[Homefront is a video game that posits a future history in which North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un takes over parts of Asia following the death of his father Kim Jong Il. This review was submitted to CanKor by Michael Yee, who has worked in Pyongyang (2004-05) as a development aid staffer for Global Aid Network (www.globalaid.net). You can follow Michael on Steam at steamcommunity.com/id/michaelvyee or on Twitter at twitter.com/michaelvyee. –CanKor.]
Watching the political circus when the US government struggled to avoid defaulting in August 2011, made me reflect on the premise of the video game Homefront. In the fictional parallel universe of the game’s plot, US troops and military installations withdraw totally from Korea, Japan and other locations by 2017, returning home because of cutbacks. The current 2011 US budget discussions include proposals for cutbacks to the US military. Could the writers of Homefront have some type of crystal ball that allows them to peer into the future? How accurate could they be? I suppose time will tell, but I wanted to look at the game’s presentation and atmosphere as it attempts to create a DPRK empire in America.
Aidan Foster-Carterhas already written an extensive review of Homefront for 38North (See: Just a game? Homefront’s sick, stupid Korean invasion fantasy, March 2011). Since I enjoy playing video games, in particular FPS (First Person Shooters), and since I have also previously worked in the DPRK, I would like to add my own comments to those of Foster-Carter.
Technical & character notes
Over one million copies of the game were sold in the first month following its release. I played Homefront using the Steam version (for Windows PC). The game is also available on the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 systems. The publisher of Homefront is THQ; and the game was made by KAOS Studios. The plot was written by John Milius, most famously known for writing the scripts of the movies “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Red Dawn” (1984). He also wrote the novel that accompanies the game: “Homefront: The Voice of Freedom”, published by Random House.
The game is set in the year 2027, and the player takes on the role of Robert Jacob, an ex-US marine chopper pilot. Working with you throughout the entire game are several non-player characters (NPCs), all members of the Resistance battling against the North Korean occupation: Boone, a former policeman, Conner, an ex-US Army soldier; Rianna, a civilian hunter; and Hopper, a third-generation Korean-American civil electrical engineer/mechanic who had been forcibly recruited to the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
The single-player part of the game should take an average player about 5-6 hours to finish all missions. As an occasional FPS player, it took me about 20 hours to complete, according to Steam. In fact, five of those hours were used up trying to get the game to work on my computer! Judging by the number of online pages that give instructions on how to “fix” the game so it can work, there seem to be technical difficulties with all three platforms.
The game design is also quite cumbersome. It forces the player to head in a certain direction to defeat KPA and American Militia enemies, but discourages you from trying to explore the game map, despite the graphic imagery that KAOS has devised to give the feeling of having to take America back, city block by city block. It is only by following this linear path that events are triggered that allow you to learn some back-story before proceeding to the next level. I found that quite often the trigger point doesn’t register even when the characters were standing in the correct location. The game also forces you to match ammunition to the exact type of gun, supposedly to make you feel as though you are scrambling for supplies against a better-supplied enemy. Interesting idea, but very cumbersome to play.
The game ends on a point that is obviously designed to be followed by a sequel. The successful player gets to push the KPA back only a short distance. I understand that the game company THQ has commissioned work on Homefront 2, by Crytec studios in the UK, slated to be released in 2013 or 2014.
I agree with Foster-Carter’s assessment over the time-line issue. I wonder why John Milius chose 2013 as the start of the near-future period. Perhaps they saw the latest version of the “Visit Korea Year”, South Korea’s current international tourism program, or they realized that 2012 was the year North Koreans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of DPRK founder Kim Il Sung?
KAOS Studios explain their time-line of how DPR Korea came to dominate Asia through a series of collectable “Newspapers” that one finds in the game, a handy story device. Except that they don’t let you go back to re-read them in sequence after you found them. Of course, gamers have transcribed them all and posted them here. The XBox version of the game also has QRCodes sprayed onto walls that expand the back-story even further. They expand the story with videos and can be accessed here.
An issue that is never discussed is how China came to turn a blind eye while a reunited Korea built its empire. China, with its far superior military and economic power currently supplies most of the resources that keeps the DPRK running. Somewhat more plausible in the time-line are predictions related to the Middle East, which see the 2011 Arab Spring evolving into a contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Middle East.
It is ironic how KAOS Studios use similar imagery to demonize the KPA in the game as the DPRK uses to demonize the American military in real life. Two in-game examples are the introductory scene when you are in the bus in the first level (watch here), and in the second level after leaving the labour camp.
In the bus ride, you will see citizens being herded onto buses to go to the labour camp. You see some of them being beaten and shot in the street in front of their own children. It is, of course, designed to make the player emotionally angry enough to fall for the game’s imagination and want to fight. Anyone who has visited the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” (aka, the Korean War Museum) in Pyongyang will have seen illustrations of American soldiers doing the same thing.
In level two, you are forced to hide among dead bodies dumped into a mass grave site to escape the KPA who are searching for you. Again, in the Liberation War Museum, there are illustrations depicting dead Koreans also dumped into mass graves after being killed. A South Korean commission of historical inquiry in 2008 has produced evidence of similar mass killings carried out by South Korea during the Korean War. (Read the MSNBC story Thousand of Koreans executed early in the war.)
Will North Koreans or their supporters really want to play the game, assuming that they figure out a way around DRM (Digital Rights Management)? Considering that the character the gamer is playing is an American, and it shows the Korean Army being defeated by the game player, it is highly unlikely. Obviously, this is just the entertainment industry desperately looking for a new bogeyman that will not affect potential sales in new places. North Korea is always a safe target. The movie Red Dawn is being re-made with DPR Korea/KPA as the lead bad guy, with the Chinese PLA in support.
If the game had stayed true to its original writing, China would have been the enemy force. Of course, if China wanted to attack the USA in real life, they wouldn’t have to fire a shot. All they’d have to do is demand that the US government repay all the debt that they are holding…immediately. But in the make-believe world of video games, players are required to suspend their disbelief—no matter how weak the game’s construction may be.
- THQ announce Crytek as developer of Homefront 2 (telegraph.co.uk)