Reviewed: February 17, 2008
Released: December 10, 2007
Blacksite: Area 51 is the second in a series of First Person Shooters developed by Midway Studios Austin, formerly Inevitable Entertainment. Their first game was a mostly by-the-numbers multiplatform shooter Area 51, which boasted star voice acting from X-Files veteran David Duchovny. Blacksite: Area 51 is a similarly themed game but does not really tie in directly with either the cast or story of the first Area 51. Gameplay, however, is very similar simply due to the nature that they are both First Person Shooters.
In Blacksite: Area 51, you take on the role of Delta Force commander Aeran Pierce who is in charge of Echo Squad, a small team of soldiers in Iraq who are sent in to find and take control of caches of WMD’s before Saddam’s army gets a chance to use them on Coalition forces during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” at the onset of the Second Gulf War in 2003. What is found however, is not quite what was expected. Then the game jumps ahead a few years to Nevada in 2005, where militia extremists have seized Area 51… and then the $#!% hits the fan.
The interface for Blacksite is extremely familiar for anyone who has played a console FPS before and has three different preset configurations to choose from, although they aren’t very different from each other and if you’re wanting to move with right hand and aim with the left I’m afraid you’ll just be out of luck. The game supports three different difficulty settings. The difficulties Yellow, Orange, and Red get progressively harder, with Yellow being a cakewalk and Orange the “normal” mode, while Red can be seriously difficult unless you’re an FPS-ace.
In addition to the standard military firearms you’ve seen in a gazillion other FPS games, you’ll also find a few alien weapons that adds some spice to an otherwise snooze inducing weapons offering, but nowhere near as much as you would expect. Also bafflingly missing from the game is the dual-wielding capability from the first Area 51. You would think that a game about aliens would have some awesome alien hardware, but its mostly just your standard military fare you’ve seen time and time again.
One nice feature of the game is the use of various vehicles during the game. A significant portion of the game is driving around in Hum-Vees and other military vehicles. If this is the kind of thing you like doing then you’re in for a treat, otherwise you’re going to hate long segments of the game. There is nothing terribly original or difficult about the vehicles segments but at least it does break up the monotony of the endless clearing of waves of aliens and other enemies.
There is also somewhat if a squad based type gameplay element. You will always have a few squad mates under your control throughout most of the game. These guys can’t really die usually unless it’s plot induced. They will go down if they are hit hard, but they get back up after that “wave” of enemies is finally defeated. The squad has a “morale” system where if you’re doing well by taking down enemies fast and getting lots of head shots, your team will be in high spirits, but if you’re doing poorly they will be cowering little pansies. It makes little difference, really, since you’re still going to have to be the one to do 99% of the killing anyway.
It’s rather humorous however, that when you are kicking ass and taking names your squad mates act all macho. “Dude, we rock!” No, jackass, I rock, you just stood around acting like a two-bit comedian. It’s also rather humorous that just after any wave is over, someone inevitably lobs a grenade… at nothing, for no apparent reason. “Like, dude, I totally smoked them with that last grenade!” Uh, no you didn’t, you just wasted ammo, hotshot.
Were it not for the fact that you as the protagonist of this story have an illogical inability to open doors on your own, this game could have had no squad mates at all and played almost identically. But you apparently have your weapons glued to your hands as you are unable to open doors, flip switches, or set off explosive charges without the aid of your trustworthy squad mates. One other useful feature of the squad mates is to send them ahead into a hostile area so you can see where the enemy shooters are. You go first. Blam! Blam! Ooohhh… so that’s where the bad guys are. So sorry, dude! We’ll get you patched up after I kill them, now.
The story for Blacksite: Area 51 is as nonsensical and cliché as any FPS about aliens you might have encountered before, possibly more so if that is in fact even possible. This is not Emmy material. The vast majority of the story is told through semi-interactive cut scenes using the game engine, which was perhaps invented by the old classic Half-Life. Blacksite breaks no new ground here. In fact, all that these shallow segments manage to do is take you away from the game play and make you notice a few glaring little flaws in the graphics engine, such as the fact that the characters in this game seem to have an uncanny glow around the edges, which makes them look like little animated cut-outs instead of blending into the environment as they should.
Aside from the actual story itself, a lot of dialogue is told by your squad mates who seem to want to comment on just about everything in the game. What is somewhat jarring is how pessimistic they are about the military, being soldiers and all. It’s almost as if some pencil-necked card-carrying-democrat geek with a “Impeach Bush” button on his lapel had somehow gotten drafted into the special forces and saddled with you (and vice versa) on your team. If you’re a peace-mongerer, you might appreciate the typical anti-war sentiment told throughout the story. If not, well it may or may not detract from the story depending on how you feel about the military. My only beef with it is that the source of these little comments makes little to no sense coming from hard core career military guys.
The biggest flaw to Blacksite: Area 51 is that the graphics are considerably weaker than one might expect or desire from a full price $60 next-gen Playstation 3 title. Sure, the game plays in high-definition resolutions of 720p or 1080p. Sure, there are some pretty nice looking special effects such as the heat shimmer given off by the end of your gun barrel after you’ve fired off a full clip, or the dynamic shadows and beautiful Nevada landscapes. Some of the familiar Nevada settings like roadside inns, trailer parks, and gas stations really were well done and definitely added to the enjoyment of the game. But the problem is that the game just feels about half-finished.
There are numerous graphical faux pas that serve to always remind you that, yes, you’re playing a game, and not a very interesting one at that. As mentioned before, there are times when the NPC characters you’re interacting with will have an uncanny glow around the edges, even in a dark room with very little light which could possibly cause that reflective glow, and this makes them all look like little animated figures instead of real people in a real setting. Secondly, you’ll constantly see weapons dropped from enemies still hovering in mid-air as if gravity didn’t exist or something.
Third and most importantly, the frame rate can take a serious nose-dive during intense firefights with lots of enemies on screen, which of course, is the main time you need smooth frame rates so that you can react quickly enough to not get killed. Almost every time I died in Blacksite was due to graphical slow down making it difficult to impossible to tell where the enemy was before I got creamed by shooters I hadn’t seen yet thanks to a slowly updating visual. When graphic glitches impact gameplay, it becomes a serious problem rather than just an annoying little glitch. You can tell that this Unreal-tech engine is capable of some nifty visuals, but it feels like not enough testing went into this product before release.
The weapons fire, vehicles, explosions, ambient noises, all are pretty good if a bit uneven and with a few little jarring glitches like sudden silence for no apparent reason. Besides those jarring hiccups where the sound cuts out, the general quality of the sound effects were quite good. The music, with its military movie style, was at times was great and at other times it was just mediocre. The music was never really memorable. It was also never annoying, however, which is a step above at least half the games that are produced these days, and at times it definitely got my adrenaline rushing, so you do have to give the music team credit for that.
Voice acting takes a small step back from this team’s previous outing of Area 51. I guess they could not afford to get big name stars like Duchovny on board this time. That’s not to say that the voice acting is bad, because most of it is competently done, it’s just that none of it is memorable or engaging, and doesn’t really serve to enhance the game meaningfully. This could be the fault of the script writers as much as the actors, since very few of the comedic lines were chuckle-worthy regardless of how they were delivered, and the dramatic lines were simply not very convincing. Even when a squad mate dies in the script my emotional reaction was “Gee, darn, that sucks, I hope the other guy doesn’t die, or I won’t be able to open the doors to get out of here.”
You’ll blow through the single player campaign of Blacksite: Area 51 in 8-12 hours, leaving you with only replaying on a higher difficulty setting or perhaps taking a shot at the online multiplayer mode. Unfortunately the online mode is versus only with no option for cooperative play, but the worse part is that you’ll have a hard time prying your friends or even total strangers away from the plethora of better online FPS titles to play this one.
The usual fare here only, such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and a similar version of “Infection” mode you’ve playing in other games prior called “Abduction”, naturally. The online matchmaker seems okay enough but essentially all you get is random players or you can host your own game and invite people from your friends list. It is doubtful you’ll get much replay even out of Blacksite’s online mode when stacked up against online juggernauts like Resistance and Call of Duty 4.
Essentially what you have with Blacksite: Area 51 is a rushed-for-the-holidays by-the-numbers first person shooter that does almost nothing new worth mentioning. The much hyped morale system really means next to nothing in actual game play, since you end up having to do all the killing yourself even if morale is high. In fact, all it really serves to do is let you know when you suck and when you’re pwning, in case taking dirt naps and watching that “loading” screen again wasn’t clue enough for you. The one highlight of Blacksite is the familiar American landscapes of roadside inns, trailer parks, and small Nevada towns. It is somewhat of a trip to watch trailer trash get eaten by big tentacled aliens, I must admit.
While there have been much worse FPS games released in the past, in this day and age of 2007 and beyond the bar has been raised considerably higher by titles like Bioshock, Halo 3, Orange Box, UT3, Call of Duty 4, etc. With so many high quality A+ FPS titles to choose from, an also-ran like Blacksite can’t really hope to make much of a dent in the market, especially when coming in at full price like the rest. This could be a fun weekend rental for the die-hard FPS aficionado that simply must play every title in the genre, assuming you’ve beaten everything else. Blacksite is not going to win over any new fans to the genre, unless they’re wandering around blithely ignorant of much better titles out there.