Bored on the home front

Can a great story make up for horrendous gameplay? Though it clocks in short for an Xbox360 title (which has led me not to buy it for the moment), I was interested to read Seth Schiesel’s review of THQ’s new FPS, Homefront. (I like reading him in large part because he reminds me of the “culture of technology / gaming” writing that I used to do.)

“The basic shooting and combat mechanisms in Homefront are standard fare,” Schiesel writes. “What makes Homefront stand out from all the other shooting games is its setting and its ambition to grapple with a vision of what could happen in the real world if absolutely everything were to go wrong.”

Sounds good, thinks I, I’ll have to pick this up once it’s a bit cheaper. But then I dial in Rock, Paper, Shotgun: “Homefront is barely a game,” writes John Walker. That sounds fair to me too. John is hardcore(-ish) and historical-minded (where games are concerned); he’s fully qualified to make that call. If his judgement of the gameplay is a bit harsher than Schiesel’s, I put it down to beauty being in the eye of the beholder — and keep in mind that John’s is perhaps the more discerning eye.

His judgement of the story, however, makes for more interesting contrast:

“Wow, the commentary is ghastly,” John writes, calling it “clumsy and downright insulting ‘horror of war’ rhetoric.”

The game loves war,” he says. “It relishes in gory headshots and atrocities, feverishly wanking itself into oblivion every time it thinks it’s Saying Something. The final third’s epic set pieces have all the sensitivity of a Roland Emmerich film. So don’t start preaching to me about the terrible ways of mass graves. Especially if you’re going to follow that up with a scene in which I have to lie inside one with an arm draped over my head. You might call it having their cake and eating it too. With a cake made of shit.” (Of course, that should be a John Milius film, shouldn’t it?)

Schiesel is more sensitive: “When you see images of bulldozers pushing around mounds of American corpses, citizens in an internment camp in what used to be a high school football stadium and the twisted wreckage of a suburban White Castle or Hooters restaurant, you feel an emotional connection to the action that simply doesn’t accompany a science-fiction game set on a faraway planet.”

I’m sure that’s true. But I wonder how much of his reaction is down to his being American (I assume), while John seemed clearly to be a Brit the one time I met him. Still, it’s hard to imagine that a game that’s as bad as John says it is could be redeemed for American audiences simply by its story’s impact on the homefront. Is this the old narratology / ludology split rearing its ugly (and fictitious) head? Or is it just a very mediocre game, getting two reviews that are maybe over-zealous at opposite ends of the spectrum? And has anyone else even played the thing? The world — or maybe just me — wants to know.