Bet you’ve always wondered what went on at Area 51… Is it the top secret military facility where the surviving Roswell Grays live to this day designing new alien technology with Elvis and JFK for company next door to the movie sets where they faked the Moon landings (deep breath), or just an airbase with a long runway where they test top secret prototype aircraft every now and then?
Well Midway would seem to be believers in the former, and whatever the case it sure makes a good scenario for a first person shooter: The U.S. Army has received a distress signal from Area 51 where a research program into developing an alien hybrid mutagen that can make humans into biologically mutated warriors goes badly wrong (don’t they always??), and the staff are all getting infected and are transforming into mutant aliens. So anyhoo, this viral outbreak has just shut down the research facility and the automated quarantine procedures have locked all scientific and military personnel inside. A small Special Forces unit led by Specialist Ethan Cole of the HAZMAT (hazardous materials) Division is sent to investigate. As Cole, you fight/shoot your way through five massive levels within the confines of Area 51, discovering a deadly mutagenic side effect of the virus that controls the minds of those infected, as well as an ancient alien colony buried beneath the facility. Typically enough, you’re the poor sap who must sort the entire mess out before the viral mutagen is released and irrevocably mutates all life on Earth… So far so Half Life, but Area 51 has an interesting twist as you get infected with the mutagen, and after a few “Mr Hyde” moments (and help from the mad scientist responsible for this entire screw up) find that you can mutate into the more powerful mutant form at will, and brush the formerly daunting enemies and their puny weapons aside like they’re toys...
The early sections in Area 51 are extremely well done, with superb rendered sequences (David Duchovny does the voice of Cole, and manages to sound mildly interested in things for once, as do other notable voice actors Marilyn Manson and Powers Boothe) and you acting as part of a squad (the game was originally planned as a Rainbow Six-style squad-based shooter) as you and your buddies fight your way through the hordes of mutant creatures. The weapons are varied and feel good to use (pistol, assault rifle, sniper rifle, grenades and the alien-developed BBG and Meson Cannon) and you can dual-wield should you find a spare weapon of the same kind.
Multiplayer options allow for 1-4 players split screen and 1-8 system link or via Xbox Live, and game modes include all the usual plus the game’s individual “Mutation Mode” and clever auto-scaling maps (they shrink/grow to fit the number of players in the game). On Xbox Live there are plenty of games to be found and it plays really well, bit feels a bit lightweight and unsophisticated compared to some of the other recent FPS games I’ve played online.
But there’s more than one kind of trouble brewing in Area 51, and it falls into the same old trap as many a first person shooter before it; the drama and fear factor of having mutants and alien monsters attacking you is always more effective in familiar, human surroundings. As you delve into the deeper underground reaches of the facility (disappointingly there are no outdoor sections) things get more and more alien, until you may as well be on the alien planet from Half Life, or locations from a dozen other alien killing shooters… And as nicely designed as the levels are, I honestly think we’ve trodden that tired old path enough times.
Also, with creatures supposedly designed by the legendary Stan Winston I’d hoped that more varied and scary beasties would chew my arse before I blew them away (little grey aliens producing endless Black Ops soldiers out of thin air is a real pain and considerably less scary than your Gran).
Area 51’s tight and often exciting gameplay, thrilling shoot outs (thanks to some occasionally smart AI) mean it’s gonna be a fair old battle to get to the end, but if you’re a first person shooter veteran then at times you’ll feel like you’ve been here before, and maybe you should be having more fun along the way.