The diametric opposite of another recent game that attempted too much and fell short in just about everything (Boiling Point), Area 51 is a game that tries to do far too little, but succeeds at the little that it does.
This game has already been made dozens of times under various other guises: Halo, Star Wars: Republic Commando, Breed, Pariah, Project: Snowblind, and so on. The feel and flow of all these games is almost identical: linear levels with (usually) infinite waves of enemies flowing relentlessly from spawn points you can't see. Blast, blast, and blast some more until you receive a new objectiveâ€”that lights up through the walls of the level so you don't have to bother looking at a map or reading an objective menu to find your way there. Go and pick up the key/bomb/tool, etc. at location-A, use it at location-B, and continue shooting waves of enemies in the process. Repeat for 10 or 15 hours, and you've got yourself a (generic?) first-person shooter ready to be snapped up by the Halo-worshiping console hordes. In doing these things, Area 51 is a solid title, as it slavishly drills the formula into the ground, not trying to innovate even a fraction. But, even if you like these types of games, prepare yourself: you've played Area 51 before.
The preceding comment is meant as literally as it is metaphorically. You've played Area 51 before. Sure, not this particular Area 51, but an Area 51 by the same company, publishers Midway having produced a light-gun shooter using the same name during the 90s, which was quite an arcade success. And, unless you're one of those sheltered children with fundamentalist parents who decried all videogames as the spawn of Satan, chances are you've played or at least seen two or three dozen of these machines parked at pizza parlors and arcades across the country. The original game was fun, though not revolutionary, as it merely mirrored many other arcade light-gun shooters of the timeâ€”much like the title under review here today, which copies more than it innovates or refines. There are a few nods to other genre titles as well: like Metroid thereâ€™s an arm scanner you can point at key items in the game world and scan to acquire information, which is then placed in your Encyclopedia Insania. By the time you finish the game, there will be all kinds of crackpot conspiracy crap in there and, while I really like conspiracy theories (the Encyclopedia is the best part of the game), Area 51 takes things a bit too far. Very little about the game's actual storyline is even remotely believable, even if I was a slavish conspiracy loony, which I'm not. Storyline detail wonâ€™t be divulged here, save to say it involves the mysterious Area 51 (as you may have already deduced), a gigantic underground research complex awash with shadows and things that catch fire, and aliens and mutants galore pouring out of ventilation shafts. As mentioned earlierâ€”complete originality all around.
The graphics are powered by an in-house engine, which, as with Halo and Republic Commando, was clearly designed with consoles in mind. However, Area 51 handles indoor areas better than either of the aforementioned games, which is a relief as thatâ€™s all there is on offer. Character models are quite detailed, but the textures are low resolution when compared with other PC shooters. Fortunately, the action and movement is fluid, with nary a hiccup or stutter to be seen. There isn't a whole lot of variation to the graphics, eitherâ€”one industrial science lab looks much like the nextâ€”but at least it holds to the theme of being trapped in the underground facility at Area 51. The use of pixel shading for full-screen effects is quite well done, but by now this has been utilized by just about every other FPS released in the last two years.
The voice acting in Area 51 is, frankly, pathetic, and it's hard to believe that Midway went to the trouble of securing X-Files star David Duchovny as the lead voice, as he easily portrays the worst performance in the game. Some of the lesser characters are well voiced but, as this is not really a squad-based shooter, they invariably get killed off as the game progresses. The sound effects are well done, though, offering great battle sounds and ambient effects.
But, in the end, Area 51 emerges as â€˜just another shooterâ€™, and with no splash-making potential or notable innovative features, itâ€™s destined to frequent bargain bins for years. If you're bored out of your skull with plenty of time to kill, and you crave non-stop FPS action in the vein of Halo and co., then go ahead and check out Area 51, but be warned: games like this are made to keep the masses ignorant of better choices.