Back in the day of demo discs you’d find in magazines, I managed to come across one with a trailer for the game Area-51, and while that trailer faded to a dull memory over time, it apparently left enough of an impression on me that even ten years later I still wanted to play that game. I can’t say I really had high expectations for the game as I hardly remembered anything about it by this point, but after I finally got my hands on a copy to play… I can’t really see what captivated me all those years ago.
Area-51 is a first-person shooter that trends quite closely to the likes of Halo but with a lot less energy and variety. Taking on the role of a HAZMAT soldier named Ethan Cole, the player is sent into the infamous Area 51 to help contain an outbreak of a mutagenic virus. This seemed like a fine enough set-up to throw us into the home of so many alien conspiracy theories, but the game actually tries really hard to make a compelling story out of its narrative and it comes up more than a bit short. Naturally, as you enter a place as filled with secrets as Area 51 you begin to uncover the true nature of the world. Eventually you’ll end up fighting the likes of the Illuminati as they try to suppress your growing knowledge of the truth and keep you from tearing down all the terrible secrets of the government facility, but all of this is told with a surprisingly serious tone. Even though you’re facing down Greys and finding files detailing the “truth” behind the JFK assassination, the Bermuda Triangle, and fluoride in our water supply, the story itself seems rather dire. I did enjoy the moments of it embracing the more absurd side of conspiracy theories, but they made strange company for a plot that is constantly having Ethan Cole explain how betrayed he feels and how terrible all these revelations are, his side of things not helped much by the surprisingly poor performance put in by X-Files star David Duchovny. Ethan’s inability to emote makes his statements about camaraderie with his fellow HAZMAT members and his growing troubles with the countless revelations in Area 51 hard to buy. Everyone else on the voice cast seems to be doing a fine job, even a surprise appearance by Marilyn Manson voicing an alien serving the role well enough, but Ethan’s seeming detachment makes it hard to get involved in a tale that clearly would rather be a movie than a video game.
That’s not to say the video game side of things is bad though. The shooting is responsive and you are given a decent variety of weapons that will keep you switching tactics due to a pretty good distribution of ammo and health pick-ups throughout the game, but you wouldn’t know it from the start. As the game begins, it almost seems like the game is testing you to see if you even know what a first-person shooter is, putting in the most bog-standard shooting challenges and making things far too easy as you also have a crew of soldiers backing you up at almost all times. Your weapons are even restricted to very basic ones to start, and the enemies they roll out first are all pretty mindless. Most of them will just charge towards you and try and swipe at you, with only a few ever holding guns that they can hardly even use properly. This opening segment lasts way too long and isn’t really fun in the slightest as the waves of enemies are slow but long without putting up a decent fight, and the noises they make get annoying incredibly quickly. The heavy breathing of the infected individuals is meant to alert you to their presence, but its much too loud, much too constant, and it couples poorly with the drip feed of enemies in the early segments. Even though this game is somewhat based on an arcade shooter of the same name, it somehow doesn’t understand how to make shooting down waves of similar enemies enjoyable. I would not be surprised if most people quit the game early after seeing this poor start, and I can’t really say that you’re missing out on too much if you choose to power through it.
The game does, however, get a lot more interesting, challenging, and more importantly fun when it starts giving you stuff that sets it apart from other shooting games. Once you get infected with the mutagenic virus yourself, you unlock the ability to turn into a monstrous form that has a few unique skills of its own, but it is at this point that the game starts throwing more interesting enemies at you as well so it’s not quite as useful as the other new tools you’ll be given. Rather than just throwing hordes of easy enemies at you, the game starts having the Illuminati troops show up who are actually capable gun users, but you start getting new alien weapons that make your arsenal more interesting and capable as well. These new troops also lead to the game’s fairly good difficulty curve, as they can and will kill you if you play carelessly at this point, with a checkpointing system that makes coming back to life fair but not too permissive. You must begin making plans of attack, considering the environment, enemy placement, and your weapon use as health and ammo start being spaced out more so that there are segments where you’re aching for them. One of the alien weapons is both fun and has replenishing ammo, just with the downside it needs time to regenerate the ammo, but that at least means that once you get it you’re never in a bind without any ammunition. These segments make the back half of the game a lot more enjoyable and interesting even if the story continues to try and make you take it seriously and fails, but it still doesn’t really push it too high to the point that it justifies slogging through the start.
THE VERDICT: Area-51 falls into the same trap many first-person shooter games end up in. The gunplay is solid and there’s good challenge in shooting down targets, but there’s not much to set it apart, which is strange for a game that is set in the hot bed of American conspiracy theories. We do encounter mutants, aliens, the Illuminati… and yet things still feel pretty familiar. They do pick up near the end as the game starts to embrace them fully, but the start is such a long and boring beginning that it really holds back the game from what it could have been.
And so, I give Area-51 for the Xbox…
An AVERAGE rating. Perhaps part of the flaws in the game design stem from the fact the game wants you take its cinematic story seriously despite not putting in enough effort to sell it as such, but ultimately you end up with a game about Area 51 that hardly embraces the most interesting parts about it. The game touts its aliens and conspiracies but you spend a long time shooting mutants and soldiers instead, and the more interesting conspiracies are relegated to cheeky files you find rather than cropping up in the gameplay. Quite tellingly, the game is at its most fun once it starts embracing the more outlandish aspects, with more interesting areas, enemies, and weapons helping to break away from the endless grey halls and rooms that make up too much of its early portion.
Still, once this game gets rolling, it does put up a good fight, and it shows that it had the potential to be much more enjoyable if it had focused more on its smarter enemies and more interesting segments instead of front-loading the game with generic fluff. What the game does right in its back half isn’t enough to justify purchase though, as there are many other shooters with more variety and challenge and nothing holding you back from accessing it out of the gate. There are still moments to enjoy and wonderful touches that play into the Area 51 setting, but it has a weak foundation, one that shows quite strongly in the multiplayer mode that is just shooting each other with simple weapons in locations from the game.
Much like the real Area 51, the idea of what this game could have been is a lot more interesting than the reality of it.