After the first six levels, the game changes tack rapidly, as your squad is wiped out and you find yourself infected with an alien mutation. At this point, we’re back to the old-school lone soldier routine, with seemingly everyone out to get you. Luckily, some recompense comes with your new mutant powers. A simple press of Up on the digital D pad transforms you from gun-wielding trooper into razor-clawed monster on the loose, smashing scenery and taking down all opposition with a new vicious melee swipe.
You’re hardly defenceless at a distance, either, with a ‘parasite’ attack heavily reminiscent of (you guessed it) Half-Life’s old alien swarm weapon. It doesn’t have such a huge effect on gameplay as Alien vs. Predator 2’s switch from Marine to Alien to Predator, but it does spice things up a little, just as they run a small chance of getting monotonous.
And this is a good thing, because lack of variation is the game’s greatest weakness. Despite the intense action and the cool mutant twist, there is an awful lot of running around fairly similar looking laboratory areas shooting fairly similar packs of alien critters and hostile troops, none of whom are going to win any awards for smarts. This isn’t the sort of game where you can expect to be surprised by emergent behaviour or clever teamwork on the part of your opponents, nor is it the sort of game where tactics and strategy get to play their part. Instead, it’s best enjoyed in chunks as an all-out blaster, with a narrative that – however familiar – is played through with enough verve to hold your attention.
Visually speaking, Area 51 has neither the unique style of TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, nor the grandeur of a Halo, but it does have its own shlock charms. This is a game where cheap gore and cartoon violence are deployed at every opportunity, and where creating nice scenery to look at clearly wasn’t as important as putting in places from which mutants can leap out and attack. If only more games took the same admirable approach. There are a few nice lighting effects, particularly when you slip into mutant mood, but this isn’t a graphical showcase. It looks the part, and that’s enough.
If only it always sounded the part. Midway obviously spent a lot of money getting Powers Booth, David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson to provide voices, but the effort has been mostly wasted. Duchovny sounds like he didn’t just phone in his performance as the hero – he actually left it recorded on the Midway answer machine, while Manson might as well be any hammy whacko actor drafted in off the street. As least the music and sound effects, while not particularly memorable, help maintain atmosphere and provide the occasional shock moment.
And overall, Area 51 doesn’t leave me in any real mood to complain. It’s no classic, but it provides you with a decent ten to twelve hours of entertainment, keeps the pace tight and the boredom levels low, and leaves a smile on your face for the duration. That’s a lot more than can be said for many games that have received an awful lot more attention.
While heavily indebted to a range of genre classic, Area 51 wins you over with its energy and rapid pacing. It might not bring much new to the fps, but it rarely disappoints when it comes to all-out action.