We've been hit with more than a few remakes of classic games in the past few years. NARC, Ninja Gaiden, Prince of Persia, and Conker: Live & Reloaded were all based in whole or in part on older games. Midway's Area 51 is the latest game franchise to be resurrected, this time as a first-person shooter instead of a light gun game.
Area 51 made the transition pretty smoothly. The controls are about standard for an FPS, though placing the melee button on the right analog joystick was a stroke of genius. You get a full complement of customizable controls, including the all-important "Invert Aim" and aiming sensitivity options. The default settings are set at a fast enough speed that you should be fine, however.
The graphics are good, if a bit dated. There's nothing that stands out as being awful, but there are better looking FPS games out there. The animation, however, is very well-done. It's very cool to spot a monster shambling your way and firing a rifle at you, only to have it duck and try to dodge when you open fire on it.
Area 51 builds atmosphere like crazy. Everything from dead bodies placed along hallways, monsters leaping out of vents and swarming to your position, blood stains on the walls, or even just the panicked screams of your teammates works to build up a tense atmosphere. For the beginning part of the game, your teammates are essentially invulnerable, but that doesn't make the action any less frantic. Fighting off waves of baddies can be a terrifying thing, and Area 51 intends to make you feel every second of it. It's kind of thrilling to sit back with four or five other guys and simply burn through a couple dozen enemies. The only thing better is walking alone down a dark hallway, with only a flashlight and a nearly empty gun, hoping that no monsters come out to greet you.
The AI on the computer teammates isn't too shabby. They'll call out positions, suggest new tactics ("Grenade!" seems to be the most common), and cover your six when you go off to flip a switch or retrieve something. I've yet to see one of them die when the plot didn't require it, so they're very helpful in a firefight. You can't simply sit there and let them win the game for you, however, because they'll often let monsters by, seemingly just so they can bite your face off. It's a very interesting way to play the team dynamic and the execution is very well done.
The monster designs are remniscient of everything from Halo's Flood, the beasties from the classic film "The Thing," and your run-of-the-mill zombies. I honestly doubt that you'll be thinking "Oh, rip-off!" as hordes of tiny monsters swarm about your feet and try to kill you. The monsters, derivative or not, work with the atmosphere of the game. Stumbling blindly down a dark corridor is all well and good, but having a humanoid monster (or maybe something less than human) leap out at you is thrilling. The monsters do their job and do it well, even if it boils down to shocking you and getting shot in the face.
The level design is definitely a high point. The textures tend to be nice and realistic, and the actual architecure is functional, which is a nice change of pace from most games. Most of the hallways and doorways seem to actually lead to something (or led to something in the past, before the base went belly-up). It really helps with the feeling of immersion. You aren't just wandering around some building that some guys sweated for months to program, you feel like you're walking around a facility that works, at least worked before everything in it was destroyed.
On the downside, though, you can't call Area 51 an original game by any means. I spotted similarities to Halo, Doom 3, and a spot of Resident Evil within the first twenty minutes of the game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as Area 51 is a strong game, but it succeeds kind of in spite of itself. It would've been nice to see a lot more originality in the game, but Area 51 is a fun ride, regardless.