Homefront average out to about a 7 in most cases. Depending on the outlet this means average to good. In the case of newer refined guidelines here at OnlySP, a 7 is solidly in the good category (see my recent DOOM review).
Having played through the title on the PS3 platform shortly after its release, I’d say a 7 was very generous. The game’s only true call to fame was the writing credit attributed to John Milius, screenwriter of the original Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypse Now, a number of Dirty Harry films, and, perhaps most relevant to this game series, Red Dawn.
The connection the latter film, which he also directed, is obvious, as both involve an America which had been captured and occupied by enemy forces. In the film, the enemy is Russian; in the game, North Korea. Both play on America’s fears of a communistic/dictatorial invasion and both obviously feel the influence of Milius. Despite any nostalgia for the film and its cast, both are thoroughly mediocre. In the case of Homefront, the contribution of Milius seems to have been overstated as well.
Though far-fetched, the original Homefront at least had an interesting concept with decent dialogue to accompany its progression through an interesting world, though with extremely poor A.I. and simple, repetitive gameplay. Nothing at all that warranted a sequel…yet here we were, several years later, receiving teasers for a Homefront sequel that actually looked interesting. Much like the aggregate score for the first title, the tease doesn’t tell the whole story.
Homefront: The Revolution‘s development history is a troubled one, filled with financial issues, switching of studios, and team shake-ups. Considering this was a sequel already built on a faulty foundation, the signs did not bode well for this entry in the series. And indeed, the end product isn’t a good one. The trouble with it is that it’s not an entirely bad one either. For all the numerous faults, both on the creative and technical side, there’s a good game hiding somewhere inside; a good game that simply can’t overcome all the negatives weighing it down.
The story of Homefront Revolution is more of a reboot than a sequel, a strange choice after only one entry in the series, yet that’s what it is. It reframes the concept of an America beset by huge amounts of debt owed to the North Koreans. The nation has become a superpower and large international supplier of arms due to their huge advancements in technology. This dominance in the tech field leads to the United States purchasing mass amounts of Korean weapons technology for their own battles.
As international tensions increase, the North Koreans decide that their promissory notes are now due, and a nearly destitute United States has no way to repay them. That’s when their enemy country, and sole supplier of modern weaponry, use a secret backdoor in all their tech, rendering the United States military mostly useless. The U.S. Is easily and quickly overwhelmed. Cities that try to fight are decimated with bombs and chemical weaponry, forcing citizens to either become “collaborators” or be driven underground and hunted.
The player comes in as a new recruit into the resistance fighters who seek to regain control of their country. Again, it’s far-fetched, but bigger and much more successful blockbusters have been succeeded with faultier premises. While the original Homefront set up a largely similar story, it served well-written and emotionally connected moments at several key points throughout the game – a combination of good delivery and writing. Revolution doesn’t even have this going for it. Very early on in the game I struggled to decide whether the voice performances were simply not working, or if the dialogue they were given to work with was simply falling flat. While it may be a case of both, by the end I leaned heavily to the side of an unsteady story with a rushed ending that was populated with terrible dialogue.
Nothing story-wise was able to achieve any weight outside of the opening moments. A new member of the resistance is quickly captured, tortured, and forced to watch his new compatriots die, only to be rescued by the leader of said group. It was an intriguing setup that never really delivered. We never even find out what happens to that resistance leader who is captured soon after the opening sequence events unfold. Deaths on the resistance side are tragic but have real difficulty garnering a genuine response from the player. Key moments and twists are seen from a mile away and simply don’t deliver the feeling they should.
The narrative isn’t the only thing that feels unbalanced. There’s a lack of variance in the setting of the game. That didn’t bother me as much as the game’s other issues however, as I thought the design was pretty good. Destructed segments of the city intermingle with neighborhoods that have become like shanty-towns in the wake of enemy occupation and years of violence. The collaborator city and more well-guarded areas do a decent job of differentiating changes based on status and level of occupation.
Technically is where things start to really fall apart. There are long freezes on auto-saves, which occur very frequently. These pauses in action can last for an eternity and will sometimes temporarily lock all NPCs into their default animation poses and jam any sound effects into a stuttering loop until the load is finished. Enemy NPCs and their patrols will appear very randomly. Do a 360 and baddies that were not there before are suddenly shooting at you. Charge straight ahead to a checkpoint and watch a North Korean soldier spawn right in front of you. It’s just bad.
It’s really a shame. As I’ve said, there is some good stuff in there. Revolution takes Homefront into a semi-open world. It feels a bit like the last Deus Ex in that it’s a limited openness, but it works. For those burnt out on open worlds, Revolution isn’t probably going to…revolutionize…the genre. However there are some things that work well. Flashpoints, which randomly pop-up on the battlefields, are interesting diversions that provide monetary and equipment incentives. Job boards at safe houses also provide side missions that have a fair amount of variety to them: take out enemy snipers at a location, re-establish power to a potential safe-house, photograph enemy guard details, destroy enemy mobile weaponry or soldiers using a specific method, etc.
These missions, along with clearing out occupied spaces, provide you with strike points and money, which are essential to upgrading yourself and your weapons. Strike points allow you to learn on-the-fly weapon modifications. Turn a bow into a flamethrower, an assault rifle into a machine gun, or a battle rifle into a patriotic, red-white-and blue firework shooting, ‘Murica weapon. The mods are interesting and fun, if not impractical. Money allows you to purchase supplies, which include different kinds of grenades or hack tools, which can also all be modified into remote, mobile, and motion-detection versions.
They’re fun diversions, but not necessarily required in order to progress through the game. If you want to make things easier on yourself, you’ll do a fair amount of them though. Many times, resistance caches or strike points will require some combination of these tools to capture them. The way these places are hidden makes them mostly fun and occasionally frustrating to unlock. Every cache and strike point gained by the resistance makes each area easier to navigate, and thus story missions usually easier to complete as well.
It’s easy to see the hard work put in by the team. It’s also easy to see that the many stops and starts and continuation of an already troubled and mediocre “franchise” as it attempts to move forward. Guerrilla fighting through American streets is a concept that has worked before. At the very core, it’s a setup that can make for an interesting story and a good game. In the case of Homefront Revolution, it served to showcase both the best and worst attributes of the title.
I’d love to be able to say that the early teases we received of Homefront Revolution delivered, that the idea that you can’t make a good sequel from a mediocre title was squashed. But it’s simply not the case. I can’t come straight out and say that it’s a bad game though. I enjoyed portions of it too much to do so. But I can’t ignore the narrative and technical issues that make up the bulk of the gameplay experience either though. Perhaps under different circumstance, this team’s hard work could have paid off, but if it does in the future, it will undoubtedly do so with a different IP. Homefront is done.
Homefront: The Revolution was reviewed on Playstation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher
Developer: Dambuster Studios| Publisher: Deep Silver | Genre: FPS | Platform: PC, XBox One, PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: 18/M | Release Date: May 17, 2016
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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