In Midway's Area 51
, David Duchovny portrays an ultra unlucky HAZMAT trooper, Ethan Cole, with slightly less emotional pizzazz than your average over-boiled carrot. To mar an otherwise polished and well presented title like Area 51
with such mallet-to-the-face drowsiness is downright inappropriate. It's a wrong that ranks right alongside topping crème brûlée with a handful of half-melted Skittles and a pinch of Reeses.
Without Duchovny and a few other legitimate problems that mainly come shackled to his ankles, Area 51 might have had a decent shot at rocketing itself to the absolute top of the console shooting market. But issues in a few key areas prevent Midway's wonderfully produced first-person shooter from becoming truly excellent.
First, this game has absolutely damn nothing to do with the old lightgun shooter of the same name -- bless us all. The pre-rendered insanity of 1995's Area 51 has been replaced with a topnotch polygonal graphics engine and some honest to goodness gameplay. We like that.
On PlayStation 2, Area 51 stands out as the single greatest achievement in first-person shooting technology. It features incredibly detailed textures at close ranges, truly high-resolution graphics, vivid colors, and an astonishing assortment of mesmerizing graphical wizardry and sparkling particle effects. All of these tricks and treats translate to the Xbox well enough and benefit from a better framerate, but when weighed and measured against the current crop of that system's offerings, the Area 51 eye candy might be found a bit wanting. Back on PS2, where first-person shooting begins at Red Faction and ends at Future Perfect, Area 51 is a graphical godsend.
So that the ears of the world won't reel back -- jealous of their eyeball cousins -- the Area 51 developers at Inevitable have also loaded their game with brilliantly realized audio effects. While the music sometimes drunkenly stumbles into a realm of wacky sci-fi wails of the extraterrestrial rave variety, it also quickens to the beat of thick bass while fast riffs help dramatize prolonged firefights.
As the music plays, gunfire, plasma pulses, heavy footsteps, muffled environment suit stymied breathing and a generally slick array of ultra crisp twangs and clanks reverberate through the hollow corridors of our government's most secret facility. Eventually they all bounce off solid rock or quiet in the wake of louder mutated shrieks and the punishing buzzes and klonks of high-tech gadgetry.
It really is a fantastic audio experience that will echo in the heads of gamers long after its over. From the early frantic radio chatter to the sharp clinks of hot lead, Area 51 delivers. Now if only David would be silent and let us enjoy the game he's trying to ruin.
Damned if we can figure how that sap got approved to voice the transitions between every major level and narrate practically every single cutscene. His voice can damage a healthy psyche! If he were allowed to speak more we'd involuntarily succumb to a kind of aural brain trauma from which we'd never recover. It's rare that a leading man comes off as profoundly bored in his work... Your boys were just torn up by mutants, David, show some freaking concern already. Area 51's other helping of Hollywood talent is Marilyn Manson. Marilyn portrays a fat, pulsating, fleshy, tele-pathetic, monstrous beast that oozes viral decay while encased in a jar of green sap. So yeah, we're not so much qualified to rate such performances.
The storyline these pros attempt to deliver -- David sleepily and Marilyn crazily -- is the most energetically convoluted one ever to appear in a videogame. The company meeting at Inevitable to flesh out plot details probably went a little something like, "So I'd like some freaking mutants, aliens, Illuminati, cyborgs, telepaths, ancient conspiracies, David Duchovny, alien colonization, galactic domination, modern conspiracies, men in black, teleportation, gray buggers, volcanic lairs, and spaceships up in this s***. Oh, and they should all make perfect sense." After an hour of contemplative silence, some poor fellow must have spoken up and admitted that they could easily bake a cake out of all of those zany ingredients, but damned if anyone would ever know what the hell it tasted like.
And it's precisely this sloppy sense of being -- this undirected, barely cohesive, disorganized mess -- that ultimately hurts Area 51 most. It can be a real downer when you're playing a game and suddenly realize that you don't really know why. It's especially frustrating in Area 51 considering you'll probably be struck upside the head by that painful realization whilst navigating incredibly detailed environments replete with an excess of activity and gunning down vicious cybernetic assailants and nimble mutants. It's an odd mix of the fantastic and the bull*bleep*.
Midway and Inevitable attempted to tie the great gameplay to the sloppy story via a Half-Life popularized progression system, but the cuts are too jarring and the feeling of position is too weak to really make good on the, "in the bad place at the bad time" atmosphere that Area 51 seems to be shooting for. Maybe this is where the idea for unessential scanning came into the mix.
Taking cues from the sensor mechanic of Metroid Prime, Area 51 features its own laser-gizmondo that wraps a point of interest in a spicy holographic shell and then provides a bit of bonus information on that junk after a second or two of paid due diligence. Unlike DOOM and Metroid, the details of the observation are not readily available in-game, so there's no impression that what has just been scanned is actually enhancing the experience any. You can dig it all by quitting out of the in-game experience and seeking out the extraneous enhancements via the options menu.
Now, even though the story, the setup and the scanning designed to improve it all never draw a player in and hug tightly, they all help establish the utterly insane series of combat-driven events that make Area 51 so bleeding enjoyable. Because the graphics and sound are great and the gameplay is invigorating, we're pressed to forgive most of the presentational faults. Think of Area 51 as a sort of fast-paced combination of DOOM 3 and Half-Life. Blend the leaping beasts and fleshy monstrosities of DOOM with the duck and cover type of precision shooting Half-Life did so well and out comes a heap of potential. For the most part, Area 51 expertly delivers this kind of shooting. Well, for the first eight hours or so. Best as I can figure, Area 51 should take about 15 hours to finish, mainly because it's a freaking long game, but also because it can get difficult. 15 hours of Duchovny... You might be thinking, "Is that a good thing?"
Even though similar sets of rampaging special ops troops and enraged claw-freaks are used repeatedly to deliver subsequently more challenging room-by-room encounters, the game continually employs a variety of whizz-bang environments (alien, human and otherwise unnatural) and wicked enemy placement to keeps things fresh. In terms of action, Area 51 also gets that all important feel right. So yeah, 15 hours of Duchovny ain't all that bad.
Without getting metaphysical on you, Area 51 happens to be one of those rare shooters that, despite featuring basic AI routines and a typical assortment of weapons, perfectly conveys the sensation of unloading an entire lethal clip of bullets into a marauding band of bastards that want you very, very dead. This extreme positive can be somewhat attributed to weapons that ferociously shake, rattle and rumble. When that is combined with exciting environments and waves of unique enemies, the game can create an air of frantic combat that's just plain awesome.
When the singleplayer does eventually stop, the multiplayer begins. Using its personal brand of mutant powers, Area 51 creates a few multiplayer modes that revolve around the transition from dude to freak to capitalize off enemy weaknesses. Like singleplayer, the real enjoyable meat of this type of gaming is still gunplay, however.
To be frank, timely reviews of this sort inherently prohibit us from properly testing the title's robust multiplayer components. Given our early experience over Internet and LAN, we expect Area 51 to be a performer, but in this case we wouldn't recommend a purchase based solely on the merits of multiplayer gaming.
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