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Area 51 – Review

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

At what point does hyperbole become falsehood? I know that most discerning consumers have long since decided to take everything that ad copy claims with a grain of salt, but isn't there a bare minimum standard of honesty that these things should be held to? Unlike my normal review format, I'm going to use this opportunity to address some of the claims made by the Area 51's box.

"Unleash destruction with fearsome human and alien weaponry."

Well, given that this is a First Person Shooter (FPS), it's not really surprising that a wide variety of weapons are available to the player. Since the definition of fearsome really has to be relative to each individual, I can't object to that term, either. The real problem here is that the weapons allow for very little destruction to be unleashed in the course of the game.

Right at the beginning, I came across a stack of rubber tires precariously placed atop a metal palette. I'd been seeing these sorts of setups in games for over a year now; they're generally early-game attempts to tease the game's physics engine. To the game's credit, it was impressive when I shot the pallet and watched the tires bounce and settle into a big, chaotic pile. Unfortunately, this display was completely scripted, and the game doesn't have a physics engine to speak of. Yes, bodies near explosions fly away in a satisfying fashion, and occasionally there's a barrel that can be knocked over. Beyond that, nothing. There are no destructible furniture, breakable walls or doors..It's an almost entirely non-interactive environment. The closest the game comes to real destruction is the pre-scripted Matrix-referencing way columns crumble when shot a few times. This is the 3D equivalent of a bullet hole decal, and it's not any more impressive than its flat cousin.

"Battle an enemy unlike anything you've ever faced."

This would have been accurate, had the line continued "…unless you've played Far Cry." Like that far superior game, Area 51, contains three basic types of bad guys: mutants that run, jump, and claw the player; mutants that shoot guns at the player; and evil government troops that also shoot at the player. The AI follows relatively strict guidelines. Mutants run towards the player, while the stormtroopers prefer to stand relatively still and shoot from a distance. The one type of enemy that I hadn't seen many times, the ubiquitous "Grey Alien," doesn't actually do anything other than spawn stormtroopers. So, no, there aren't any enemies here that even casual videogamers haven't seen plenty of times before.

"Biological mutations give you alien-enhanced physical abilities."

This is a more insidiously misleading line, because while it's technically true, putting it on the back of the box certainly implies that it's a good thing. Which it isn't. That's right, Area 51's most original feature, in which the main character can transform into a killer mutant at will, doesn't add much to the game. When transformed, the player can run a little faster and perform hand-to-hand attacks, but those abilities aren't very helpful in combat. The mutant abilities are only useful in very specific circumstances, and since the few moments it takes to transform into a mutant can be fatal in the heat of combat, it's usually just easier to shoot opponents. Especially after the game's halfway point, when the game throws weapon balance out of the window by giving the player the BBG, which has unlimited ammo, and is also the most powerful weapon in the game.

"Featuring the voices of David Duchovny, Powers Boothe, and Marilyn Manson."

Well, this is completely true, but more importantly, who cares? David Duchovny is subdued and laconic in the best of his performances. Here he sounds positively bored reading his lines. Not that I'm saying this kind of a character can't work as the lead in a videogame, it's just that when I see a regular soldier thrown into a situation where he's sees his friends brutally murdered and is forced to battle mutants and aliens, his main reaction really shouldn't be "disinterest." Marilyn Manson, on the other hand, makes no impression at all in his role as Edgar, the psychic alien, mostly because his voice has been processed to the point where it's barely recognizable. And while I think that Powers Boothe is a fine character actor, and enjoy his work on Deadwood, I have to wonder who the marketing person was that felt there was any cachet in putting his name on the box? This game is one of the greatest examples I've ever seen of the complete lack of necessity of celebrity voice acting in games. While I haven't done the market research, common sense would seem to dictate that whatever they paid these actors, their presence in the game isn't going to increase sales enough to justify the money spent.

"Discover the mind-blowing truth about UFO's (sic), Roswell, Alien Autopsies and more as you blast your way through the U.S. Government's most secret and secure military facility: Area 51."

Here's where the game really drops the ball. Like many modern stories about government conspiracies, it makes the mistake of thinking that discussing famous conspiracies is the same thing as having a plot. Just announcing that the game's evil organization is responsible for the Kennedy assassination, faking the moon landing, AIDS, and Bigfoot isn't actually creative. It's just exploiting real-life tragedy and mystery for their visceral effect. Which would be fine, if something intelligent was done with it, but instead nothing is done with it at all. The game has next to no plot, and what original conspiracy elements were created for the game are so guarded and nebulous that it's almost impossible to tell what's going on. Perhaps the developers are saving all of their own conspiracy revelations for the sequel, which wouldn't be a bad move, since over the course of this game's secret files they've already used up pretty much every single "real" conspiracy theory out there.

"…Could be your second Halo. (Electronic Gaming Monthly)"

Well, I played Halo, I didn't particularly like Halo, and I'm sorry to inform you of this, Area 51, but you are certainly no Halo. More to the point, how could anyone have ever suggested you would be? They're nothing alike. Area 51 doesn't feature driving, flying, co-operative play, huge outdoor areas, a coherent story, etc. Maybe they were comparing it to the numerous parts in Halo where the Master Chief wandered down endless narrow halls fighting repetitive enemies. But why would you bother comparing something to the worst parts of Halo?

So, on the whole, it seems like the back of the box was extremely misleading, perhaps even the most misleading game box text since Resident Evil promised it would feature a graveyard. For all its self-congratulation, Area 51 is a mediocre shooter experience. Incredibly high production values can't mask a central lack of compelling gameplay. Someone looking to burn a couple of hours on a barely standard experience could certainly do worse, but beyond killing time, Area 51 doesn't have much to offer. Continuing the game's theme of revealing classified secrets, this review rates it 5.5 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Category Tags
Platform(s): PC   Xbox   PS2  
Developer(s): Midway  
Publisher: Midway  
Genre(s): Shooting  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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