Platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox - PS2 version reviewed.
Area 51 is the gaming equivalent of a late 1950’s sci-fi B-movie, and when I say that, I mean it as a compliment. Like all the best hammy, low-brow potboilers, Area 51 isn’t trying to do anything original or particularly innovative. It’s not attempting to change the first-person-shooter as we know it, create a spectacular multiplayer experience, or redefine narrative-based gaming. Instead, it’s a game that grabs as many of the best elements as it can from pioneering titles, throws them in the blender, and makes something entertaining from the mix. In some ways, it’s this lack of hype, hubris and ambition that has made it one of the better FPS games on the PlayStation 2.
Let’s take a look at the ingredients. The central plot – things go wrong in a top-secret military-scientific installation – has been a genre staple since Doom, but if there’s any game where Area 51 owes so much of its inspiration to, it’s the original Half-Life. In fact, it’s a challenge not to think of Valve’s masterpiece while playing Area 51, particularly when the initial squad-based levels, with battle hardened shock troops overwhelmed by alien adversaries, won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who played the Half-Life mission pack, Opposing Force.
The atmosphere and game style, as close to survival horror as to straight 3D blasting, is reminiscent of Doom 3 and Aliens Vs. Predators 2, while the game’s biggest twist (spoiler alert) your transformation into a hybrid mutant with vicious melee attacks and new weapons and abilities to exploit, brings the latter game to mind once again. Originality isn’t the thing here, but if Midway has stolen ideas, it had the sense to steal them from the best.
Where Area 51 brings anything new to the party is in its sheer aggressive drive. While it’s not quite as relentless as, say, Serious Sam on the PC, it’s not afraid to throw wave after wave of enemies at you at a fairly rapid pace. And while you kick off expecting the usual shambling zombies, Area 51’s mutants are more in the vein of Resident Evil 4’s infected villagers; fast-moving, aggressive enemies who’re not backward in coming forward to rend you limb from limb.
This comes as something of a surprise early in the game, where you’re just beginning to get to grips with the controls as hyped-up mutants leap from shadows, corridors, catwalks, windows and just about everywhere else, and all heading straight for you and your gung-ho colleagues. Luckily, this is one of the few PS2 shooters where the developers have made things work on the Dual Shock 2. Movement and aiming is responsive enough to find a target quickly when you need to, but without that fiendish twitchiness that blights so many PS2 shooters.
This is a good thing, as there’s an awful lot to be getting on with here. Like Halo, Area 51 toys with squad-based action for the opening chunk of the game, and if the corridor heavy setting steers you along fairly linear lines during the setup, at least you’re kept busy, following the other troops around, taking on small recon and support tasks while they keep the enemy at bay, and generally playing your part in the combat.