Reviewed: June 30, 2005
Released: May 23, 2005
Midway has been around almost as long as games, with classic arcade games to their name like Defender, Joust, and Spy Hunter. Lately, they've also put out some good titles such as Psi-Ops, The Suffering, and Mortal Kombat: Deception. So far, though, Midway has yet to produce a first person shooter, that is, until now. Enter Area 51, a classic-style FPS with high production values and an involving story line. Playing through Area 51 feels like you're playing through a feature film. The game's cinematics are outstanding, and even the in-game cut-scenes are very well done.
The back story for Area 51 takes all the conspiracy theories you've ever heard, like aliens in Roswell, the faked moon landing, and the Illuminati, and throws them all together into a sci-fi plot that is somewhat difficult to follow and even more difficult to believe. After the Roswell incident, the government set up a secret research facility called Area 51, where they took the technology they stole from the crashed alien ship and took it in new, immoral directions. Even after finishing the game there are still a lot of unanswered questions, but as long as the action is hot and heavy, plot can take a back seat, and the action is definitely hot and heavy.
The interface for Area 51 is typical first person shooter and fully customizable. You use the standard WASD keys for movement and Q and E for leaning. You use the mouse for aiming and shooting. It's all been done before, and that's the way you like it so you don't have to bother reconfiguring the keys, but you can if you want to. The menus are easy to navigate. A couple of new features let you view the cinematics over that you've unlocked, and you can also view some special features once you unlock them like the "Voices of Area 51" which goes behind the scenes to examine the big-name voice acting behind the game.
Gameplay is very familiar for anyone who's played a few FPS games. The early game pits you with a group of squad mates sent in to rescue Delta Team, another group of soldiers who are trapped deep in the bowels of an extraordinarily vast complex known as Area 51. Your team are seasoned professionals, and your squad mates will help you waste any mutants who get in your way. Mutants come at you from all sides in a never-ending onslaught. The action is relentless and especially in the early levels when you have teammates, it's a hell of a lot of fun. Later on when you're on your own and the game's difficulty ramps up, some of that fun turns into frustration, though.
The standard FPS action gets broken up a couple of times with some timed missions that are exceedingly difficult, even on the Easy setting. There are also a couple of missions where you get to man a heavy-gun turret and those were quite satisfying. There are also several boss-fights near the end of the game and you have to discover the pattern for killing the bosses before you run out of precious health. You can find health power ups along the way, though, so be sure and run back to where you've found some previously if you get low.
Which brings me to the save game system. Instead of allowing you to save anywhere, anytime, which is the defacto standard for PC shooters, Midway has decided to stick with the console tradition and go with save points. You have to make it to the next save point, and if you die, you have to reload from the last save position. Fortunately you never really have to repeat more than 10 or 15 minutes, since the save positions come pretty frequently.
And you will repeat some sections, over and over, since the game's difficulty, even on the Easy setting ramps up near the mid game to be quite difficult. Expect to spend at least 50% of your game time repeating sections you've already played. Midway should have toned down the difficulty some for the Easy setting, and this game would have been more accessible for newcomers to the FPS genre. Even veterans of the genre may get tired of all the reloading.
Another frustration apart from the reloads was that there were many places where you wander around not sure what you are supposed to do next or where to go next. This is somewhat alleviated by a little green arrow that points you the direction and distance of your next objective, but the arrow didn't show up at all times, and even sometimes it still didn't help, because your objective was behind some barrier that you had to figure out how to get past. Sometimes you can easily miss the little green indicator on a hot spot that indicates you can do something in the environment. Without the green pointers it would have been pretty much impossible, but even with it there were times I wandered around trying to figure out what to do next.
The game's weapons really do not add anything you've never seen before to the genre. You get your standard issue pistol. Then you get something that's akin to an SMG. And of course, there's the ever popular shotgun. Late in the game you can pick up a sniper rifle and some kind of alien blaster. And that's it. No grav guns, no chainsaws, not even a rocket launcher. On the positive side, though, you can occasionally duel wield your SMG's and shotguns, akimbo style, and that is a very satisfying experience. What's somewhat weird is that even though you can use two shotguns or two SMG’s at the same time, you're stuck with the one pistol, and can't use two at once John Woo style.
One other feature that never really gets used that well due to it not being all that effective is the mutation mode. At some point your character gets infected with a mutagenic virus of some kind, and you can then turn into a massive monster that can dish out a ton of damage with his melee hits. He can also shoot off his infectants to kill his enemies. But you can only be the mutant for so long until your mutation bar goes too low, then you need to switch back to human mode. Mutant mode has a very interesting camera effects, with the warm bodies of your enemies standing out in bright orange, and the rest of the scene a blurry, hazy dream-like effect. I found that the mutant mode was best saved for when you were low on ammo and needed to clear out several enemies in close group. The mutant mode really did feel somewhat gimmicky, but it was at least something different.
There are a dozen or so different types of enemies not counting the boss fights. In the first few levels the enemies just run straight for you and maybe dodge a bit, but they are mostly "cannon fodder." The enemy AI is pretty good in the second half of the game. The Illuminati "black-ops" soldiers will use cover, dodge, and toss grenades. Some will stay back and snipe you from a distance, while others try to flank you. Most of it is scripted, however, and there are times when you can find enemies just standing there and you can just shoot them in the head and be done with them. But most of the time the enemies react appropriately.
You'll see a lot of in-game cut-scenes and some other cut scenes in between level switches that help tell the convoluted plot line of Area 51. With little gray aliens and mutant zombies and illuminati soldiers all gunning for you, you'll really wonder how it all fits in, even at the end with the final excellent cut scene, you'll still not be totally sure of what was going on. One nice feature of the game is that there are various secret documents and other things you can scan in with your hand-scanner, and these will open up special "secrets" on the main menu that you can watch which tell more of the back story to the game. None of these really add to the game play, but they were a nice touch.
While Area 51's graphics are not quite up to the level of a Doom 3 or a Half-Life 2, they are definitely pretty impressive. The animations of the soldiers and mutant zombies coming after you are very well done; it is all very fluid and looks fantastic. Especially cool is the way your perspective changes when you switch into mutant mode, which makes enemies a bright orange and the environment all fuzzy and dream-like.
The environments are extremely varied. For a game that appears only in an underground bunker there is a heck of a lot of variety, especially when you get to the later parts of the game and see the alien technology levels. One nice thing about the environments is that they are not all doom and gloom. Sure there are some dark areas where you can use your flash-light, but the game isn't all dark, there's some very bright and colorful areas and that helps keep the graphics fresh.
Area 51 defaults to 640x480 mode and you will most likely want to change that. You can bump resolution all the way up to 1600x1200 if your machine has the goods to do it, and you can choose between regular and detailed textures. The game ran extremely smooth on my system at 1280x968 with the high detail textures on. Of course standard brightness, contrast, and gamma controls exist for the graphics.
The real treat for the game graphically, though, is the amazing pre-rendered cut scenes. These are extremely well animated, and the detail is very high. It was a shame that there are only about 4 our 5 different cut scenes that were pre-rendered. The rest of them are done with in-engine cinematics, which were still good, but not quite as cool as the pre-rendered ones were.
Area 51 boasts some extremely well known voice talent. You have David Duchovny of X Files fame playing the role of Ethan Cole, the main character for the story. His voiceovers during the cut scenes were well delivered, if somewhat too calm for a person in such a situation. Then you have loud mouth Powers Booth playing Major Bridges, who communicates with your team and then later to Cole alone to give you new orders and objectives in a gruff and commanding voice. You also have Marilyn Manson donating a very creepy voice as "Edgar", an alien who has an agenda for helping you. All of the voice acting, even by the lesser-known talent, was very well done, and it added a lot to the game's atmosphere.
Weapons sound effects were spot on, and felt very realistic and satisfying. The familiar ka-blam of the shot gun is pretty hard to beat. Other environmental sound effects like bullets ricocheting off the walls around you, as well as explosions, crashes, and mutant growling was very well done. There were no quiet moments in this game; it's non-stop action and non-stop sound. The surround sound greatly added to the experience, and made you feel like you were there.
If there is any downside to the game's sound, it's that the music, while not irritating, wasn't really all that spectacular either. The music is kind of low-key, almost like elevator music. It would have been cool if they had gotten Marilyn Manson to throw in a few choice tracks every now and then to really get the adrenalin flowing. Overall the music wasn't bad, it just wasn't memorable, either.
It would take around 12 or 15 hours for a single play through the single-player portion of Area 51. On top of that, you can replay on different difficulty levels that you can unlock for a slightly varied experience. I might see myself replaying the game on a harder difficulty, but since the game really doesn't change much I doubt that many people will do this. Since the game retails for $30 instead of the usual $50, the price is right for a game of this length and with this much action.
Area 51 also offers online play via the Internet with a built-in match making system. The online modes support standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch which were a lot of fun, but really aren't different from any other FPS deathmatch out there. Then there is Capture the Flag, which is pretty standard nowadays. And there is Capture and Hold, which plays like a Domination where your team has to hold certain locations and prevent the other team from taking them. And the only unusual MP gameplay mode is called Infection.
Infection starts the game off with one player being "infected" with the mutation virus. Everyone else is a human. The infected tries to convert humans into more infected. You gain points by making kills either as a human or an infected. When everyone has become infected, the game restarts and picks a new person to be infected. So it ends up being a lot like Team Deathmatch except that the teams are always changing. It's pretty fun, but nothing extremely unique.
The network code seems very solid. I was able to play with zero lag for several hours. There are not a great many servers to choose from, but there were at least a few and it was easy to get into games with the ones that were there. Maybe over time as more people pick this title up there will be more games available. I was able to find games for every game type except for the capture the flag. There doesn't seem to be a large community for this game like there is for say Counter Strike. I really can't see this game displacing Counter Strike, Battlefield, or Unreal Tournament as a major online draw, but it can add a few hours of fun to the game after you've finished the campaign.
Area 51 offers a solid FPS gameplay experience. While it doesn't do a lot that is new or unique, it does have a few features, like the duel wielding, and the mutation transformed mode. The production values, graphics, and especially the voice acting are extremely well done, and the game has non-stop action and never feels dull. The difficulty does seem to get a bit excessive, however, and you can expect to spend some time wandering around wondering what to do next from time to time.
There is a demo for this game that does give a taste of what it's like, but since it doesn't include any of the levels where you have squad mates, it's nowhere near as exciting as some of the best parts of the game. However, since the later half of the game has you running around solo, the demo does represent a significant chunk of the gameplay. Overall I had a lot more fun in the first half of the game compared to the second half when the difficulty ramped up and I had to spend a lot of time replaying sections over too often.
Online play is typical FPS fare and nothing special, apart from the Infection mode, so if you are primarily a multiplayer FPS fan you probably don't need to worry about this title. If however, you are looking for a well-made single-player shooter that sticks to genre conventions and doesn't offer much innovation, you might consider picking up Area 51. It's not that revolutionary, but it's a fun shooter that you can get several evenings of fun out of.