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Reviewed: Area 51
Author: Michael Ahlf       Date: July 16th, 2005
Page: 2
Area 51, in the new format, follows the adventures of a scientist named Ethan Cole as he makes his way through America's most secret research base: Area 51. Hidden in Area 51 isn't just alien technology, but also new bioweapons creations, including a virus which (unfortunately) can turn humans into insane, berserk zombie-creatures. Cole's job is to get into the base and shut things down because, as luck would have it, the virus is loose and people are turning into zombies.

At this point, gamers can look over Area 51 and see any number of similarities to other games. The idea of the virus getting loose is one that's been explored numerous times, from Capcom's Resident Evil titles to the Half-Life series and more. Gameplay elements of FPS games - including the ability to toss grenades around, having to reload, and the ability to dual-wield certain weapons - have been all over the FPS genre before. When it's being an FPS, Area 51 isn't a badly constructed FPS, but the fact will remain for gamers that they could buy just about any FPS out there and see some of the same elements. When it strays, the designers made a few very bad design choices that can make the game a lot less fun than they'd hoped.
Welcome to Area 51... Most of the early game you're not alone - you have some well-armored squadmates to help out. Well, until you lose them anyways. The wrist scanner can scan in-game items for out-of-game backstory and information.

In a bid for some star power, Midway recruited three top voices to feature in the game. Marilyn Manson portrays the entity "Edgar", who is stuck in the middle of a conflict with the Illuminati (who are exerting their own control over Area 51) and the Grays, those darling aliens we've seen time and again with the huge heads and big, black eyes. Powers Boothe gets to portray Major Bridges, the barking voice who gives you your objectives and is rarely seen on-camera. And David Duchovny is cast in the role of Ethan Cole, narrating his passage through the game's storyline. Unfortunately, Manson doesn't get enough time, Boothe's role defines his performance, and Duchovny sounds more like he's reading a book and trying to get to sleep than he is portraying a character; a sure sign of burnout on Duchovny's part as he gets typecast into yet another X-files style role.

The further into the game you go, the less the game passes in squadmates, until finally Cole's running around the base on his own. It's around this point where Cole gets handed a bonus, but one that isn't really necessary: upon infection with a variant of the zombie virus, he gains the ability to shift between human and mutated forms at will. Cole's mutated form loses the ability to shoot guns, but he can fling venom at his foes, shrugs off some damage, and gains a unique perspective on the world as his vision becomes more light-sensitive.

Cutscenes are done primarily in the engine, but still look good. Enemies can look pretty nasty, when they get close. And watch out for the flaming ones. As a nod to the arcade titles, many times your squadmates will hunker down to fight waves of incoming enemies. Find a position and shoot away.

Since the game has not only a PC version but was heavily developed for Xbox and PS2, the save system in the game is virtually nonexistent; instead of a "save anywhere" or even "save at the beginning of the level" function, the game records certain save points, and offers a list of them up upon resuming the "campaign." There isn't even a warning when this happens, so divining whether or not the game has saved recently or not is nearly impossible; adding insult to injury, the only way to check is to quit the current game and drop to the main menu, thus risking any recent progress not being saved. In a day when even most Xbox games have a "save anywhere" design, the lack in this game is a serious offense.

Other nuisances include a flashlight that's a little *too* gun-mounted (flickering on and off every time a shot is fired or the gun is reloaded), the fact that "dual wield" weapons aren't switchable and are only dual wielded until one gun runs out of ammo and is dropped completely, and the nonsensical way in which enemies pop out of areas which were formerly secured at certain places in the game. There's also a certain amount of headache involved with Area 51's copy protection scheme, which not only requires a restart before the game can be played but then proceeded to cause frequent crashes during load times; before too long, I went ahead and grabbed a no-cd patch just to make the game playable. Word to the wise, Midway: your "copy protection" is more trouble than it's worth.

Oh, and there are jumping puzzles. Yes, jumping puzzles in a first-person game lacking a save feature. No, I'm not kidding.

When you've mutated, everything looks a bit... different. Can we probe you now? Please? The occasional bit of humor is a welcome relief.

If you're interested in Area 51, I strongly suggest going for a console version as a tryout. The PC version is far superior in graphics, but the gameplay features compared to any other PC FPS of recent memory are sorely lacking.

Added:  Saturday, July 16, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf
Page: 2/3

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