The Fly, formally known as atomsmasher, has sent us a delightful review of Area 51, the FPS playable on the Xbox and PS2. Like any good cake I find his reviews both consistent and delicious. Thanks The Fly! Area 51 is a modern update of Midway's light-gun arcade series, reimagined as first-person shooter for the Xbox, PS2, and PC. Set entirely in the top-secret government facility that is its namesake, it puts you in the shoes of Ethan Cole, a member of a hazmat squad dispatched to help contain a viral outbreak. When Cole and his team arrive, the virus is sweeping through the facility, turning soldiers and scientists alike into murderous, powerful creatures. The story's events take Cole deep below ground, where, unsurprisingly, he discovers all manner of alien and government conspiracies.
As you navigate Cole through the game's maze of corridors, research labs, and the occasional ventilation duct, you'll encounter plenty of living things that simply must be killed, including infected humans, black-op-style "dark soldiers," and a handful of alien nasties. While there's not a lot of enemy variety, they're a fairly well-designed, nicely animated bunch. They're all smart and dangerous, but it's the dark soldiers, who are adept at taking cover, strafing, and using grenades, that pose the greatest threat.
Area 51 is all about combat, and it manages to deliver all the basic elements of a terrific shooter experience. The controls are familiar and fluid, the framerate is consistently high, there's plenty of visceral, fast-paced action, and the weapons sound, feel, and fire like they should. The AI is fine-tuned and aggressive, so you can't simply tear through an area with guns blazing, or camp out and wait for an easy kill. It's a game that demands some thought and attention - don't think you won't get gunned down in the open or flushed out of hiding with grenades. You're forced to choose your tactics carefully. Run-and-gun recklessness is typically rewarded by a quick death.
You start the game with a modest pistol, but quickly add firepower with a submachine gun, tactical shotgun, sniper rifle, and frag grenades. The SMGs and shotguns can be dual-wielded. There's nothing particularly unique about these weapons, but they all sound terrific and handle beautifully. In addition, they all feature flashlights, which can be used without fear of battery loss. It's a well-balanced arsenal, and in the earlier portions of the game, you'll definitely be making regular use of each. Later on, you'll obtain a couple of experimental weapons, including one that outperforms the conventional weapons to such a degree that it renders them practically useless.
Area 51 is at its best in its first few hours, when you and your squad creep through the dark, smoky rooms of the base's upper levels, encountering lightning-fast mutants. The squad AI is very good, and while they'll dispatch waves of enemies with aplomb, they won't get all of them, so you're forced to stay on your toes. In a minor contrivance, your squadmates can't be killed in combat, which frees you to focus on keeping yourself alive. Instead, their inevitable deaths are dramatic, scripted events that occur by way of cutscenes.
Eventually, you're infected by the virus, which doesn't exactly do wonders for your complexion, and definitely messes up your dental work. It's not all bad, though, because now you've got the ability to mutate at will for short periods. Mutant vision (which is accompanied by some impressive visual effects) allows you to more clearly see enemies, some of which have stealth camouflage. Though you can't use your firearms while mutated, you've got a powerful melee attack that can drop close enemies in a single slash. You've also got couple of ranged attacks, one of which draws health from enemies while replenishing your own.
Though the PS2 hardware is getting pretty long in the tooth, you'd never guess it from looking at Area 51. While it won't quite measure up to games like Half-Life 2 on a high-end PC, it manages to pack in more cutting-edge light, fog, and particle effects per frame than you would have thought possible for the aging console. I'm sure it looks great on the Xbox as well. There are plenty of subtle (but no less impressive) touches, like the way the engine loads detail textures as you move closer to your surroundings, so the nearer you get to objects, the more detailed they become. It's almost startling at first, to approach a wall and have its texture slowly sharpen, instead of dissolving into a pixellated blur.
Area 51 makes impressive use of entertaining, realistic physics. Not only do enemies get blasted skywards and crumple in true rag-doll fashion, but numerous areas feature plenty of containers and other objects that tumble, roll, bounce, or explode in reaction to the game's constant hail of bullets and explosions. Again, the physics are not quite on par with Half-Life 2, but they're impressive for a console shooter, and go a long way toward spicing up the firefights. The sound, too, is very good - from the ambient noises, to the futuristic special effects, the game sounds terrific. And while the understated, slightly techno soundtrack isn't anything special, it's certainly acceptable.
Sadly, all of this goodness is undermined by a heavy dose of lackluster, lazy game design. The levels aren't bad, they're just basic shooter fare, consisting of corridor crawls linked by larger rooms that you simply just fight your way through. A scant handful of obligatory key hunts, jumping puzzles, and turret sequences are thrown in for good measure, and while they aren't poorly implemented, they're extremely basic and wholly uninspired. The occasional boss-type fights add some challenge, but even these encounters are fairly run-of-the-mill.
And then there's the overblown plot, thrown together from the most cliche of conspiracy theories, and featuring standard players like mad scientists, little grey men, and, of course, Illuminati. I could pretty much lay out the entire storyline here without spoiling anything, because there's almost nothing about the deep dark secrets contained beneath the base that is remotely unique or surprising.
The game features some supposedly A-list vocal talent, including Powers Boothe, David Duchovny, and Marilyn Manson. While Boothe is great as a tough-talking general, Duchovny and Manson offer little besides the obvious name recognition. Duchovny's sleepy delivery is actually a step up from his comatose narration in XIII, but the real problem is that he just doesn't have the right voice for the material. Manson is also a disappointment. Although he gets plenty of bizarre, overwrought lines like, "soon the ascension will have begunÃ‚"…the pact will birth its unholy child!" he cranks them out in a processed, effects-heavy voice, with barely a hint of his trademark nastiness.
Area 51 comes with a garden-variety online multiplayer component for up to 16 players (plus two-player split-screen for the consoles), which offers standard deathmatch and capture the flag options, as well as a soldier-vs.-mutant variation. It's got the same slick combat and graphical wonders as the single-player campaign, but the maps are pretty average. It's a decent addition, but probably won't pull you away from your current favorite multiplayer game for any significant amount of time.
Overall, Area 51 is a game that, if you're into first-person shooters, you're likely to enjoy for the 12 or so hours that it lasts. The combat is undeniably engaging, and the beautiful, detailed environments definitely keep the gee-whiz factor high. Don't expect it to leave a lasting mark on your game-soaked psyche, though, because too much of what it has to offer is ultimately pretty forgettable. It's a shame, because the foundation for a great game - instead of a merely good one - is definitely there.