Invading America For The Lulz

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

A review of two games with the same premise, one a well-marketed title from 2011, the other a half-remembered low-key title from 2003. Guess which one Alasdair liked more.
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Before I begin, I just want to mention that this article was originally intended to be a piece that compared the second game discussed below with the 1984 Second Cold War epic Red Dawn. Sadly, that initial plan fell apart for three reasons. First of all, not being a fan of '80s action movies or war movies, the only way I could think of tackling the movie was through a historiographical perspective, resulting in a bunch of early drafts that got bogged down in the geopolitics of the early 1980s and where, quite frankly, not even terribly interesting to me. Secondly, in the course of my research I discovered this blog post, which was far more concise and insightful about the film than I could ever hope to be. Finally, I chose not to write about Red Dawn is because...well...because doing so would require me to watch Red Dawn again, and I don't really want to do that. It's not a very good movie.

Fortunately, the guy who wrote and directed Red Dawn wrote the script for a vaguely similar video game that came out in the middle of March, so now I'm all set!

And Now, The Obligatory Vague History Primer

The reason wanted to talk about these games (and the movie earlier) was that I find their general plot, the conquest and occupation of America by a foreign power, an interesting manifestation of a literary subgenre that has been extinct for decades. The invasion/future war story, as I. F. Clarke discussed in his excellent book that you should all read, was the prodigal son of the age of empires and war. The first such stories appeared just after the Franco-Prussian War, short amalgams of nationalist alarmism and technological speculation that were tailor-made for the age of mass industrial war. It was a perfect storm, really; imperialism and dynastic politics were making international relations on the continent even more precarious than usual, industrialization was changing the shape of warfare in ways that barely anyone understood, and there was a growing audience, particularly in the UK, France, and Germany that had the political power to influence military spending and a interest in keeping their homeland on top of the great imperial pig pile. There were dozens of these stories written between 1870 and 1914, ranging from sober assessments of future naval engagements to fantastical proto-SF tales of airships and ethnic snobbery. Even H. G. Wells like to get into the act once and a while.

Naturally, the First World War proved to be an inflection point for these kinds of stories. They were still written, which is understandable given the pressures of the arms races and international relations in the interwar period. However, most lost their triumphalist themes, usually preferring to settle for miserable portraits of urban centers choked with phosgene. World War II proved to be an even bigger blow, basically ending the European market for these stories. They struggled on during the 1950s, but they were gradually overshadowed by the narratives of nuclear war, which had its own particular themes. Indeed, in these stories imagining the course of a potential future conflict was no longer necessary, since there was really only one way it could end.

After disappearing for several years, these stories enjoyed a bizarre rebirth at the beginning of the 1980s. Starting with Gen. Sir John Hackett's The Third World War: August 1985 (1978), authors began to imagine conventional military conflicts between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces on the German plains. Meanwhile, advances in missile technology and the promises of the Strategic Defense Initiative were offering authors all sorts of shiny new weapons to play with. These were all byproducts of the tensions produced by the "Second Cold War" of the early 1980s, and the market for these stories evaporated alongside the Soviet Union. These days, if you read a book by Tom Clancy or Dale Brown, you're basically reading an alternate history novel in all but name.

This brings us, naturally, to Homefront.

Homefront

As an occasional sampler of future-war/invasion stories, one of the things that has struck me is how insular they have become in recent years. They make pains to document the relevance of their events to contemporary international affairs and military science, but the results always look like a surreal pseudo-1930s world of nation states perpetually trying to one-up each other through arms races and surprise invasions, with America reserving the flashiest high technology for itself. As some commentators have noted, games and novels of this type don't really seem to have any sort of interest in any type of nuanced ideological conflict or in real-world geopolitical issues. They're just nationalist (particularly American) wish-fulfillment fantasies. Even the advanced technologies they mention, like Dale Brown's combat exoskeletons that can fold up into an easy-to-carry suitcase, feel more like hard SF gear porn than anything that might actually be useful in contemporary combat.

It's this attitude of nationalist fantasy that runs deep in Homefront, the new game from Kaos Studios, a developer I've tangled with before. Given the premise of the game and the fact that director/writer John Milius wrote the script for the game (as the game's package proudly states while it reminds us that he wrote Red Dawn and Apocalypse Now), I did not enter the game with many illusions. And yet I still managed to find things that pissed me off.

In the opening movie, we are informed that it is the year 2027, and a broken and destitute America is reeling under the lash of the North Korean occupation...

...aaand I've immediately lost you, haven't I?

This is a stupid premise. It's so obviously stupid I don't even need to explain why it's stupid. However, while most games would either try to downplay the ridiculous elements of this premise or embrace it wholeheartedly, Homefront takes the third path. Already impaled upon its illogical premise, Homefront twists the blade by trying to justify it through backstory. The end result, as shown in the aforementioned opening movie, is a hilarious digest history of the next two decades of world history. To summarize briefly: Kim Jung Il dies in 2012, his sexy son takes over, North Korea eats South Korea in 2013, Japan in 2017, and all of southeast Asia a few years after that. Meanwhile, the United States joins the Third World after the economy and international trade collapses, events presumably triggered by President Beck's decision in 2015 to trade the US Treasury to a crafty peddler in exchange for a handful of magic beans. As for Russia and China...um...they went out for cigarettes in 2013 and never came back.

Of course, it's painfully obvious that the North Koreans are just a stand-in for the Chinese, but of course you can't come out and call them the Chinese. If you did, why, someone in China might take it amiss, and then next thing you know Homefront's publisher THQ would get get blackballed and not be able to sell their games in China and/or make use of low-cost overseas developers to do grunt work, and then where would we be? You know, if there's something I hate more than a bigot, it's a bigot that doesn't have the courage of his convictions.

As you may have surmised, by the time the intro movie was finished I was cackling like an idiot. Naturally, this did not bode well for my opinion of the game. Since I could not accept the premise, I was unable to accept the game's world, no matter how earnestly it tried to build it. Characters would be having tense discussions about what the resistance needs to do and what atrocities the occupiers have committed, while I was wandering off to read newspapers, shooting at my invulnerable "buddies," shouting MST-style responses to dialogue, or just bouncing around waving my gun like a eight-year-old on a sugar high. Come to think of it, that'd make a good premise for a absurdist comedy; a serious war movie where the hero is in his own insane world with no one noticing anything amiss. Sort of like Deadpool's Being There.

But I digress.

As for the actual story of the game, you're put in the role of the (not deranged) Robert Jacobs, a former Marine pilot shacked up in occupied Colorado. After gettin' rassled out of bed by the occupation police and put on the death bus, you get rescued by the local resistance cell and are quickly conscripted into a plan to steal a military convoy full of jet fuel and get it to the US Army (just back from their smoke break) so they can blast the crap out of San Francisco. You spend most of your time in a little resistance cell with three other NPCs: Connor Morgan, your grizzled heroic (and quite likely psychopathic) leader, Rianna, the black-but-not-too-black woman who says things like "this ain't right" but who doesn't let her ovaries get in the way of the killin', and Hopper, a Korean-American who proves that the game is Not Racist. There's also a black guy named Boone who leads a community of displaced people in an abandoned suburb, but they all die offscreen so who cares. As for the North Korean characters...um, I think they're out smoking too. Very popular activity these days.

Oh, and just to answer your question, while Rianna took me where I wanted to go (if you know what I mean), the ride was far less smooth than she had previously advertised.

As for the gameplay, it appears to be based on the Call of Duty model, which proved to be a new experience for me. After playing through the whole single player campaign in an evening, I only had one question: do people actually find this type of shooter fun? The entire game consisted of me picking up and discarding random submachine guns and assault rifles whose plethora of scope types made their ammunition mutually incompatible, then emptying magazines to kill soldiers who could off me in five shots even on the lowest difficulty setting, all while I spent my time hiding behind fences so as to avoid the dreaded BLOODY SCREEN! (so real!) Meanwhile, the game took a perverse glee in locking me into only one course of action, preventing me from wandering anywhere, occasionally going so far as to take all control away from me just to make sure I good long look at this flashy scripted sequence, dammit. The only real gameplay "innovation" is the addition of Supercar (or "GOLIATH" as the game dubs it), an unmanned rocket firing car which, like a Terminator Zorro, rides in from parts unknown once every level, allows you to kill everything in a certain area through a set of magic binoculars, then drives away to fight against evil (and evil Spanish landowners from the future) another day. As for the environments, the early previews made some fuss over the fact that much of the game was set in American suburbs, but in all honestly I didn't see what the fuss was. I saw more than my fair share of trashed suburbs in Blacksite: Area 51, and Homefront's aren't all that different. In fact they're slightly worse, since there aren't any human-alien hybrids to shoot in them.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the game for me was the way the Korean occupation was imagined, though my interest was more in what the game suggested about the mindset of contemporary America. As for the surface plot, the occupation of America, there's nothing there that hasn't been used in "America gets invaded" stories since the 1950s. Indeed, the only major difference is that the whole nuclear question appears to have gone for smokes too. Breadlines, mass arrests, hooded civilians being executed, refugee camps, mass graves; we've seen it all before. We've also seen it in real life, too, which is one of the more puzzling things about this game. Despite the fact that the United States has basically had two countries under military occupation for about a decade at the time of this writing (and is in the midst of bombing a third), there is literally no engagement with this anywhere in Homefront. No characters in the game draw attention to it, and the depiction of the Korean occupation shies away from drawing any parallels to the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts. It's as if a Berlin Wall has been build around the War on Terror, a structure that people have trained themselves to ignore.

Naturally, such events cannot be repressed entirely, and Homefront indulges in one of the more unpleasant byproducts of the conflict: the cult of cruelty. While these may be the misperceptions of a sheltered man, I have long felt there has been a growing tolerance of sadism in American culture. Probably the easiest example of this would be the fact that the revelations of torture in American-held Iraqi prisons, Guantanamo Bay, and in CIA-operated prisons around the world did not shake governments to their core, force mass resignations, or in some cases even stop. I've noticed this joy in inflicting pain on other people creep into video games (the Call of Duty games, again) that don't really need this sort of violence to tell their stories. As I've mentioned in a haphazard fashion before, I have serious issues whenever a game tries to be "serious" about mass murder. In this game, which is at heart a consolatory Revolutionary War fantasy that tries its damnedest to avoid the last decade, such attempts to depict human suffering quickly become repulsive. Homefront engages in the usual idiocies, of course; the cutscenes of your character being beaten, the scripted sequences of field executions, that curiously voyeuristic section where you and your buddies sneak around a survivalist commune whose members torture MIA Korean soldiers for kicks (which all your resistance buddies deplore, but which the game lets you get a good long look at). Then there's the real galling stuff, like a sequence near the end of the second chapter where you find a mass grave of American civilians that makes your teammates all upset (though since you've been mowing through Koreans like prairie grass for about half an hour, it's doubtful they'll have any effect on you). After a quick roll in the corpse pit to hide from a patrol chopper, your "buddies" get revenge in the next chapter.

They do so by mortaring a parking lot full of Korean soldiers with white phosphorus. While you sit, nice and safe on a nearby roof with a sniper rifle and watch them scream and flail.

And if you elect to not end their suffering with your guns, you get an achievement. An achievement entitled "Let 'Em Burn."

Holy fuck. What the hell is wrong with this world?

Freedom Fighters

But now I want to step away from Homefront and talk about another game. A game that has no illusions about what it wants to be, and as such doesn't strain itself making ill-conceived stabs at "realism" in the name of drama.

At heart, the premise of IO Interactive's Freedom Fighters is as ridiculous as the one for Homefront. The game is set in an alternate version of 2003 where the Soviet Union has been winning the Cold War for decades. And by "winning," I mean enjoying a streak of good fortune so amazing one could be forgiven for assuming Superman had become general secretary. As the opening cinematic informs us, the Soviet Union got the atomic bomb in early 1945 and managed to end the Second World War with a nuclear attack on Berlin. By 1953, all of Europe has fallen into the Soviet orbit, with Britain being the last country to join the Warsaw Pact. The next four decades see the Soviet Union expand its influence throughout Latin America, turning most of the region into Soviet client states by the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the United States responds to Moscow's encroachment by hiding under its bed for fifty-odd years and pretending the rest of the planet doesn't exist.

As I said, completely silly. And yet, Freedom Fighters's premise is handled in a far less irritating fashion than that of Homefront. The game wisely doesn't dwell on its backstory after the intro movie ends, while leaving events just vague enough that the player can plausibly imagine some contrived explanations if they feel the need to do so. Additionally, while the game never goes so far as to jab an elbow in the player's ribs, there are some subtle hints that the developers' tongues are planted firmly in cheek. The propaganda news broadcasts tend to go broad jokes aimed at the vagaries of Soviet life, say by advertising a new type of passenger airplane which only crashes on occasion, or by touting the totally nonharmful benefits of GM crops. There's also links with another game with a related premise: Westwood Studios' even more enjoyably silly Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, most notably the casting of Adam Greggor and the late Nicholas Worth, seen in RA2 as General Vladimir and Premier Romanov respectively, to voice the Russian antagonists.

The plot of the game is fairly standard, though the execution is well handled. Players take the role of Christopher Stone, a twenty-something New Yorker who runs a plumbing business with his brother. After a call to fix a broken garbage disposal manages to put him in the line of fire during the Soviet assault on Manhattan, he finds himself inducted into the burgeoning resistance movement. As the game progresses, Chris finds in and around the Big Apple, shepherding the resistance through betrayals and reverses, eventually culminating in a winter assault on the Soviet command center on Governor's Island. There's nothing much new in the plot, but it builds nicely, and all of the characters are well-acted (both voice and mocap), and are genuinely pleasant to be around.

As for gameplay, Freedom Fighters soars miles above Homefront's dismal rails. The game is structured as a third-person shooter focusing on squad combat. Each level consists of two or three maps linked by a central sewer hub. The maps can be completed in any order, and you can even bounce from map to map should you desire (though the fact that enemies respawn means it's usually easier to play each map straight through). You start the game with the ability to command two fighters, and you gain the ability to command more by destroying chopper landing pads and key bridges, freeing POWs and healing wounded civilians, and by securing certain buildings. You can only give them a few commands: attack an area, defend an area, and return to you, but by and large those are enough. The game is not too demanding tactically, but having a squad is essential if you want hold a fortified position while you slip down an alley to free some prisoners, or if you want to have someone lay down cover fire on some grunts while you snipe at more dangerous targets. Thankfully, the ally AI is actually quite competent, and they'll follow you through buildings and over shipping crates and will take control of mounted machine guns without your prompting. The level design is also fairly wide, and there's usually two or three ways to attack any given Soviet fortification, depending on how many people you have and what weapons you're carrying.

Overall, Freedom Fighters strikes the ideal balance for this type of game. It doesn't treat its premise as cavalierly as certain other games do (yes, I'm looking at YOU, Red Alert 3!!!), but at the same time it has a clear idea of what it wants to be. The game is pretty much a mainstream early '90s action movie in the form of a game, and as such it focuses on delivering a well-crafted gaming experience and an engaging plot. There are no massacres, and neither are they missed. It's a small, fun little game that's worth more than its fair share of replays.

Oh, and the soundtrack totally rocks.

A Final Thought

So, what do these games say about the invasion story?

Well, both games show that the invasion genre is still quite dead. Freedom Fighters succeeds through its decision to envision its scenario as a source of postmodern entertainment, while Homefront collapses under its own pretensions. Neither has anything really interesting or new about warfare in this current epoch, though Freedom Fighters does take the piss out of Western media coverage of contemporary wars through its CNN-styled Soviet propaganda channel. Perhaps it is too much to expect any sustained commentary from games that simply want to be games.

However, while there's nothing wrong with just wanting to be entertaining, one should never seek to do so uncritically, without any thought whatsoever for the larger implications of the work in question. Sadly, if Homefront is anything to go by, there are quite a few issues in the video game industry, and in America as a whole, that have gone unexamined for far, far too long.
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