Area 51James Mielke
WHILE THE INVOLVEMENT OF ONETIME Doom designer Tom Hall and Hollywood special-effects virtuoso Stan Winston infuses the arcadey Area 51 with panache and production values previously lacking in the series, it doesn’t save the shooter from being an ultimately derivative pastiche of elements found in superior games such as Half-Life 2 and Doom 3.
IMITATION, MEET FLATTERY
A way-too-predictable walkthrough introduces Area 51’s control scheme, heads-up display, and other conventions (“This way, sir! You’ll want to pick up some ammo!”). A way-too-predictable series of events starts its story: mutants and monsters and E.T.s invade; you and a squad of surviving troops try to evict ’em. What follows is a superlinear slog through a series of faintly familiar hallways in which an interminable number of bogeymen pop out at metronomic intervals. In fact, if you aren’t asking yourself, “Haven’t I played this game before?” it’s only because you’re staring in amazement as your rigid A.I. peers insist on sticking to their script, regardless of what’s going on around them.
In the similarly linear Call of Duty, you actually worry about the welfare of your allies. Not so in Area 51. As you wander around the facility, trying to find the card key that opens the next area, your compadres maintain their positions in precisely the manner they were programmed to—little direction and less interaction is offered here. In addition, grunts unflinchingly take whatever damage you care to dish out. (OK, so some politely protest when you pistol-whip ’em—“Pardon me, but that’s my head you’re hitting.”) Perhaps it’s all in the interest of keeping things user friendly, but it kind of kills the tension, keeping Area 51 true to its light-gun-game-in-the back-of-the-tavern roots.
Truly innovative ideas are few and far between. When good guy Ethan Cole’s (spoiler alert!) alien infection spreads, the hero gains access to a few additional abilities that, to be honest, aren’t different enough to make the game the gripping experience developer Midway Austin undoubtedly intended it to be.
Visually, this Area 51 is slightly sharper than the Xbox version, but even with graphics settings cranked, the game still can’t hold a candle to today’s standard-setting competitors. Stellar sound effects compensate somewhat, matching the ferocity of the macho weapon selection. Still, the voice acting of David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson does little to enhance the vibe, with the always-wooden former X-Files star practically sleepwalking through his role.
While the single-player game is the same old same old, multiplayer is a genuinely good time. Deathmatch maps don’t offer the most compelling layouts but do a good job scaling level size in proportion to the number of participants, unlocking doors and expanding areas as more players log on. Multiple modes (DM, TDM, CTF, and infected, in which one contaminated mutant tries to spread his cooties), the game’s Earth vs. E.T.s selection of guns and grenades, and perfectly placed power-ups offer variety and make fragging fun. Perhaps the biggest problem is finding enough people online to put together a populated match.
Lacking ideas, Area 51 plays up its license (and lessons learned from finer shooters) for a solid but unsurprising foray into the FPS field. Pity that it isn’t more.
Forget the “me-too” single-player experience, just go online—if at all.
PUBLISHER: Midway DEVELOPER: Midway Studios Austin GENRE: Shooter ESRB RATING: M REQUIRED: Pentium III 1.4GHz, 256MB RAM, DirectX 9.0b–compatible soundcard (DirectX 9.0b supplied on CD) RECOMMENDED: 512MB RAM MULTIPLAYER: Internet (2-16 players)
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.