Over the years I’ve written about games, I end up writing about games from a certain genre, and that’s first-person shooters. It’s my genre of choice, with enjoyable action romps like Doom and Quake to more cinematic experiences like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Though for every Call of Duty, there’s a clunker of a single player experience, such as Homefront, which I replayed recently.
Homefront is a game developed Kaos Studios, a development team consisting of people who made the popular Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 way back when, were the ones who worked on this infamous game. Backed by THQ’s ambitious marketing campaign, the game had the chance to be something really, really interesting. Except it wasn’t.
Prior to Homefront, Kaos Studios only made one game: the middling Battlefield clone Frontlines: Fuel of War. After the lukewarm reception that game got, they soon were hard to work on a spiritual successor in Homefront. According to a retrospective over at Polygon, the game was meant to be strictly a multiplayer-only experience – which makes sense, considering the developer’s pedigree – but executive meddling caused a shift in marketing to add a traditional single player campaign, causing it to drown out the carefully crafted multiplayer they had made.
I decided to replay this, on PC this time – my previous experience was through the streaming OnLive service around 2012 or so – and it hasn’t gotten any better. If anything, it’s much worse than I remember.
Homefront’s single player campaign checks off every single thing Call of Duty did, but somewhat worse: there’s a section where you kick open a door and shoot everybody in slow motion like in Modern Warfare 2, a portion of a stage where you’re picking off enemies as a sniper as you infiltrate an enemy camp ala “All Ghillied Up” from Call of Duty 4, even a section at the very end has you using a CUAV drone to pick off targets on the Golden Gate Bridge much like a section in Modern Warfare 2.
It feels like someone up top at THQ said to Kaos, “Hey! Remember that thing that Call of Duty did? Do that!” and did so without having a say in the matter. A shame, really.
But that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to write about the game’s product placement.
Product placement in video games is a sticky kind of subject matter. I can’t think of any recent game that used it effectively short of sports games, and even there it can get pretty bad at times. Homefront is littered with advertisements for so many brands that taints the atmosphere of the game, taking place in a modest town in the middle of the United States. For being part of “the resistance,” you sure see a lot of product placement.
Kaos Studios’ lead level designer once talked about using brands in their game, and how they were allegedly rejected by several companies in doing so. Though it sounded like there’s only a brand or two in the entire game, there are many, many more brands than what they say here. It also looks pretty ironic considering in this interview they condemn Infinity Ward for making Burger Town, a fictitious brand in Modern Warfare 2.
As I played through Homefront’s campaign, I started documenting all the brands I saw. Now I don’t think I got every single bit of product placement here, there’s likely a few I missed because there’s shockingly so many of them. I’m ranking them from the least offensive to the most egregious in the entire game. It gets pretty ugly in spots, so strap in.
Homefront starts with a section where protagonist Robert Jacobs – a successful graduate of the “Gordon Freeman School of Character Development” – is shoved onto a bus ostensibly to be retrained as an enemy fighter pilot. That gets stopped short by the supporting allies of the resistance, Connor and Rianna. Though it does give a glimpse of a few Pabst Blue Ribbon banners strewn throughout the city before the bus is flipped over.
Not long after Jacobs escapes, they slip through a certain restaurant chain – more on that later – and walk past a Full Throttle vending machine. An energy drink brand by Monster, it’s one of two brands they own that are featured in this game, the other being NOS, which shows up a little later into Chapter 3. Oddly enough, Monster itself is a no-show here.
The only other notable non-offensive brands here shows up partway through Chapter 3: One of them is Jansport, a backpack company. While I didn’t think they had individual stores to sell their stuff, they seem to in this alternate history. Jansport appears next to a coffee shop called The Coffee Beanery, which I literally thought was a fake brand made for the game until someone pointed out to me that it was real. These stores appear not long after the white phosphorous attack and subsequent defense of a certain storefront’s entrance, and seen again before a rail shooter section where Jacobs targets humvees and helicopters with a futuristic tank. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” sort of thing.
Finally, out of nowhere, a billboard for Fender guitars shows up very late in Chapter 3, as Jacobs rushes to put a tracking device onto a fuel truck. Nobody in the game uses a guitar, so this is a head-scratching addition. Rock and roll, I guess.
Now that’s all the fairly inoffensive ones. Those are just simple logos that appear at spots in the game and don’t really make a major impact in the game’s campaign besides being environmental art. But these next few are a bit more in-your-face about the sponsors.
Most of Chapter 3 involves Jacobs and other resistance fighters against KPA soldiers through the parking lot and the interior of a TigerDirect store. Eventually our intrepid hero and buddies Connor and Rianna must kill Korean soldiers inside the TigerDirect as the store burns down. Somewhat ironic, considering TigerDirect shut down their physical stores a few years after this game came out, making them an all-digital storefront.
But before Jacobs goes to TigerDirect, there’s more Korean soldiers who decided to fall back into a Hooters restaurant. This is arguably the most hilarious product placement in the entire game, because the thought of a Hooters just chilling in a quaint place in Colorado is funny to me. They don’t even bother to model a unique interior, just slapping signs onto the exterior and on a random billboard towards the end of Chapter 3.
A few times throughout Chapters 3 and 4, there are billboards for a weapon called the Diablo. The Diablo is a real firearm, a personal defense weapon based off an AR-15 made by Primary Weapons Systems. Throughout parts of the campaign, Jacobs can snag Diablo SMGs (featured in the second image) from fallen soldiers and use them. I could go into a tangent about how gross firearm sponsorship in first-person shooters are, but that’s a topic for another time. At least it’s not nearly as blatant as Modern Warfare 3 sponsoring Remington firearms.
Finally, here comes the worst product placement. The one that initially didn’t phase me. At the very start of the game, Jacobs goes into a White Castle restaurant to get to the neighborhoods of Montrose proper. Much like the Hooters sponsorship above, these are fairly bland looking interiors that have ads you’d likely see at a real White Castle.
I can’t vouch if this is accurate to a real restaurant for myself, as White Castle is a midwestern kind of place, they aren’t on the West Coast. The closest I can get to trying White Castle is microwavable sliders.
So why is it the worst? Well, up to this point, barring the Diablo firearms, none of the brands had been called out by name in-game or by any character. That changes at the middle of Chapter 4. Jacobs and Connor have to cut through a White Castle to eventually get closer to a border wall separating our heroes from escape. The objective mentions the restaurant. Connor mentions the restaurant by name.
My memory had been so fuzzy about Homefront that I honestly thought they mentioned Hooters by name, but nope, it was White Castle. Connor and Jacobs cut through a random White Castle to a section where Jacobs kicks down a door – the only door the player gets to open, whereas other doors/obstacles require an NPC to open first. Having to squeeze in a mention of a mediocre restaurant to make progress just feels absolutely disgusting.
Thankfully, that’s really as bad as it gets. By the time our heroes leave the city of Montrose, Colorado, the brands are conspicuously absent from here on in. Even Chapter 6, where Jacobs pilots a helicopter to defend the fuel tanks and cuts through a California city, there’s no ads in the city whatsoever. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ads were an at the eleventh hour addition.
Sadly, I didn’t replay the game’s multiplayer. My experience from playing it from OnLive years ago was a hybrid between Battlefield’s large-scale vehicle focused combat and Call of Duty’s perks system. Probably decent to play for a little bit, and there’s people still playing this too. I guess Call of Duty 4 isn’t the only old game with people still actively playing the game’s multiplayer.
Now I am not saying the product placement made Homefront much worse, the game was already bad for being a third-rate Call of Duty clone that wasn’t fun to play. Even if it had no brand sponsorship, the campaign wouldn’t be any better.
In that interview from the Kaos Studios designer about brands, he lamented how he couldn’t get more companies in on the product placement due to the game’s setting. Which is a weird thing to say if you’re keeping count. There were at least 10 brands featured throughout parts of the game. I might’ve even missed a few! It’s just disgusting how much product placement there actually is in this game.
Homefront as a whole is a hot mess, and a good example of what not to do when making a modern military shooter. THQ was desperate by this point to stay afloat, as not only were they making deals with brands for this game, they also made a movie deal with Syfy for Red Faction: Armageddon later that year. Homefront is just one part of THQ’s downfall, and will be forever remembered as a mediocre Call of Duty knockoff where you killed Korean soldiers defending a Hooters restaurant.
At least it wasn’t as big of a blunder as the uDraw tablet was.