Area 51 – Review

g-area51200Area 51

(Midway for PS2)
by Mike Delano

Like conspiracy theorists, old school gamers have their own special reaction when they hear the phrase “Area 51,” the Nevada military site of supposed alien cover-ups by the U.S. government.

For gamers who go back far enough to remember the 1995 stand-up light gun arcade game of the same name, it conjures up a mix of nostalgia for the late ’80s wave of exhilarating light gun arcade shooters like Beast Busters and Operation Wolf, and the rush of a first-person journey through hordes of enemies waiting to be mowed down.

Despite the appeal of having a big fake plastic gun in your hand, however, those games quickly went the way of the dodo, thanks to their extremely limited gameplay (shoot, reload), with the only real innovations to the form in the past several years coming from Namco with the carnival-like Point Blank and the consistently solid, if now somewhat stagnant, Time Crisis series.

Rolling with the new, Midway has fashioned Area 51 for the PS2, not as a continuation of the light gun game, but as a completely new first-person shooter in the Halo and Metroid Prime vein. And while it isn’t up to the high standards of those titles, it certainly is among the very best of the FPS titles among the PS2’s anemic selection.

The storyline, told through sleek, rendered cut scenes and woven into the action sequences, follows a HAZMAT team sent into Area 51 to investigate suspicious activity. What follows could easily have adhered to the usual “discovery, annihilation, and escape” formula, but instead, the creators give it an interesting spin.

An alien virus strain which mutates its carriers infects not only the scientists at the facility but also members of your own team and eventually, the character you control. Once infected, your character is not only on the run from other military teams, but he also has the ability to switch to his mutant abilities, which include primitive close-range swipes as well as projectile attacks, all seen through blurred, heat-sensitive altered vision.

Such visual detail is the game’s most attractive asset; all of the environments are sharp and colorful, and there is often an enormous amount of activity going on at once. Your character is voiced by the hilariously uninterested David Duchovny, and since Marilyn Manson makes a voiceover appearance later in the game, it seems the developers weren’t hampered with many budget restraints.

The high-end presentation does have to work a little overtime to mask the fairly shallow gameplay, however. While your character controls smoothly, the weapon selection is limited, and the tight, objective-based progression of the storyline allows little room for exploration. This approach is certainly in keeping with the game’s full-throttle action feel, but the replay value suffers.

While the similarities are essentially in name only, it’s quite a feat that Midway was able to take this artifact from gaming’s past and turn it into something viable in 2005. A decade is an ice age in gaming years, though, and now, with the power of home systems and the ability to link up with friends for competitive play through multi-taps or online, the only thing that will be alien to this new generation of gamers is the concept of an arcade.