Area 51, the codename of the secret military facility Dry Groom Lake in the Nevada desert, has been a mystery for several decades already and we still don’t know anything about it. Did a UFO really go down near Roswell in 1947? Are the American authorities covering it up or is everything about Area 51 just a myth?
Hey, I’ll be damned if I know, but at least Midway thought the entire fuss was interesting enough for a game. Area 51 is a no-nonsense first-person shooter, in which you will assume the role of Hazardous Materials expert Ethan Cole, hoping to unravel the truth about Dry Groom Lake .
But as soon as Ethan arrives, things go horribly wrong. A highly contagious and extremely dangerous virus has broken out, turning all living beings into mutated freaks. As you progress, you’ll find out that the virus is in fact alien made (duh!) and that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Area 51 has a nice storyline, filled with all kinds of conspiracy theories, which is definitely better than the commonplace “man-wants-revenge-and-starts-killing-everyone-without-any-particular-reason”-storyline we see in so many other games.
It’s very clear that Midway was inspired by sci-fi movies, amongst others. The story unfolds in a typical Hollywood matter and the developers also hired some celebrities to do the voicework. David Duchovny, indeed, the one and only Fox Mulder from The X-Files, did the voice of Ethan Cole. Although he has been criticized for it on more than one occasion, I don’t actually agree with that. Ok, so he lacks any sense of humour (in fact, my refrigerator is hilarious, compared to him), but he does have a feeling of fear in his voice, that fits the gloomy theme perfectly. And is there anyone more fit to do the voice of an alien than Marilyn Manson, the rockstar who looks like he himself stems from Saturn?
The gameplay however isn’t as deep as deep as the storyline (which isn’t too deep to begin with). It all comes down to clearing room after room, finding the mandatory keycards and flipping a switch or solving a brainless puzzle from time to time. To make this a little more interesting, Midway came up with two ideas. The first one is dual-wielding, which we already know from Halo 2 and the laughable GoldenEye: Rogue Agent. Nevertheless it’s still very cool to use two shotguns or machine guns and bring chaos to your enemies. The second innovation is the possibility to change into an alien yourself. Unlike that wuss E.T., Cole can shoot fireballs and parasites in this form and he’s also far less susceptible to enemy fire.
During this transformation, your view goes orane, a pretty cool effect. As for the rest, the game looks decent, but never blows you away with its visuals. The console roots of Area 51 are clearly noticeable because even in higher resolutions (I played it in 1280*1024, high detail) the textures lack a bit of detail. In the first couple of levels, Midway also used a lot of -way too much actually- light blooming -or bloom lighting, or whatever you’d like to call it). This effects causes weapons and enemies to glow and I can assure you, if everything just glows in a game, this can look pretty odd. Luckily, later in the game this effect isn’t too widespread anymore and the alien levels at the end of the game actually look impressive from a leveldesign point of view.
The lack of different enemies in Area 51 is a big flaw. There are only three types of cannon fodder in the game: infected creatures, Illuminati and Grays (typical alien lifeforms with huge eyes). Admittedly, the mutants wear different types of clothing and Illuminati come in both normal (Black Ops) and cloaked forms (Red Ops), but in the end they are all the same. Their A.I. is nothing to brag about. The mutated creatures just come running or jumping at you in a straight line and the Illuminati often just stand there, waiting to get their lungs pierced. On more than occasion, I went into a room, guns blazing (clearly audible, I’d say), and the guards didn’t even bother to turn their backs.
The game is also pretty short (I reckon you’ll beat Normal in about seven hours) , but at least Midway tried to do something about it. Cole carries a special scanner that can analyse weird phenomenons. There are five of these anomalies in each level and finding them all will give you access to unlockable content. There are movies which grant you some background information, but there are also some nice fake top secret documents which cover several interesting subjects (the Bermuda Triangle, crop circles, the murder of J.F. Kennedy…). If, after completing the game, you should feel the urge to continue playing with Area 51, there is still a fairly balanced multiplayer that can keep you going for some hours. It’s not bad, but I’ll have the Battlefield 2 demo any day of the week…
Area 51 an above average FPS, though only because of its interesting point of view and cool conspiracies. It’s not a must-have, but you should definitely rent it sometime. Just don’t forget: the truth is out there!