Dear Homefront, Can You Let Me Feel Important?

I’ve been playing Homefront for the past few days, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not very good. While it’s certainly playable and isn’t the worst game on the market, it’s generally archaic, with a poor sense of narrative pacing and generic shooting action that looks like it was lifted directly from a mediocre PlayStation 2 title. However, these issues are not among Homefront’s greatest crimes. Kaos Studio’s “alternative history” game about a Korean invasion of North America typifies one of the worst crimes a game can do — make the player feel like an intruder.

There are certain games that look and feel as if they’re perfectly happy playing by themselves and would rather you just go away. Homefront is an exemplary offender, reducing the player to the status of a herded sheep rather than a focal point of the gameplay. As non-player characters converse amongst themselves and become emotionally invested in a war for survival, the silent mook following them is made to feel like a rank outsider, largely ignored and generally unnecessary.

For sure, the game makes a half-hearted attempt to pretend that you’re important, and even gives you some tasks to complete on your own, but it’s akin to giving a child some paper and sticking it in the corner to do a drawing. It’s just busywork intended to make somebody feel special so that the adults can get on with their lives. Homefront consistently conveys this message, and it’s almost offensive.

Most of the game is spent following a resistance leader called Connor, who is the actual main character as opposed to the player. This is his war, and Connor’s overwrought, dramatic speeches and manufactured outrage will make that abundantly clear. Despite being an obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable character (with a voice that sounds distractingly like Trey Parker), he’s the star of the show, without a doubt. He and his band of merry men, of which you are merely a faceless member, lead the charge against the evil Korean bastards, and your main role in the game is to follow everybody else. I’d say that roughly 70% of the game’s stated objectives are “Follow Connor.” The objective marker is above the ugly man’s head for most of the experience and it makes one wonder why we’re not playing as this guy, a chap who is clearly more interested, more involved, and more of a player than the one holding the controller.

The game gives you so little direction, focusing instead on what the rest of the cast is doing. Your job mainly consists of popping off Korean police officers in the background. You can rarely advance in the game without the rest of the resistance clearing you a path, and even then, you can only go so far before the game forces you to wait for somebody else to make a decision.

The complete lack of player agency is typified by the fact that you cannot even open doors for yourself. It’s become a joke among the gamer community that you have to constantly wait for NPCs to open doors for you, but I think it adds to a larger, more serious point about how Homefront treats the player as an unwanted passenger. It’s no exaggeration that the game constantly forces you to watch other people open doors, or flip over refrigerators that are blocking the path. While it looks like unintentional self parody, it sends a very definitive message to the player — this is our game, and you’ll get to play when we say you do.

I’m all for linearity in games — a linear experience is often necessary for titles that want to communicate a clear and concise story, and when done right, such an experience can be just as satisfying, if not more so, than a totally free, open-world game. Homefront, however, takes the idea of linearity to mean that the player is an audience member as opposed to an instigator. Compare it to Half-Life, which guides one just as much as Homefront does, but makes the player the focus at all times. NPCs talk to you directly, and your actions are often what compels the game forward, not the other way around. More recently, Crysis 2 places players right in the middle of a large scale war, but you have the freedom to take out the enemies any way you see fit. You are the central, dominant star, and the NPCs are there to remind you how awesome you are, rather than how awesome they are. There are FPS games no less scripted than Homefront, but with just a little more focus on the player’s actions and his role in the world, one feels much more invested and, more importantly, wanted.

Homefront isn’t the only game to screw this up, of course. First-Person-Shooters can easily fall into this trap, with several earlier Call of Duty titles and the recent Medal of Honor reboot committing similar crimes, where the player is carted around the map and made to watch other people do all the cool stuff. Even outside of the genre, certain titles shaft the player in their own unique ways. Final Fantasy XIII threw players into a world where the story was already half told before they got there. Characters would talk about things like Pulse, Coccoon, the Fal’sie and all this other convoluted garbage without explaining any of it beforehand. It was up to the player to trawl through an ever-expanding in-game encyclopedia to understand what the Hell anybody was talking about. Added to that, the game’s battles largely played themselves, with the player merely inputting vague directions. Final Fantasy XIII was a game in which one was thrust into a world full of characters talking amongst themselves and fighting their own battles. There was barely any point you being there.

Another example one might not expect is the PlayStation Network’s Noby Noby Boy. For those unfamiliar with this weird game, the aim is to stretch the titular Boy by pulling swallowing and pooping things to gain elasticity, then pulling the Dualshock’s analog sticks in opposite directions. That’s really it. The main draw of the game isn’t the stretching, however, but the weird and wonderful world that Noby Noby Boy inhabits. Each randomly generated environment is full of bizarre sights — people ride around on the backs of toucans, skeletons and devils dance around the world, angels drive cute little cars and donuts fall from the sky. The weirdness can be awe-inspiring, but this awe soon gives way to annoyance when you work out the insulting truth — everybody in the game is having more fun than you are.

Why can’t I be a cavorting devil? Where’s my cute little car? Why can’t I ride on the back of the toucan? I love toucans, they’re my favorite bird, and everybody gets to ride them but me!

When a game feels like it’d be having more fun without you, I feel it’s crossed a line, and this is a line Homefront never steps back from. It’s a game in which you’re not allowed to walk through a passage or climb a ladder until all the NPCs have done so first, when you can’t move forward without getting permission. Hell, there’s even a cool tank called Goliath that blows stuff up … but it’s autonomous. Your job is to point it to a target and then watch it destroy all the important things with cool explosions. You can’t really take pride in destroying a tank when your role in the fight was merely to ask something else to do it. By the time you get your own rocket launcher, you feel almost grateful, then you realize you only get to explode one tank with it before you’re forced into the back of a jeep and put through an on-rails section — which just feels like salt in the wound after being led around on a leash for the past hour.

In any war, there are more faceless pawns than grand heroes, that’s a given. A battlefield is a big place, and if you’re in it, you’re one of the many. I don’t play videogames to be one of the many, however. Surely, we play games to be in the high places with the heroes, not in the ditch, trailing behind their shadows. I don’t want NPCs that are more a part of the game than I am. More importantly, I don’t want to feel like a cameraman in a machinima movie.

Either let me in, or just release your “game” as Youtube videos.

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19 Comments on Dear Homefront, Can You Let Me Feel Important?

TheEggplant

On March 26, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Thank you Jim for vocalizing what I have had such a difficult time putting into a coherent thought. Homefront wants the player to watch. This is epitomized by the battle at the Golden Gate. However it is impossible to view all these amazing sights and stay alive. I am very surprised at the many people on forums declaring this one of the best games ever. I’m disappointed in myself for buying it.

G

On March 26, 2011 at 9:01 pm

This article is spot on. I mentioned my beef already on facebook, so I won’t spam up the thread. There were many… MANY times I wanted friendly off so I could take out Connor myself. He’s like GI Joe sniper from the kid-friendly 1980′s cartoon show; completely useless.

Jonah Falcon

On March 26, 2011 at 9:59 pm

“Toucans: Never Forget”.

That was so wonderfully random. :D

LBD "Nytetrayn"

On March 27, 2011 at 4:47 am

G: Fumbles!

(Robot Chicken G.I. Joe skit, for anyone wondering)

shoots4fun

On March 27, 2011 at 8:13 am

I do happen to like the game. The multiplayer is just so outrageously fun. So many ways to take out your enemies. I focus more on the multiplayer than storyline. The only prob i have with the game is trying to find a server to play on. Takes way too long.

User

On March 27, 2011 at 11:11 am

I’m surprised that no one in are to point the significance (or not) of the name Connor. When I first heard the reviews blasting this charater, all I thought was : “Oh great, here’s another ‘Connor’ who’s going to save America from the Apocalypse”. Whatever happened to Skynet and it’s merry band of murderous cyborg bastards?

I’m wandering if Homefront’s alternative history refer to which history : the current world quagmire or an alternative history to the Terminator series?

When your leader is named Connor, you’ll know you are nothing more than nameless grunt.

Matthew

On March 27, 2011 at 11:25 am

“Either let me in, or just release your “game” as Youtube videos.” “Let’s play” FTW!

Joe Swap

On March 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

I was going to pan this game based on all the reviews, but this article makes me want to try it. Sounds different. I’m personally sick of all the narcissist games where you are a lone wolf Rambo.

Mark

On March 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I enjoyed Homefront. This was a game that didn’t expect you to do everything by yourself *cough* Crysis 2/Modern Warfare 2 *cough*. But apparently that’s now frowned upon in the gaming community. For once it was nice to work with the NPCs rather than having a bunch of useless drones following you around and not even really doing anything that helps. It seems like the new era of gaming has come, the era of “, that with your and us NPCs will wait back here!

Come on guys, games are for entertainment, and if you’re not entertained, well… get on the internet and complain I guess.

Mark

On March 27, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Hmm, the quote didn’t show up, it was supposed to “name, x that y with your z.”

James

On March 28, 2011 at 7:51 am

I’ve played this game and agree with the author. I don’t need to be the lone wolf hero but you are very much a spectator in this game. One example that stands out to me is when you are looking for the newspaper articles littered all over the levels. If you don’t immediately follow Connor, he starts telling you to hurry up over and over. I have never hated a character so much. Add in a story that has so many holes and it’s a certified mess.

Shyfty

On March 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

Wel put Jim. I am all for NPC interactions with the environemnt, but players should be able to interact as well. Waiting for an NPC really kills the momentum.

mrandydixon

On March 28, 2011 at 10:01 am

I haven’t played it (yet?), but Connor’s role sounds almost exactly like Reznov’s in World at War (but at least Reznov is made tolerable by Gary Oldman). Shame.

anyoldiron

On March 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

War.
War never changes.

Darren Tomlyn

On March 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm

What you’re talking about here – is the foundation of what games are, as opposed to puzzles, art or competitions:

Games are about people WRITING their OWN stories, (in a structured, competitive environment), not merely interacting with a story being told (puzzle), or competing to be told a story (competition) – or just being a passive audience for the story teller (art).

This all a simple matter of linguistics – (my blog):

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/3291/

cranny777

On March 30, 2011 at 11:04 pm

I’m never sure how to say, “This was an excellent written article” without sounding like spam.

Let me put it this way. I haven’t played Homefront and I still think the article was good.

Cheers, mate.

Roach

On April 4, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Sigh

People nowdays forget what makes good games and complain about stuff that, for the most part, doesn’t matter. The new generation of gaming…yawn. If you’re going to complain, complain about only the right stuff (IMO, of course).

First thing’s first: Connor was a GREAT character. A man that took control in uncertain times of war and made sure the job got done, even if it meant putting himself in complete danger such as *SEMI-SPOILER* in the ending, won’t totally spoil it but he officially became memorable at the end of the game.

The frustrating aspect of this game was NOT that you are simply a spectator (which you are absolutely NOT. More on this in my conclusion). That fact makes it much more realistic; if you join into the fray as a newcomer, you are not instantly going to be promoted to General and take control, Connor was fighting this war long before they came and woke your ass up. You WERE given moments of superiority (*SEMI-SPOILER* such as in the end when you fell off the bridge, only to recover and pretty much ensured that the NPC’s were able to progress. They could not have progressed without you, and even admitted it in dialogue all the way up until you surprised them with your kickass-ness).

What the issue was was completely rediculous things such as them yelling at you to call this (i.e. – bridge battle when you took out the convoys from the sky), or pick up that rocket launcher or what have you, when they were standing RIGHT NEXT TO IT and could have done so themselves. I understand the need to give you something to do but the times HF chose to do it simply made very little sense. Put the Rocket Launcher in a spot where only one guy can run to it…and you’re that guy…or SOMETHING. Don’t just have a rocket launcher laying on the ground, surrounded by other Army and Resistance members that act like YOU are the ONLY ONE who knows how to use it, so every 2 seconds they yell at you to pick it up while the objective meant to be blown up rapes everyone on the field. IRL anyone would pick that up and shoot that tank or helo…come on THQ, there are limits to suspension of disbelief. You crossed them many times in your game.

Also I wholeheartedly agree with you in terms of having to wait to open doors and climb certain ladders, etc.

Another thing that really bothered me about the game was the completely pointless and VAST amount of invisible walls (you can jump onto a van but you cant jup off the sides, only the front or back. Also in the beginning of the game when you get to that one city where that kid asks you for food…well when you first get there there was an area with sick people, and you couldn’t go back there…for no reason at all…because a cardboard box was in the way…come on), and quite a few buggy collision areas like certain plants that you cant walk over right in the middle of the path (nothing like backing away from the enemy to try and get to cover only to get stuck on a blade of grass and get shot down), or running up a ramp onto some scaffolding, but getting stuck on the lip of the top of the ramp when trying to run back down, forcing you to jump off instead…weird crap like that.

Also, some of the enemy aim was absolutely rediculously perfect and they were able to shoot you from some pretty questionable spots…like if you are hiding behind a truck or any other cover (given that I actually think the NPCs shoot your feet underneath trucks and such), and clearly out of any line of sight while trying to peek around it only to suffer intense damage from an enemy who is in a spot where it’s physically impossible to see you or hit you, giving you the feeling that the enemy’s bullets curve around corners or something…and it happens constantly.

Last gripe but not the least by any means…I absolutely hate this FPS trend where enemies are not placed throughout the map, and instead have “spawn points” where you basically run into an area and fight 3 or 4 waves of enemies that jump over the same fence, come up on the same roof from the same spot, etc. etc. I’ve played completely linear games where the enemies are patrolling the level rather than “spawning” in waves in one area and once you kill them, you run to the next “spawn wave” area, and so on. CoD did this lame tactic (I pretty much have always thought that CoD was though, and IMO spawned the worst fanboy based community in gaming history save for Halo), IMHO, it feels completely generic and unreal to the point of almost destroying genuinity and atmosphere.

Just my 2 cents…alright, nickle. Sue me.

Roach

On April 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Conclusion didn’t show up for some reason…but basically it was covering you not being a spectator like this writer says, as I said I would at the beginning of my post.

A spectator? Let you feel important? Give me a break….Helicopter level, anyone? How about the Bridge Battle against those two turrets you have to blow up? What about sniping the Survivalists? Destroying the convoys on the bridge? Taking out tanks and helos? Face it dude, the Resistance would have failed without the roles you played.

This game succeeded in making you feel like just another part of the Resistance while giving you crucial roles, without making you the center of the Universe like fail games such as Vanilla ES4 Oblivion. This alone made the game feel REAL.

To each his own I guess.

Billy Bob

On May 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

This game sucked a$$. The multi player does not hold a candle to black ops. You cannot spawn and fight bots or anything. It is crazy how the maP cannot be manipulated or anything.