Philadelphia would not be an easy town for a foreign military force to occupy. It is, of course, the place where the Declaration Of Independence was inked and America officially threw off the yolk of British colonialism, but that assessment is more about contemporary Philly, a hard-nosed city that takes fierce pride in both its oblong meat sandwiches and well-earned reputation for making visiting sports franchises—both the opposing fans and the teams themselves—absolutely miserable. On any given Sunday, a riled up Eagles crowd at Lincoln Financial would be a match for any army, foreign or domestic.
If, say, the North Koreans invaded and occupied the land of Bobby Clarke, Brian Dawkins, and Lenny Dykstra, you can bet your ass that it would go about as smoothly for them as passing broken Yuengling shards through their collective urethra. You could also count on this: No matter how loathed the North Koreans became, most Philadelphians would still rather be ruled by Kim Jong-un than that choke artist Tony Romo. That’s just how it is.
Thankfully, in Homefront: The Revolution players aren’t forced to make that unthinkable choice. The game’s version of North Korea is not the rogue state we all know and loathe. Instead, it’s a technological superpower that’s largely at peace with the rest of the world. However, owing to decades of misrule and mounting debt in the U.S., North Korea one day gets fed up and uses a “back door” to shut down all the technology—military and otherwise—that the U.S. has been relying on for years. (Apparently, this fictionalized North Korea supplied us with literally every electronic device in our employ.) After pulling the plug, North Korea moves to invade the West Coast and then the entire United States, eventually making its way to Philadelphia. That’s where the game begins for you. Your character, Ethan Brady, gets hooked up with a resistance cell and, within five minutes, is apprehended by the North Korean security forces, or “Norks” if you’re into racist shorthand. In any case, this revolution is not starting off on the right foot.
Once you clear up the initial misunderstanding with the North Koreans by watching a fellow captive beat one to death with a wrench, it’s time to clock in with the resistance proper. After deciding not to torture and kill you as a spy, they instead furnish you with a handgun. But it’s not just any puny sidearm. No, this thing can be modded and upgraded into many different iterations, each with its own special way of distributing munitions. Each subsequent weapon you buy can also be upgraded in the same way, like turning the battle rifle into a “freedom launcher” that shoots red, white, and blue fireworks. These aren’t permanent alterations, either. Brady can mix and match guns and upgrades on the fly. Thus armed, you are sent off into the world, where your only real job is to be a thorn in the side of the North Korean invaders and their resident quislings.
Pulling off a strong single-player campaign in a game like this isn’t easy. Halo: Reach’s story is an excellent example of how good storytelling can elevate what would otherwise be just an okay game into something special. But there’s no shortage of mediocre shooters that don’t do much to set themselves apart, and Homefront: The Revolution falls squarely into this category.
After a few years of occupation, Philadelphia looks even shittier than it does in real life. There is a noticeable uptick in garbage fires (in the literal sense) and piles of trash strewn about. Despite a decent effort to capture the city’s vibe and the familiar ecosystem of urban filth, Homefront’s version of Philadelphia isn’t really so memorable. And the characters are as ugly and forgettable as the landscape. It’s all “Nork this!” and “Nork that!” and “Kill the Norks!” and “You kill Norks good, man!” Resident physician Dr. Burnett is the moral compass of the game, but he’s mostly dismissed by his allies as a nuisance and ineffectual do-gooder.
Despite the Red Dawn-ish setup, there’s not really a sense of anything at stake—no real idea of who you are fighting for or even against, aside from drones and some faceless bad guys. And there’s certainly no one with the gravitas of a young C. Thomas Howell to hang your hat on. To be honest, it’s tough to even blame these North Koreans for moving in. From what I gather, the U.S. owed them a bunch of money and the North Koreans foreclosed on our asses. That’s the free market at work! As American as apple pie and mortgage-backed securities.
Much of your time is spent liberating zones of the city by clearing out bad guys from a building or area and pushing a magic button or hacking a thing, thus annexing that territory for the resistance. These missions can be frustratingly difficult and, to their credit, are occasionally intense. The North Koreans often respond to your provocations with overwhelming force, and Brady can’t sop up all that many bullets before he gets sent back to the previous checkpoint, forced to relive the same death at least half a dozen times before moving on.
It’s not all shooting and looting and xenophobia. In certain areas, designated as yellow zones, you’re tasked with doing good deeds for the downtrodden citizens of Philadelphia. In return, they’ll join you in your increasingly tedious struggle against nationwide debtor’s prison. Bu in order earn their “hearts and minds” you’re forced into all manner of menial, time-consuming nonsense, like turning off radios and giving a helping hand to local vagrants. While some tasks are entertaining (assassinating a luckless KPA official, for instance), it’s difficult to overemphasize how boring these missions can be, especially when they’re mandatory. It’s enough to make one rethink the real-life opportunity cost of dumping hours into playing video games. What possible worth can this society of ours have that we can afford to dedicate dozens of hours to rallying a fictional citizenry to rise up against their foreign oppressors, but can’t even be bothered to vote one day a year? The North Koreans are just bringing civilization to our decadent and feckless land. And how do we thank them? Freedom launchers.