Area 51
By: Tristan Jones on October 21, 2005  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Platform: PS2
Also available on: XBox, PC
Publisher: Midway
Players: 1 - 2
Year: 2005
OFLC Rating: MA15+
First Person Shooters are a dime a dozen these days, and finding a good one even on today's generation of consoles is like the old needle in the haystack. There are simply far too many to choose from, and when a standout comes along, the rest are constantly at risk of comparison. When Goldeneye came along, that was the benchmark few reached, then Perfect Dark came and that was the benchmark. Even now, I can't call to mind a single shooter that has been as complete an experience as that was. Perfect Dark was unanimously praised. Everyone who loved shooters loved it, everything else however came down to what you liked in your games, and were constantly in the shadow of Rare's masterpiece. Even in this shadow though, there were still some great shooters around, but it really came down to a matter of personal choice. Area 51 is one of those games.

Area 51 sees you as a member of an elite military control squad sent into Area 51 after an alien breaks loose and infects personnel with an extra-terrestrial virus. The rest of your squad is very quickly killed off and you find yourself alone and infected with the virus, desperately trying to escape. Sounds simple enough, and should be simple enough, but there are some really quite puzzling problems with the way this story is told. Area 51's story and pacing feels as though the designers have come up with some ideas they thought were cool (and most are) and put them in as they thought them up, creating only minor links between each event. Sometimes there's no real explanation at all! One minute you're fighting mutants, the next these Illuminati dudes show up and you're fighting them the rest of the game, only being told that "They're bad!"
Each level is also linked by bafflingly useless tidbits of existential questioning voiced by none other than David Duchovny. Usually I love Duchovny, and his work on another FPS called XIII is top notch, but here it just seems as though no thought was given to the actual character he was voicing. I can see the honchos in a boardroom meeting, and some idiot going "Hey, let's get Mulder from the X-Files to be our main character, because the X-files had Area 51 and aliens, and we have it too!", without giving any thought to the character's appearance or the rest of the game for that matter. This game is as far removed from the X-files as an episode of Farscape.

The voice acting is only a minor problem though. Somehow, Marilyn Manson as the voice of the psychic Gray alien works perfectly, even though the dialogue is a little melodramatic. Duchovny feels as though he just came in for the money, and as I said doesn't feel right at all when you see your character. The rest are pretty run of the mill action title voices and fit in okay. The sound effects used are really quite good, nothing that'll blow you mind, but still good nonetheless.

Graphically the game is really promising, and delivers well and truly with its fantastic lighting effects and subtleties throughout such as the blur that occurs whenever you fire a rapid fire weapon combined with a superb frame-rate. The animations for the characters are also pulled off really well, collision detection is perfect, and bodies don't disappear halfway through a wall or an object as they often do in other titles. However, some may be disappointed by the character models though. The enemies sit somewhere between cartoony and realistic, not unlike those found in the TimeSplitters series of games. For me this wasn't that much of a put off, having been a big TimeSplitters fan, but someone jumping straight off Doom 3 or Halo may feel it's not up to par. The level of detail in the video cut scenes really is a feast for the eyes, it's just a shame it wasn't replicated as well as it probably could have throughout the game.

The game itself is a piece of piss to control, and even though I'm not a fan of precision controls in first person shooters (one control stick for moving another for looking) I was really comfortable playing this. All the button actions are logically placed in regards to the controller itself, so moments where you often find yourself being slaughtered in other games because you can't get something done quick enough aren't that much of a problem in this. The addition of being able to switch between mutant and human once you become infected is cool and bizarrely more effective a lot of the time than filling enemies with lead.

It's probably worth noting too, that Area 51 was also released as an arcade game, and because they require a more immediate playability factor, this could be why it's as easy as it is to get into. The fact that this was released as an arcade game could also contribute to the fact that there is far less exploration to this title than there is to most FPS's, so if you like being able to look around everywhere and find something rewarding for being inquisitive, you may want to give Area 51 a miss, because as I said; it's mainly A to B, killing everything in between. It does get a little repetitious (the variety of enemies is extremely low), but that's the nature of the beast with these sorts of games, even the very best fall trap to this on occasion.

As a horror fan, I can see the heights this game was trying to reach. When you first get into it, it seems promising, but suddenly takes a step into the Twilight Zone that may leave a lot of people expecting the scary or spooky cold. Oh, and I should probably let you gore hounds know right away that there is no gore in this game. Unfortunately for me, this is another one that, while it has a lot of good qualities, fell victim to my own personal standards in First Person Shooting. For me, Perfect Dark is at the top, and that benchmark has yet to be reached by another title. It's a decent enough experience, but it's one of those ones where it may appeal to certain people's tastes more than others. It's well worth a rent, but if you are considering buying it, play it first.
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