19th May 2005 | 09:44
For somewhere that doesn't officially exist, Area 51 is a big place. Were it to exist (which of course it doesn't), it'd take up nearly eight square miles of mountainous terrain under Groom Lake in Nevada. Were those runways, roadways and strange outposts we see from time to time on the net actually there (which of course they aren't), we'd see they also disappear underground. They would stretch deep below the surface to a secret military base entangled with the finer points of alien technologies and conspiracies, but, of course, they don't. Yet, despite Area 51 not actually existing (oh no), Midway's FPS of the same name takes us deep, deep underground to pick over this entirely fictitious military base as all merry hell breaks loose on summer's day. Thanks to some mutagenic alien DNA getting all 'The Thing' on the soldier's asses, Area 51 is locked down to contain the problem, and we're sent in as part of a Hazmat team to clean it up. Easy.
Area 51, as we say, is a massive region. Yet because of the design constraints of picking such a large place to set the game, much of it descends deep into the ground. Many levels are spent in ever-descending shafts, lifts and tunnels. This is a first-person shooter without sunlight, so you'd better get used to it. Consequently, much of Area 51 is also confined to fairly linear gameplay which is neatly dealt with by throwing dozens upon dozens of aliens at the problem. Wandering down endless corridors? You won't have time to notice, you'll be so busy blasting.
The aliens are certainly numerous, but unfortunately not particularly scary or effective, despite claims of being designed by Stan Winston Studios. They're all a bit Ed Wood, to be honest. For all the horrible transformations and mutations we witnessed, they were a little like watching a mad professor down a phial of bubbling blue water before dropping behind his desk to re-emerge wearing plastic fangs.
Thankfully though, as the game progresses, and we descend ever deeper into an Area 51 over-run with boggly eyed men in suits, we do get infected with the alien DNA. Not usually a plus point it must be said, but one that in this case affords Area 51 its unique selling point. We get to become half human, half alien; a Jekyll and Hyde capable of switching between the two at will.
This transformation effectively gives us two distinct sets of weapons - the more human, military arsenal, and the biological weaponry of the alien. The latter seems to consist mainly of belching clouds of spores at people through red-tinted sunglasses, but hey, they're homing spores which at least provides some benefit to being a clawed loon from the stars. We can't say we saw much impetus for remaining in the alien guise over the human one though. Novel as it is, burping can't beat a well-placed frag grenade.
In fact, little can beat a frag grenade, especially as the weapon selection seems so random. Simply by walking over a weapon (it's not always apparent, especially in the gloom of a tunnel), we become equipped with it. This only happens if it is a more powerful one than the one currently in hand, but to have a game dictate what is held and when is a supremely bad call. This is especially evident if you've just found yourself packing an inaccurate SMG with low ammo over a precision pistol crammed with the stuff. Granted, we can cycle through weapons but the choice of what we do and do not pick up should be left to us. Dual-wielding is also odd, in that both weapons are fired with a single trigger button and we're never given a choice of whether we actually want to dual wield.
On the up side, Marilyn Manson is superb. He attacks his role as a mysterious alien mentor with relish (although the same can't be said of David Duchovny). The plot is rich with pickings for conspiracy theorists too, with secret documents littering the base with details of every arcane plot from JFK to the moon landings. The mysterious Illuminati also crop up (Dan Brown fans take note), although not before the ingenious plot sends us second guessing and spiralling deeper into the mystery. If only the gameplay was as well conceived as the plot, we could be looking a far more intriguing game than the one we've experienced.
It's a solid beast for sure, and fans of relentless, screeching gameplay will no doubt find some nugget of enjoyment, but it lacks the more refined, skill-based gameplay so many of its counterparts have. Neither scary nor particularly engrossing, Area 51 is an exercise in keeping the trigger pressed and the aliens streaming out of the screen. The truth, it is sad to say, is still out there.