Midway originally released Area 51 as a lightgun game several years ago and immediately they did a whole lot with the franchise. The put it out for a few other consoles (most notably the PlayStation One) and even released a sequel to the arcades. But after that, they really didn’t do anything until one day, not too long ago,remaking old games became popular. I blame Nintendo and the Gameboy Advance for causing this phenomenon to sweep the video gaming world, but I won’t get started on that. The good people at Midway decided that they would modernize Area 51 and turn it into a traditional first-person shooter and dropping the lightgun gimmick (and the arcades) which had initially made it popular.
And they said the moon landings were fake…
There are very few similarities between the two except that they both happen to take place at the same secret facility in Nevada. This particular incarnation of the franchise happens to star a character named Ethan Cole who is sent into the Nevada military base with a team of soldiers to rescue a previous team disappeared after all hell broke loose inside the installation. Naturally, everything is far worse than expected and after his team is annihilated, Ethan is infected with a strange alien virus that he must utilize if he ever hopes to find a cure for it.
Though the setting is original and unique, the gameplay is anything but. Area 51 has you trudging through all of the developers imagined nooks and crannies of this fabled military base and a lot of their thoughts and ideas about how it looks on the inside are pretty neat, if not necessarily realistic or practical. But while all of these awesome ideas exist about the structure of the facility, the gameplay isn’t nearly as exciting. You’ll spend a great deal of your time ducking behind objects, popping up occasionally to shoot at your enemies, then running to push a button that inevitably will unleash a swarm of new foes. You do this from room to room, over and over again with no variation.
“Gotta sing! Gotta dance!”
That’s not to say that this isn’t the formula for most first-person shooters. I think you could probably sum up almost every game, from the worst to the best on the market, with the same basic summary that I just provided. However, it specifically hurts a game like Area 51 because the game is so imaginative in some respects and so unimaginative in others that you actually feel the rigidity of the formula right from the beginning. Where are the cool puzzles involving space-age gadgets the world has never seen? Where are all of the unique enemies that are genetically modified and experimented on? There not in this game, that’s for sure.
This isn’t at all to imply that Area 51 is a bad game. It’s really not, in actuality it’s a cut above a lot of the other first-person shooters on the market. It’s just incredibly irritating that they didn’t strive for anything beyond aesthetics. While I criticize the rigid, linear gameplay, I admittedly did enjoyed most of my time playing it. At one point in the game Ethan is attacked by a foe that infects him with a virus. Of course, instead of killing him this gives him SUPER POWERS that he can use. Mock them as I may, triggering Ethan’s powers granted from his infection and slaughtering swarms of enemies all at once was actually pretty redeeming. But the entire time, all I could think about is how they really could have done so much more with the game.
“I am bad ass ninja robot dude! I’ll kick your ass!”
But what we do get is a challenging and mindlessly entertaining first-person shooter. One thing that I liked about this game is that Ethan only has an arsenal of about six weapons. There are your conventional FPS weapons, like a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and a sniper rifle, but you’ll also get your hands on some alien weaponry, such as a gun that shoots out plasma that sticks to your enemies (think basically a gun that fires Halo’s plasma grenades and you’re on the right track) and this powerful alien cannon that electrocutes everything. This small supply of weapons requires you to use even the most basic guns later on in the game and makes you much more conscious of ammo use. But with a small arsenal of weapons, all of them should be finely tuned, and I must say that the sniper rifle in this game was absolutely terrible. It was far too touchy and only offered two zoom options. Thankfully none of the other weapons suffered from this problem.
Of course, your “infection powers” are three other weapons at your disposal. First you get a powerful melee attack that presumably rips your enemies apart followed by two attacks which shoot infection out of your hands and into your enemies in a sort of biological warfare (which I thought was outlawed by the UN but oh well). The infection powers are limited by a meter that fills up through elixirs that mysteriously appear right after you get infected (you never see them early in the game and there’s no logical explanation for their existence later in the game for that matter) or by killing your enemies with the previously mentioned melee attack.
That railing’s there for a reason you know.
The four or five enemies that this game offers (a few mutants and a few soldiers) go through the typical motions (ducking behind objects, attempting to flank), which isn’t anything special, but at least they look good doing it. As I’ve mentioned before, Area 51 is a good looking game. Sure, it’s not going to rival Half-Life 2 or FarCry, but as console ports go I don’t think many are going to complain. Part of the appeal of the graphics engine is that a lot of the rooms are very different and full of junk that really doesn’t look like it does anything but damn, it looks cool.
Sadly I can’t say the same for the voice acting. David Duchovny provides the voice work for Ethan Cole, and while Area 51 digs into the same material that Duchovny’s X-Files show dug through, he brings little to the character. He has no emotion and nearly every line he reads is monotone and boring. I think they probably could have made him more excited if just before every line they gave him a dollar since he was clearly involved for the money and not interest in the project. Perhaps he wants to fund another awful movie or needs the cash to finish paying for the last one he made. Either way, it was a massive waste of money to bring him in to voice Ethan. The rest of the cast, which includes rocker Marilyn Manson, doesn’t do a much better job, but Duchovny’s performance is so lacking it makes them seem better by comparison. The music also failed to stand out.
“Uh-huh, looks like your every day space corridor. Should be safe enough…”
Area 51 holds a lot of secrets if you’re willing to look for them. Lots of memos and papers are strewn carelessly about at the facility is being destroyed that, when scanned by Ethan, unlock videos that offer a glimpse of what went on before Ethan arrived. But, this doesn’t serve as much of a reason to play through the game a second time, even though the first one will only take you ten hours. Once the effect of all the fancy environments wears off, you’ll quickly realize that there’s not much to this game other than pushing switches and shooting the same enemies over and over again. Even still, though the lack of very original gameplay ideas hurts Area 51, it does have a lot of good things going for it, including a very cool graphics engine and a cool infection mode, which, combined with a low price tag, do justify a purchase of this game. Just don’t expect all that much from it because this is a very superficial game.