Poor Homefront: The Revolution. A brief note before the end credits roll rehashes the sad, sorry affair of this thrice-damned sequel—first assigned to Kaos Studios, then reassigned by THQ to Crytek UK. Then THQ went bankrupt, Crytek bought the rights to Homefront, found a new publisher in Deep Silver, and then subsequently lost the rights to Deep Silver. Finally, Deep Silver formed Dambuster Studios a.k.a. “Basically Crytek UK,” if you look at the employee roster.
And now here we are, with exactly the game you’d expect from that sort of troubled development cycle.
Rebel with a cause
Like its predecessor, Homefront: The Revolution (From $72 on Shopbot) takes place in an alt-history United States where North Korea and South Korea unified into a single military and economic powerhouse and invaded America. Unlike the original, Unified-Korea isn’t a unilateral aggressor here. Not really.
But Americans being Americans, they’re apparently ungrateful about being saved from (let me reiterate) literally dying in the streets because their government ran out of food and yada yada yada Korea becomes the bad guy because...I don’t know. Korea goes from “Helping Americans” to “Shooting Americans” for reasons that are poorly explained, and this is where you come in—Ethan Brady, newly-recruited to The Resistance, which aims to liberate Philadelphia from the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
It’s an “open-world game,” in theory. You can go anywhere you want. But the game doesn’t really benefit from this set-up, seeing as it’s split into multiple smaller districts, separated by lengthy loading screens. You’ll probably end up following the critical path and never returning to earlier zones.
Each zone is its own miniature sandbox though, and the separation ends up working thematically. Philadelphia is broken into Yellow Zones and Red Zones—the former being minimum security residential areas, the latter being Korean military strongholds where civilians are prohibited.
And they both look and play out differently. Yellow Zones are more intact, sometimes surprisingly so, and your focus is on blending in with crowds, on striking from the shadows with explosives strapped to RC cars and throwing bricks at cameras. Guns are a last resort, and your ultimate goal is to do enough miscellaneous odd-jobs (break cameras, destroy propaganda speakers, blow up armored cars) to inspire the native populace to rise up and throw off the chains of oppression.
Red Zones are war-torn and deserted. No populace to convert here, and you might as well keep your guns out because as soon as you’re spotted you’re in trouble. Most of your Red Zone objectives revolve around “Kill this” and “Explode that” with brutal efficiency.
It’s an interesting twist on the typical Ubisoft formula—whether Yellow or Red, districts revolve around various hotspots like so many points on a Far Cry map. The difference being that here, at least in the Yellow Zones, those points often require a certain amount of subtlety.
But it’s all so staid and predictable. Part of the problem with Homefront—a small part of the problem—is this simulated war zone is so utterly mechanical. Once you’ve flipped a zone to the Resistance it’s forever a part of the Resistance, full of AI-controlled “Good Guys.”
This makes sense from a game perspective, since the one time Assassin’s Creed implemented “Oh damn, the Templars are retaking your towers” it was a distracting nightmare. It does take away from the tension, though. You just steadily sweep across the map in a tide of blue-shirted Resistance folks, steadily purging the Korean presence from every district and taming an already-easy game.
Worse still, the AI is across-the-board terrible. The stealth system is unpredictable, so sometimes enemies magically see you when you’re ten feet behind them. Other times you sprint past a patrol in broad daylight and hope the “They saw you!” meter doesn’t fill all the way. Actually, that’s what you’ll do most of the time.
And if you’re spotted and pulled into combat? You might as well die. It’s not that the guns don’t work. They do, and some are actually pretty decent! Bonus points go to a gun that shoots red, white, and blue fireworks, because that’s amazing. But the penalty for dying is so minimal (lose some trash items you would’ve sold for a pittance) it’s essentially nonexistent. You wake up on the floor of a Resistance safehouse with, I imagine, the world’s worst headache and then it’s off to the same capture point again.
You don’t even need to engage in combat for most of the capture points! Often, running straight to the objective and mashing “E” (the Use key) will flip the stronghold, magically delete all the enemies who were shooting at you, and fill the place with a bunch of Real Americans.
My kingdom for a patch
Those are design issues. Much more worrisome are a host of technical problems and general jankery. A partial list, over my fifteen hours:
I watched multiple people fall through the ground. I fell through the ground. I got stuck on scenery. I got stuck in scenery. I saw a cache of items float in midair. The parkour system often fails to respond unless you hit the correct angle, or the animation will break and you’ll see the camera rapidly shift up and down as it gets caught on ledges and ceilings.
The frame rate is inconsistent, at best. Texture-streaming and autosaving cause the game to freeze for upwards of a second at a time, running off a 7200 RPM hard drive. The load times themselves are incredibly long. In optimal moments, I was lucky to hit 60 frames per second at 1080p on a GeForce GTX 980 Ti (maxed out).
And this would be fine if the game were unilaterally gorgeous, but it’s not. Sometimes it looks like the beautiful CryEngine game I expect. Other times it looks like someone ported the game to the Xbox 360. People are especially awkward, with stiff animations and poor lip-syncing. Also, they tend to face only one direction when speaking, and if you walk behind them they don’t bother to turn around. They’ll just keep speaking to the empty room. And sometimes their next stretches out like a weird snake-creature is hidden inside.
One of my saves got corrupted early on for reasons unknown, and it cost me half an hour of progress. I watched a dude hit a USPS mailbox with a baseball bat, which was particularly hilarious to me for some reason. And this happened:
Yes, it’s a truck getting stymied by a two-inch obstacle. Worth noting: Those are just the two repetitions I could fit in a reasonably-sized Giphy. This went on for upwards of a minute. There are multiple escort missions and the poor AI really shines, with whatever you’re escorting routinely encountering pathfinding issues and occasionally refusing to move at all.
Okay, back to story
And it all resolves in the most absurd, cartoon-villain fashion. Dialogue was hit-and-miss for much of the game, with the Doctor giving hamfisted “Violence isn’t the answer!” speeches every damn time he showed up—he even references Martin Luther King at one point with something along the lines of “There’s another way! A non-violent way! I have a dream, you know?” Hell, the Koreans are literally killing people in the street and he’ll send a text message saying “Remember: The KPA are people too.” Not the right time, Doc.
But all of that pales in comparison to the ending, which rushes through a dozen plot points, conjures multiple deus ex machinas out of the air, and comes pretty close to eclipsing the “Press X to hide in mass grave” grimdark absurdity of the first game. The last ten minutes left me in awe, and not in a good way.
The sad thing is: The core of the game is excellent. The core of the story is excellent. The alt-history setting is strong, the idea of fighting a war from the shadows—yes, give me more of that. It’s what drew me to Crytek’s initial presentation back at E3 2014. Like the original Homefront, you want it to work. You want it to provide a compelling counterpoint to the rah-rah-fighter-jet-flyover bravado of Call of Duty and Battlefield. You want to see Homefront: The Revolution achieve what it’s clearly aspiring to achieve.
Read more: The Division review
But it’s so technically janky that all it manages is farce, its most serious moments undercut by unintentional hilarity. Case in point: Towards the end, the game asked me to decide whether a certain character should live with his guilt or be executed. I killed him, and what should have been a serious moment of reflection turned silly when the game decided to surface the warning it uses every time you unintentionally kill an allied NPC—“CIVILIAN KILLED!”
Homefront: The Revolution ends up a more fitting sequel than I think anyone could’ve predicted. Like its predecessor, this is a kludged-together mish-mash of trendy design ideas from other, better games, glued to a story that punches far above its weight and aspires to something much greater.
It’s a shame the finished product feels like a work-in-progress, because there’s so much to want to like here. I just can’t.