- Review Price: £30.00
”’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.
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.