I enjoyed Midway’s recent remake of the classic arcade shooter, Area 51, released in 2005 for the PS2, Xbox and PC. It wasn’t out-of-this-world by any means, but the game did a tremendous job building a creepy atmosphere and it was fun to play. Unfortunately Black Site: Area 51 does not share the same qualities as its predecessor (though it should be noted this is not a sequel).
The encompassing issue with BlackSite: Area 51 is that it lacks polish. A lot of the features in the game feel out of place or just aren’t fully realized. You’ll spend most of the campaign leading a squad of soldiers into Rachel, Nevada to fight off an invasion of unidentified enemy races. You command your squad using a single button interface. Mark a spot on the ground and your squad will move into position. Mark an enemy and your squad will concentrate their fire at said target. It works well enough in theory but I can’t tell you how many times my squad broke command during the game by failing to stay in position or return to position when they moved away for a moment to avoid a grenade blast.
You can also issue an order for your squad to open a door or use a device. In the case of a door, they might kick it in, breach it with a change or open it slightly to throw a grenade into the room. You think you would be able to choose the mode of entry but that’s not the case, you simply mark the icon and watch your squad use the pre-determined means of opening the door. The icon might as well read “Press here to continue” because it remains “locked” until you’ve cleared the previous area of enemy threats. Ultimately the squad commands feel tacked on as BlackSite: Area 51 treads the line between being a run ‘n gun shooter and a tactical shooter, never quite succeeding at the later.
Vehicles are another example of an unpolished gameplay element. Here’s a quote from the back of the box:
“Commandeer and drive the latest military vehicles or take position in the gunner’s chair for a daring, low-level helicopter raid.”
I have no complaints about the helicopter raids. They’re exciting and work well to provide a break from the ground-based combat. In fact, there’s an especially exciting chopper ride along a stretch of highway featuring a boss battle with a giant worm that’s easily one of the highlights of the game. No, my beef is with the land vehicles and in particular, the absence of choice. You don’t get to choose whether to drive the vehicle or take the gunner position, that decision is made for you. You’ll take the gunner position in the first land-based vehicle action scene but after that, you’ll don the chauffeur’s cap the rest of the way, whether you like it or not. Try to jump into the gunner position and watch as your squad mates avoid the driver’s seat like the plague. Whether it’s vehicles or simply how you approach a level, there’s not a lot of choice in BlackSite: Area 51. It’s a very linear experience.
None of these are bad ideas mind you. Squad-based commands can be good, when done right. Vehicles can be exhilarating to control, when implemented well. I’ll give you another example of a good idea whose potential isn’t realized: Squad Morale. As long as you’re kicking alien butt, your squad morale stays high. When the tide of combat turns in the enemy’s favor, or you lose one of your squad mates (temporarily), your squad morale drops low. The idea is that when squad morale is high, your squad fights more effectively and vice versa when squad morale is low. I’ll be honest though, I didn’t notice a difference either way and I believe that’s a combination of again, the feature just not being fully realized, and the fact that during the heat of battle, I was more concerned about surviving the enemy onslaught than I was paying attention to how effective my squad mates were being.
The monsters in BlackSite: Area 51 are derivative of enemies from other video games like Halo and Doom (not that they were original at the time either). You can’t help but think of the movie Tremors throughout the game either, what with the giant worms and all. The previous Area 51 wasn’t all that original either, but it was considerably creepier and generally more fun, which helped to conceal the fact. While the opening levels of BlackSite: Area 51 has its moments, with some great set pieces, the game loses steam halfway through. The later sections are dull and uninspiring. As you progress through the game, you’ll undoubtedly come across a bug or two as well, providing further proof that BlackSite: Area 51 could have used more development time.
BlackSite: Area 51 was built using the Unreal Engine so visually it looks pretty good. Again, the earlier levels are far more interesting than the later levels, both from a technical and visual standpoint. In general, the character models look good and the environments, particularly the outdoor areas, are distinctive of small town Nevada. The game isn’t quite as stable as it should be. The frame rate sporadically drops, occasionally hitching up altogether, and the loading time between when you die and the last check point is loaded is considerably long. The voice acting in the game is pretty solid, with a couple of great personalities for the main villain and your tattooed squad mate, Cody Grayson. The material they’re given is hit and miss. I couldn’t help but chuckle when Cody stopped the jeep to get out and take a leak, than go on to tell me not to zoom in on his “junk.” On the other hand, I heard Cody say “I wonder what my girlfriend is doing right now” far too many times. Overall, combined with the music and sound effects, the audio is solid, even though it noticeably lacks ambient sounds.
You’d think a game that emphasizes squad combat would include a co-operative mode but alas, that’s not the case. They tried but apparently the feature was scrapped towards the end of development. It’s a shame too because there’s not a whole lot of activity online otherwise. Of the four competitive multiplayer modes, only one is remotely unique: Abduction. The rest (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and CTF) you can find in any shooter on the market and so there’s no reason for gamers to switch from the likes of Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4 to play BlackSite: Area 51 online.
BlackSite: Area 51 surely would have benefited from more time in containment…err, development. Bugs and glitches are indicative of a general lack of polish while most of the game’s features are underdeveloped, underutilized or feel out of place. Apart from exciting moments that are few and far between, the game is dull and uninspiring. The single player campaign is about a half dozen hours in length so a rental will satiate any curiosity one might have. Ultimately, considering the truly great shooters available on the market this holiday season, you can do better than this.