Reviewed: July 3, 2005
Released: April 25, 2005
Just what goes on inside Area 51? If we’re to believe movies such as ID4, not even the President knows, but that hasn’t kept this top-secret military installation from becoming focal point for conspiracy theorists and the subject of movies, books, and video games ever since that legendary Roswell incident back in 1947.
Alien hunters have been able to venture inside this secret base for years in several variations of Midway’s classic lightgun arcade shooter, but now they bring the action to next-gen consoles and PC’s in an amazing new first-person shooter with a story and cast worthy of a feature film.
Area 51 is the story of Ethan Cole, who is a US Army Hazmat specialist. Cole is sent to Area 51 with his usual team of four to investigate a bio-chemical breach that has caused the base’s internal defenses to kick in and lock everyone inside. Prior to your arrival, a team was sent in behind you and has been lost for days. Your first objective is to locate the missing team and find the source of the outbreak.
You start off topside in a familiar looking military base, then venture deeper into the secret facility in a journey that becomes more alien the further you go. The final objective takes place in an area unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a game.
The game starts off heavy on squad combat as you battle mutated aliens along with your teammates. The AI is very sharp. Your team will move through the world with you, take cover, point out key enemy locations and help you complete a few light puzzles.
One by one, however you start to lose your teammates and the gameplay changes when you’re left alone. Alone and infected with the same virus that is mutating all of the base workers you’re having to kill. With the infection, comes enhanced alien abilities that really mixes up the gameplay. You’ll have to use a combination of human and alien powers to succeed in the end.
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.
There is also some light puzzle solving and exploration that balances out the periods of intense combat. As a member of a Hazmat squad, you’re given a scanner that can detect various matter and provide you further information as you progress through the story. Items that you scan are placed in your databank for further review.
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.
Controls are your standard FPS variety with move and look assigned to the twin sticks and primary and secondary fire buttons going to the right and left triggers. The left trigger also uses your mutant alien powers. The B button is dedicated to grenades which is always a nice feature and down on the D-Pad will toggle a flashlight.
Weapons are extremely cool and range from standard military issues to a few extraterrestrial designs. There are three alien/human hybrid weapons; the BBG, which is an energy-based weapon that shoots charged meson particles in short bursts. These particles can bounce up to three times off of world objects and are great for picking enemies off around corners or ducking behind cover. The secondary fire is a laser pointer that shows you the trajectory of the particle bursts.
There is also the Mason Cannon, which is easily one of the coolest weapons in videogame history. This weapon shoots a highly charged meson particle. Once the particle hits an object, it spawns up to five tendrils that can attack multiple enemies. The effect is really cool and shows off the excellent rag doll physics used in the game.
The squad AI is very good. It’s based on a cover node system, whereby your teammates will move through the world and take cover at a number of valid areas when in combat. They point out key enemy locations, provide covering fire and assist you with a few objectives. The squad is also used to uncover some major plot points through exciting scripted events, as you’re exploring the base early in the game. There is a clever balance of AI and scripting with NPC interaction and it’s hard to tell them apart.
What is easily one of the best looking FPS games on the PS2 falls a bit short in comparison to other recently released games on the Xbox. Don’t get me wrong, Area 51 looks fantastic, but it just has some stiffer competition on the more powerful Xbox.
Even so, the programmers were able to tweak the engine and give us some per-pixel lighting and excellent real-time shadows, especially on the weapons, which occupy a significant portion of the screen in these types of games. That combined with some excellent reload animations and one of the best real-time scope refraction effects will really help sell the visual immersion in this title.
Area 51 is mostly underground and therefore quite dark. The designers use this to create some very spooky atmospheres as well as show off their lighting and shadows. It makes it slightly more difficult to appreciate the care that went into the modeling and texturing of both the human and alien encounters in this game. Of particular note, Stan Winston’s team of creative designers was called in during pre-production to flesh out some of the monster designs in this game.
The environments are all quite varied depending on which level of the base you happen to be exploring. Ranging from the institutional to the alien, and everything in-between, each new environment Ethan enters seems fresh and exciting. There is even a clever movie set location; an homage to the movie Capricorn One where the government is supposed to have faked the moon landing.
Special effects dominate much of the gameplay experience. Just about every trick in the Xbox library is utilities for a spectacular light show full of explosions, shattering glass, fire, smoke, colored lighting, and all sorts of futuristic and alien effects. And you get all of this a fluid framerates than never falter, even during multiplayer.
Midway was determined to make Area 51 as movie-like as possible and this included bringing some excellent voice talent onboard – most noticeably David Duchovny (X-Files as Ethan, Powers Booth as Major Bridges, and Marilyn Manson playing the crazy alien, Edgar. Both Marilyn and Edgar share a similar distaste for mankind, so this was a perfect casting decision.
Duchovny wouldn’t have been my first pick for a battle-hard soldier, but at least he can “act”, and even though I had a hard time trying not to visualize his Mulder character whenever he spoke, I can’t complain about his performance. He plays well off of Powers Booth, the commanding officer who delivers his lines via frequent com chatter.
The sound effects are excellent, with authentic sounding military weapons and innovative sounds for the futuristic weapons. Explosions are powerful and despite the lack of a Dolby Digital mix, my sub-woofer got a real workout.
Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails) was brought onboard to create the dark and moody atmospheric tone that fits perfectly with the theme of this game. There’s a bit of everything in this game, from military themes all the way to far out alien. It works well from start to finish, even at its most subliminal level.
Expect about 10-12 hours of non-stop action in the single player story mode, and the online modes are still being actively played on Xbox Live, surprising considering the amount of competition in the genre. The story is linear with no branching or real reasons to repeat the game anytime soon after your initial pass.
Regrettably, there is no cooperative campaign mode, but Area 51 offers all the popular multiplayer versus modes such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF and Capture n’ Hold. There is also a very unique mode called Mutation, where one human is randomly chosen to be infected while the others try to stay alive. Points ramp higher the longer you’re able to survive. The mutation abilities carry over well to multiplayer, basically as another weapon set for short periods.
Anybody who knows me knows I am a huge FPS fan so I came into this review with high expectations. For the most part Area 51 delivered a solid, fast, fun, and very challenging action-shooter, all set within a creative human-alien hybrid setting. Who wouldn’t love the chance to get a peek inside Area 51?
The alien infection-mutation aspect gives the game just enough edge to keep it somewhat original in a sea of FPS titles, but in the overall scheme of things the Xbox version of Area 51 does pale slightly in comparison in the face of overwhelming competition. Still, there is no denying that this game is fun, with a great story and a totally professional presentation. Definitely worth adding to your collection no matter how many other FPS games you already have.