Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Released: April 25, 2005
The secretive US government installation known as Area 51 has long been the focal point for conspiracy theorists the world over. Any actual activities that take place in Area 51 are kept completely and entirely secret from the general populace, but speculation ranges from secret military weapons testing to the housing and study of captured alien life forms, and everything in between.
From the mid-90’s into the current century, television shows like Fox’s epic (and sadly missed) series The X-Files helped to stir up the controversy concerning Area 51 and succeeded in getting people – Americans especially – to question the honesty and integrity of their authority figures. For questioning the government, the timing couldn’t have been more fitting – with the changing of guard from twelve years of Reagan and Bush Sr. to eight years of Clinton and Gore, we had already seen everything from failed Presidential assassination attempts to arms scandals, from presidents and cabinet members who were (and still are) members of mysterious secret societies to midnight military strikes against former allies in the middle east.
Who would have guessed that the years following would bring a president who liked to fool around with his staff while treading chin-deep in a real estate scandal that included mysterious witness disappearances and suicides? In the past decade, we have stood witness to all manner of weird phenomena and hoaxing – from crop circles to identity theft, homeland terrorist attacks to artificially inflated fuel prices – heck, right now your Granny’s getting spammed by some Ugandan trying his best to cash in on your inheritance before the local casino bleeds it dry. For conspiracy theorists, it doesn’t get much better than this.
I shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the edgy Midway Games would delve head first into the mire of conspiracy with their fabulous new release, Area 51 – an FPS update to their own mid-90’s light-gun shooter of the same name. With gorgeous graphics, blazing (and hectic) gameplay, excellent production quality, and the star power of David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson voicing the main characters – Area 51 is yet another in a excellent string of FPS’s to suddenly be hitting the aging PS2, and is probably the closest thing that PS2 owners will find to the coveted Doom 3 that PC and Xbox gamers have been enjoying for months now.
Area 51 puts you in the shoes of Hazmat Specialist Ethan Cole (Duchovny) who has been sent with a team of peers to investigate a mysterious mutating viral outbreak sweeping through the confines of Area 51. Upon arrival, the team is almost immediately overrun by scores of mutants pouring out of every doorway, ventilation duct and elevator shaft. The team survives just long enough to give Ethan support fire through a series of well-disguised trial-by-fire training levels, which allow the gamer to get a handle on the finer points of the control scheme, item and data collection, and weapons use and targeting.
For review purposes, I must go against my go against my credo and give up a minor spoiler that happens very early in the game – and only because it happens as early as it does and from that point forwards, it completely changes the gameplay mechanic. Here goes:
Throughout these first few training levels, most of this training affair is scripted and Ethan’s teammates do not seem take damage until the script decides that it is their time to pass. While it may be a bit hokey, it still allows you to take you mind off defending others and allows you to keep your focus on saving your own butt. One by one, the team is whittled down until only Ethan and one other teammate remain. The two board an elevator, which immediately collapses sending Ethan and friend crashing to the bottom. Ethan awakes next to his buddy’s corpse and realizes that he – sans gas mask – has now been infected with the virus.
This results in a whole new gameplay mechanic in that Ethan can now quickly morph back and forth between his gun-toting human form and his newly acquired highly aware and super powerful one-hit melee attack mutant form. While Ethan’s human form – heavily armed with slick sniper rifles, shotguns, machineguns, and alien super weapons – is great for defending against ranged or long-distance attacks, it is his mutant form that really takes the cake. As a mutant, Ethan can use his newfound speed and thermal vision to rush a room and wipe out scores of enemies with each swipe of his massive clawed hands, and all the while mutant Ethan absorbing health and strength from their lifeless bodies.
Ethan can only be a mutant for as long as his brown mutagen meter holds out – it slowly dissipates as Ethan takes the mutant form, and can only be refilled by killing others. Properly using Ethan’s mutant transformation ability is key to getting through the multitude of tough situations which often find Ethan in a room with a half-dozen or more scattered enemies all diligently firing – having the ability to morph into a form that features an instant melee kill, a ranged “infection” projectile, and can replenish lost health from fallen foes is a real plus.
And speaking of foes, Area 51 throws them at you like few other games do. While not quite the hoards you find in the Serious Sam games, Area 51’s enemies definitely come at a steady clip – from the front, behind, above and below, in packs or alone, they just keep on coming. Seldom is there even a moment’s rest, much less any real downtime – Ethan must constantly be aware of his surroundings, watching every nook and cranny for the slightest movement. It is no longer safe to assume that a “cleared” area won’t spawn new enemies at any time.
And the best part is – and this is one of the reasons why I enjoyed playing Area 51 more than Doom 3 – though enemies may spawn incessantly, they always appear from somewhere logical rather than just suddenly resolving into view at a visible spawn point. No, as I mentioned earlier they come crawling from under stairwells, over boxes, out of ventilation ducts and elevator shafts. A common onslaught might stretch to as long as five minutes if you are relegated to strictly using guns – half that if you can go mutant on their butts. The way that the enemies appear realistically and constantly from all directions really helps to build a sensation of absolute vulnerability and uneasiness – much like the Serious Sam games, but without the sheer exhaustion. I got more creeped-out playing Area 51 than I ever did playing a Resident Evil game, because you just never knew what to expect and from where it might come – couple that with the dark theme, and the even darker see-by flashlight environments and Area 51 is one spooky game.
Scattered about the environments are various “Top Secret” reports that chronicle just about every bit of conspiracy theory and unexplained phenomena you could think of – crop circles, Roswell, alien autopsies, Bermuda Triangle, etc.. Most of it has little or no bearing on the actual gameplay, and serves merely as a collectable – but some do open bonus items, so it’s best to scan every highlighted item.
The control scheme follows the standard FPS dual analog stick free look and strafe. The stick response was less fluid than I would have liked, with both my new and old controllers – I tried all manner of sensitivity adjustments, but couldn’t nail the precision to line up sniper rifle headshots consistently. Thankfully, the reticle is fairly forgiving, so even the sloppiness wasn’t catastrophic. And since a great number of kills take place while in mutant mode – where the melee is sloppily performed by blindly clicking the R3 analog stick – nailing a headshot isn’t always a necessity.
The mapping of the face and shoulder buttons however – that does border on catastrophic. Triangle and Circle cycle through the weapons and the scanner, and the R buttons are for triggers and/or scopes. Cycling through the weapons can be a chore, especially when receiving a massive onslaught. The X button either reloads your weapon during normal play, or completes an action on an item when said item features a small targeting icon…and it is green – and it only turns green if Ethan is in an exact predetermined spot in front of said item.
Now, most of these items are some kind of button that triggers some larger piece of equipment to activate. The problem is, the developers purposely placed these buttons in very dangerous locations, and then feed wave after wave of rabid enemies at you. You see a button sitting square in the middle of the fracas, which maybe fires off a laser that will take out the entire army in one fell swoop. You make a dash, stab in, and click X…only to have Ethan begin the ten-second ritual of loading his gun because you weren’t exactly in the predetermined spot. Ten seconds may not sound like a much to you, but when surrounded by an army of green eyed mutant soldiers all firing off plasma rifles, well…ten seconds is death.
The square button will cause Ethan to toss one of a couple of grenade types – some of which have very cool homing properties and dole out a nice deal of damage. With so many dark and twisty corridors – all loaded with boxes and crates for mutants to hide behind – being able to chuck a hall-clearing grenade around a corner really pays off.
The AI is fairly tight, and reacts appropriately to your presence – hiding, peeking, sneaking, swarming, supplying fire, returning fire – those with weapons are dead-on accurate, and mutants assail with the fervor of a pack of wolves. Generally in groups of two or three, at any time multiple groups can be expected to appear from any or all directions once Ethan’s presence is made public. Large areas generally feature a number of long-range snipers that must be contended with as well. Again, Area 51 is an intense game – but not insurmountable – with enough patience, determination, observation, ammunition and grit, you can burrow out of any situation.
And yes, there are some jumping puzzles – more that I care for. But with an FPS, even just one jumping puzzle is more than I care for. About a half dozen times throughout the course of Area 51, there were sections requiring somewhat precise jumping patterns, yet with the limited perspective that the FPS supplies. Again, I made it through most of the jumping sections relatively unscathed, but they really don’t belong in an FPS.
The game is relatively short – a dozen or so hours at best – but once you realize that each of those hours was basically filled with virtually non-stop action…well, believe me you get your money’s worth and leave exhausted. And that’s without considering the excellent online play, which features some of the fastest multiplayer online yet seen on the PS2. I couldn’t tell you how many times in the writing of this review that I would bounce over to the online menu to freshen up and simply get lost in the online play for hours.
Multiplayer modes are relatively basic, save for the unique Mutation mode, which pits one, infected mutant up against a dozen or so uninfected human characters. The mutant’s job is to avoid being fragged long enough to spread the infection to the other players. As the mutants begin to gain in number, the unique scoring system begins to adjust the points per kill based on the ratio of mutants to humans. It’s more complicated sounding than I care to explain, but trust that it’s quite easy to pick up once you head into a game.
Yet another drop-dead gorgeous game FPS to hit the PS2 – the visuals in Area 51 are downright stunning, an on mark with the recent stunner-FPS Project Snowblind. Not so much the AI characters – which seem to be forged from one of only a half-dozen or so available models – but more the weapons, environments, animations and effects that hold up quite well on the old console.
With an FPS, a large portion of the screen is dedicated to displaying the hands and weaponry of the playable character – so properly shading these items (weapons especially) is key to making a believable FPS. In Area 51, the developers have gone the extra mile to include intricate visual details and real-time shading on the weapons and character display.
The enemy character models – while not all that varied throughout the game – move and react realistically. As with most Playstation2 shooters, distant enemies tend to blend into the background a bit more that what you find with Xbox shooters often making it difficult to pinpoint the source of incoming fire. The fact that the AI knows to duck and cover so well makes it all that much harder to clean house, as you fumble around with the sniper scope looking for a head to pop up from somewhere behind a distant row of crates. Often, I found it more effective to blindly fire an SMG in the general direction of oncoming fire than to expose myself for as long as it took to line up a shot with the sniper rifle.
Still, even though enemies tended to be a bit muddy and hard to distinguish visually from the backgrounds at a distance, once you do line one up in your scope there is no mistaking that they look, move and react exactly like a close-range enemies. No shortcuts have been made to the animations or anatomical features.
While the character models may be a bit overplayed, the environments are all quite varied depending on which layer of Area 51 Ethan is visiting. Ranging from the institutional to the alien, and everything in-between, each new environment Ethan enters seems fresh and exciting. One of my particular favorites was Ethan’s trek across the movie set used to film the allegedly faked moon landings – I won’t spoil the fun, but let’s just say that for anyone who is familiar with the lunar landing footage, the scene is a real hoot.
No surprise, there are a ton of special effects that come into play in Area 51. Glass-shattering projectile destruction, environment-destroying explosions, wispy matter-lifting antigravity fields, shimmering plasma force fields – they all look great on the PS2 and has little or no negative effect on the generally smooth framerate. That’s not to say that the framerate doesn’t stutter every now and then, usually in especially intense firefights, but the developers have pulled a few visual tricks – screen shake, blurring, etc. – to disguise the slowdown. It is a bit disorienting at first, but I guess if I were really taking a dozen bullets to the chest – flak jacket or not – I would expect things to get a bit shaky and disorienting.
As I mentioned earlier, Midway went the extra step in securing star-powered voice acting for Area 51 – most noticeably that of David Duchovny as Ethan, Powers Booth as Major Bridges, and Marilyn Manson playing the alien Edgar.
To be honest, while Duchovny does an admirable job struggling to appear like he has some genuine interest in his portrayal of Ethan, I just couldn’t stop typecasting him as the wimpy Mulder character he played on the X-Files. The whole dry, melodramatic loner shtick was great in the X-Files, it really did not befit a gun toting mutant hunter like Ethan. But all things considered, you can’t really knock the quality of Duchovny’s work too much – he gets the job done, albeit a bit forced.
Powers Booth (Sin City) plays Major Bridges, and does an splendid job portraying the frosty old officer who guides Ethan mostly via communicator.
Marilyn Manson provides the voice for Edgar, a mysterious alien who pops up every now and then to expound his alien wisdom on Ethan. Through the course of the game, it is never really clear whether Edgar is helping Ethan, hurting Ethan or simply messing with Ethan’s head. As much as I hate to admit it, Manson does a pretty good job portraying Edgar as this cynical, untrustworthy alien. Wait a minute…what am I saying? Now that I think of it, playing Edgar isn’t much of a stretch for Mason, so he better do a good job, eh?
The sound effects are solid, with authentic sounding weapons and explosions. As with the sparse character modeling, the character voicing is heavily recycled – enemies grunt and groan realistically, but the swan-song death moans are virtually identical. Granted, since the moan is the only true indication that the hiding enemy is actually dead you will learn to absolutely love that sound – but it is fairly lame to hear it over, and over and over…
Again, when a solid FPS comes out for the PS2 – with a dozen hours of non-stop action in the single player story mode, and a blazing fast online mode with tons of open lobbies at all times of the day or night – well, the value of that FPS is really incalculable. The PS2 went through quite an FPS drought for a few years there, it’s nice to finally have quality FPS titles to play on the beloved console.
Area 51 is well worth the price of admission – especially for online gamers. Other than some resounding frustrations, I enjoyed nearly every moment I spent trekking through Area 51 and I think you will too. If you can’t afford to purchase the game outright, the dozen or so hours of single player make a week long rental a feasible option as many experienced gamer can finish the game in a matter of a few days.
Out of the recent cast of online-ready FPS titles for the PS2, I would personally have to rate Area 51 slightly ahead of Project Snowblind, and just a step behind Timesplitters: Future Perfect. While I feel that technically speaking, Project Snowblind, and Area 51 are nearly identical in overall quality – the sheer intensity of Area 51 puts it a nose ahead of Snowblind. Area 51 is absolute, hands-down, non-stop action.
Future Perfect; however, edges out all of the others based solely on the size and scope of the total package. With its immense array of story, online, arcade, and mapmaking modes, few can compete. Still, if you are looking for a killer FPS for the PS2, look no further than Area 51. It’s a real treat.