The most surprising thing about Homefront: The Revolution is that it’s nowhere near as bad as its uninspired fiction, troubled development, or terrible co-op beta may have suggested. (No small feat, given the circumstances. It really did look awful.) The least surprising thing is that it’s not at all like the game that preceded it, because linear Call of Duty-alikes with OK multiplayer modes don’t really fly anymore. Instead, Homefront: The Revolution, in terms of its mechanics and systems (if not its setting) is as close to being a Far Cry game as it is possible without actually being one. If it was called Far Cry: The Revolution, no-one would question it all that much as it went on its way to selling, oh, five or so billion units.
From strongholds – sorry, Strike Points – to mission objectives, from using cameras to tag people to the injections you give yourself in your arm to heal, to even the bloody threat indicator UI, Homefront 2 is such a blatant homage (if we’re being kind) to Ubisoft’s franchise that at times it borders on farcical. An example: after a brief introduction to the dank, dark, North Korean-controlled Philadelphia of the near future, you’re shown the world map. Suddenly, a load of icons come crashing onto the previously clutter-free screen, indicating enemy forts, weapon caches, missions, side missions, motorbike jump points, etcetera etcetera. It would be an amazing send-up of everyone’s favourite icon-janitor series if it was a gag. The lead character is even called Ethan Brady, although unlike FC3’s Jason Brody it’s unclear whether his mate’s dad has a black card or not.
Despite all this, Homefront’s ‘appropriation’ of Far Cry’s style works for the game Dambuster Studios wants to make, and has been interpreted well enough to make it enjoyable enough, if utterly familiar. Guerrilla combat is Homefront’s aspiration, and its dystopic Pennsylvania setting works to that end. As part of an underpowered and on-the-run resistance, direct confrontation with the heavily-armed KPA forces isn’t advised: Brady is weak and reinforcements are plentiful, leading to more than a few deaths if played recklessly. Instead, players are encouraged to use the bombed-out remains of Philly to set up ambushes, and to spend time ransacking everything in sight for parts to make improvised weapons.
Philadelphia itself is mostly dull-looking, a grey metropolis whose only splashes of colour are provided by the luminescent warnings adorning ‘Nork’ strongholds. But its oppressive palette chimes nicely with its world, providing a necessarily grim backdrop to an experience spent mostly scuttling about the warren-like city, through destroyed buildings and service tunnels, in sewers and ventilation shafts, hitting a convoy or assassinating an officer before bleeding back into the wreckage of the place. The nature of your weapons fits nicely, too: modular, improvised, sometimes low tech if not low-impact – your crossbow can have a flamethrower attachment, and all guns feature a Crysis-style quick switching of scopes, sights, firing methods, etc. You’ll spend a lot of time rolling pipebombs under trucks before scuttling off to safety.
(As an aside, so successful is Homefront 2 in its approach to human survivors driven into both desperate underground communities and asymmetrical warfare against an overwhelming force – while also creating a gloomy, permanent-midnight, doomed rubble-and-rain setting – that it appears Dambuster may have inadvertently created half of the best Terminator game never made. It even has its own John Connor, in the shape of Benjamin Walker, the hero of the resistance who is captured at the start of the whole thing. In fact, it has so much potential that I can’t wait to see what the modders do with it: slap a few T-800s in there instead of North Koreans and I’ll probably 100% it.)
Where Homefront splits from Far Cry convention is in its use of ‘zones’ to mark the invading force’s attitude to the civilian population. Red Zones are ostensibly no-go, with a shoot-on-sight policy. Yellow Zones are tightly controlled population centres, but you can move in the open if you avoid direct contact with the enemy. Green Zones are where the KPA is headquarted, and presumably (I didn’t encounter any) are less’ hot’ than the others.
These different zones went some way to keeping the experience fresh, with long sections of gunfights and bombings interspersed with light stealth and subversive activities which feed into a mechanic Dambuster has dubbed ‘Hearts and Minds’. Akin to Just Cause’s Havoc meter, each zone has a Hearts and Minds percentage. Destroying cameras, loudspeakers, and other KPA equipment, as well as saving harassed civilians and liberating outposts, boosts the level of rebellion in the area: get it to 100 and you’ll see citizens take up arms and begin rioting on the streets.
It’s a nice touch, and one which gives a little bit of meaning to the repetitive nature of your engagements. Like Far Cry, Homefront has a certain appeal, one which sometimes sees players lull into patterns and routines that aren’t as much fun as they are compulsive. Seeing the world change around you, even in this small way, provides at least some reward for what could be fairly zoned-out play sessions. It also has a practical effect: you can then recruit citizens to fight alongside you on further missions.
So far, then, Homefront: The Revolution has proven far more capable than I expected, albeit doing so running on a ridiculous PC (no console builds were available) and by cribbing massively from other established franchises. Admittedly, the bar was set low when I arrived, and the game’s problems, including dumb AI, terrible characters, and a changed-but-still-laughable backstory (Steve Jobs is Korean, basically, and the dollar collapses because the US buys Too Much Stuff, perhaps because no-one in this story has heard of foreign currency reserves) are all front and centre. But its version of guerilla warfare, with its unusual weapon mods and scavenged supplies, appeals. So far that’s enough to keep me at least somewhat interested in this year’s second Far Cry game.