Back in the day, I was an Xbox boy. I say boy, I was 22 when the Xbox was released. The consoles of the day included the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube, but the most impressive by far, was the Microsoft Xbox. Lots of people arrived at the PS2 via the PS1. I arrived at the Xbox via PC gaming. To me, the idea of Microsoft releasing a game console was fantastic. After all, they made Windows, which was what every game I’d played for the last decade ran on. Microsoft gave their first console enough power to dominate the generation as far as graphics were concerned, but there’s no point in having all that power if you aren’t going to do something special with it. That special thing, the kind of game the Xbox did better than anything else on the market, was first person shooters. Yes, there are some for the other consoles, but neither the PS2 or the Gamecube had the graphical power to provide the same level of experience as the Xbox. For the first time we saw what FPS games could really be like on consoles. Each new FPS felt like it was the beginning of a new world, offering more amazing and realistic experiences than we had ever dared imagine. Area 51 is not one of those games.
Area 51 is a first person shooter game, set in, and I bet you didn’t guess this, Area 51, which is where the Americans keep their grey aliens, and strange inter dimensional monsters. You play the part of a person who’s job it is to shoot all those nasty things if something ever goes wrong, voiced by David Duchovny in the cut scenes that you’re going to skip through. There are other famous people in the game, but that’s not something that makes a game any better than it would be with voices provided by people you’ve never heard of.
The first half of the game is little more than Doom, but without any of the charm and nostalgia. Now I think about it, don’t play this game, go play Doom instead. Is that because Area 51 is bad? Not at all. It’s because there’s absolutely nothing special about it whatsoever. Run through the level and shoot the monsters. There are some dark areas that mean you have to use your little torch, buttons to push, and catwalks to try not to walk off.
Around the half way point, it becomes Far Cry. Are you turning into one of the monsters? Are you half man half monster? Is anyone even still listening at this point? You gain the ability to switch between being a man with guns and bombs, to a monster that hits things. Maybe if I’d played further there would have been specific tasks to perform as a monster, but there hasn’t been any real point to it so far.
The generic story ripped from the pages of other games is bad enough, but then you get onto the gameplay. That too is generic, and it has some problems that are just really really bad. There’s a dual-wield mechanic that breaks the game. You have a machine gun, and that has particular features. You have a secondary fire, which is the slightly zoomed in, slightly more focused version of the primary fire that you’ve seen in many other FPSs. It’s not quite a sniper rifle, but it’ll do in a pinch. The secondary fire method goes away in dual-wield mode. You can’t use that secondary fire when you’re carrying two machine guns. That might be reasonable, but what isn’t reasonable, is that you can’t decide when you’re dual-wielding. It’s something that just happens and there’s nothing you can do about it. Are you meant to be more powerful when you’re carrying two guns? Because it just means I have to get up close to enemies before I can shoot them, and that gives them all the time they need to kill me. It also doesn’t help that you can’t reload your weapons in this special mode. You just have to empty them until your current load runs out, and the game graciously allows you to return to using a single gun that you can aim and reload. Being able to reload your weapon between groups of enemies is essential, so you just end up firing into the wall until the dual-wield goes away.
The AI is rubbish. You’ll find yourself wandering around massive rooms looking for the source of a gunshot sound, and end up finding a guy stuck behind a barrier, just shooting at it. To put this in context, Area 51 is three years after Halo. The bar had been raised far above where this game sat, and that raise had happened three years earlier.
Area 51 is apparently based on another Midway game of the same name. Midway made arcade games, and Area 51 the arcade game, is something I put more than a few pound coins into as a teenager. It was a shooting game with an actual gun, and quite a good one if I remember rightly. This was at the hight of the Time Crisis, Point Blank and House of the Dead popularity. The arcade version was fun in all kinds of ways that the console version is not, and they really have nothing in common but the name and the setting. There’s also a kind of sequel that came out on Xbox 360, and I was going to get it so I could talk about it in this review but bugger that. I know I’m in trouble with a game when I’m bored enough to look up online how far I am through it, and am totally gutted to find out I’m only approaching the half way point. There’s no way I’m spending any time playing a sequel, or even the second half of the first game for that matter.
As I’ve said in the past, there are too many games for us to play. The point of reviewing games that are nearly twenty years old, is to see if they’re worth going back and playing. Area 51 is absolutely not worth playing. There are so many better games to play before you get to this one. It’s not that there’s anything especially bad about it, even all the stuff I listed can be found in plenty of other games. It’s just that those other games were released five or six years earlier. Making a game as generic as this might do something to make initial sales a little more predictable, but they don’t stand the test of time. Leave this one alone, go play Halo or Half Life instead.