IGN Review of BlackSite: Area 51
Just before November became December, Harvey Smith spoke at the Montreal International Game Summit 2007, and one of Wired's blogs
wrote about it. The topic was BlackSite: Area 51, a game Smith worked on as a designer.
"This project was so f***ed up," Smith said.
Smith's comments came just weeks after BlackSite's Xbox 360 release and went on to say the game was "off rails" with a year to go, the title was rushed, and that it "deserved" the low review scores.
This week, the PlayStation 3 version of BlackSite will be hitting store shelves and living up to Harvey's comments.
In BlackSite, you're cast as Aeran Pierce, a silent badass who leads a team of military grunts into battle on a daily basis. On a mission to Iraq, you come across a fragment of alien origin, lose one of your guys to it and blackout. The story picks up three years later as the crazy crap you saw in the Middle East -- grotesque men with tentacles hanging out of their mouths, gigantic exploding bugs and a bunch of creepy-crawlies -- has sprung up in Nevada and it's up to you and crew to snuff it out.
The graphics are one of the high points in BlackSite. When I first started my mission, I got pinned down by some hostiles behind a concrete divide. I sat waiting for the foes to run out of ammo and begin reloading when suddenly the barricade began breaking apart under their fire. Not every environment is destructible but lots of the cover you take will be. The alien shotguns look good as they glow, a massive worm beast wrapped around a bridge and swinging at your helicopter is an intimidating sight, and enemies aren't afraid to spring out from corners and come at you.
Those jump-out-at-you moments are just one example of BlackSite's attempt to fuse its arcade roots with a free-wheeling FPS. Yeah, you'll be able to wander around battlefields and come at anchored enemies from whatever direction you like, but there are going to be those moments when a single-file line of exploding bugs pours out from around a corner or you walk into an area to find enemies popping up from behind boxes just like you'd expect in your typical arcade shooter.
The news gets bad from there.
The biggest failing of Area 51 is that it's a wholly forgettable game. The first two levels (fighting in Iraq and then driving around Nevada) feel huge and empty; the characters are all lifeless stereotypes you'll never connect with (Grayson's the tattooed-cursin'-womanizin' loudmouth), the same seven or so enemies repeat over and over (Exploding bugs again?!), the story is an afterthought (alien tech is bringing "dead" soldiers back to life), and multiplayer is a shallow and generic experience (Capture the flag, deathmatch, etc.).
In fact, that basically sums up BlackSite. It's not bad, just generic.
Early on, Midway made a big deal out of BlackSite's morale system. If you were performing well as an individual, the squad's morale would be high and they'd perform better. If you were sucking it up on the battlefield, the team would be down in the dumps and thus be less effective. That system made it into the final game, but it's worthless thanks to a terrible AI that's never helpful.
For just about every mission, you'll have two or three partners along for the ride. You can order them around using R1 -- point your reticule at an onscreen spot, click the button and the team will move there -- but most of the time your teammates are going to just run into battle, stand there, get shot and lay on the ground until you've beaten all of the foes. Hell, if it wasn't for your own inability to open doors -- you have to order your teammates to kick-in or blow-in entry ways -- there'd be no reason for their existence.
Look at my late-game battle with one of the game's Fire Brutes. This huge turtle-like bastard with a head that can shoot lasers is laying waste to an open area in the Nevada base, and it's up to me to stop it. Now, at this point in the game, I've tussled with this type of creature before. They're huge, but they have a giant weak spot on their back -- don't bother thinking that's a spoiler, the game'll tell you how to beat the things as soon as they show up on screen -- so all I've got to do is get to the baddie's backside and fire a rocket.
The first time we went toe-to-toe, I was alone and had to run through blown-out buildings and dodge body-slicing lasers. It was frantic and simplistic but fun. This time though, I had two teammates with me. We saw the bad guy, the team announced that I should provide a distraction, and they ran into their positions. I climbed into a jeep began driving around the creature and the sparse-cover, and the big guy never took his eye off me. Meanwhile, my team sat behind sandbags and buildings while screaming at me to shoot the brute. Okay. No big deal. Maybe I'd get the rocket launcher and the team would provide the distraction.
I got the gun, and the brute kept on watching me and my team kept on sitting there. How many times would I have to die, wait for the game to reload and have to repeat the same frustrating process over and over until the dumb villain finally lost sight of me and allowed me to shoot him in the back?
Wow. What fun.
The brute isn't the only brain-dead opponent you'll be put up against in BlackSite -- in fact, the final boss is just as stupid and a bigger letdown. I'll set the stage: the government has sealed off this astrodome that used to be the base for its twisted alien experiments. You've battled huge beasts, exploding-ball spitting snakes and now you're inside this dome destroying level after level of repeating enemies as you make your way to the ground floor and the final boss. You get there, and the game grinds to a halt. You have to walk around a giant centrifuge dodging a slow-moving laser and killing bad guys. You stop the laser, move to the centrifuge's center and prepare for the final showdown -- the culmination of the game's six episodes and 34 missions.
The boss stands in the middle of the room; you hide behind a pillar and jump out to shoot him. He doesn't move. I beat him by moving slightly to the right so that I could hit him without him hitting me and shot him five times in the knee until he died.
What a formidable opponent.
Beyond my additional single-player complaints, there is an online-only multiplayer mode for you and nine of your friends to duke it out in, but the modes -- deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, abduction -- stick with the game's theme of blah. The levels are wide and airy with armor and damage powerups, but there's nothing that stands out. There's no co-op (online or offline), you can't capture the enemy's flag if your team's banner isn't at the base, and CTF is only available on two of the eight maps. There is a new abduction mode -- if you're human, stay alive to remain a human; if you're a reborn soldier, kill the humans to make them reborns -- but it's hardly a purchase-saving feature.
If you're dead-set on getting this game and are just here to read about the differences between the PS3 and 360 versions, I'm happy to help. Although the 360 has pop-in textures and framerate issues, the problems are worse in the PS3's take. The shadows are jagged, I saw lots of screen-tearing, and I could even see the seams of some of the rooms. Standing still, the game still looks decent, but in motion it gets herky-jerky. Plus, there's this weird freeze frame right before you die in PS3 multiplayer -- at least there was on our systems.
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