The Air Force Flight Test Center (Detachment 3), more commonly referred to as Dreamland or Area 51, is set across 5,200 sq km of desert north-west of Las Vegas. For some reason, it's now become a late night Mecca for conspiracy theorists, paranoid fruitcakes and local couples wanting to copulate beneath the stars.
Whether the place is sanctuary to deadly airborne viruses or extraterrestrial immigrants is something most of sound mind have grave reservations over, but one myth that surrounds the infamous alien warehouse does have credibility: get too close to the perimeter fencing and the Camo Dudes will track you down, take you away and skilfully weave a latex-covered hand up through your fire exit until you sing for Uncle Sam.
A sequel of sorts to the lightgun arcade game that was released way back when Gillian Anderson was the Net's number one pin-up girl, Midway's game fortuitously plays up to the myths that surround Area 51 rather than containing any semblance of truth. A gritty telling of government cover-ups this is not - anal probing is not a common occurrence (although what the inhabitants get up to behind the pixel-thin walls is up for deliberation).
Instead, expect to see every cliche for which Area 51 is famed wheeled out; secret societies, alien technology, research projects gone wrong, those bugeyed Grays - they're all here; the entire nine-season run of X-Files condensed into a 12-hour game, only with more shooty bits.
Bob The Mutant From Outer Space
You play Ethan Cole, a member of a clean-up team sent into the base after it appears someone dropped a test tube containing one of Marilyn Monroe's farts. The gas escapes into the ventilation system, the janitor cops an early whiff, tentacles grow out from his nipples and before you know it the place is awash with mutant villains eager to slay anything that moves. Well, the background story is slightly more credible than that, but as it's one of the game's strengths, it would be a shame to reveal it here, even if it is slightly less predictable than an episode of Bob The Builder.
And so, after your first meeting with a mutant, the never really lets up. so commencing a fairly typical first-person action experience. You begin as part of a team (sadly with no direct control over their actions) armed with a pistol. What's more, as the number of friendly comrades slowly dwindles, your cache of weapons grows to include assault guns, a sniper rifle and even the odd alien weapon.
Gripping for the most part, it's not so much the story that shines through, but the , way in which it's presented. Skilfully produced cut-scenes k punctuate the 18-level single-I player campaign, and despite the grainy nature of CGI, every snippet of action leads you excitedly into the next firefight. The voice-acting too I is pretty good, with your troops often unleashing atorrent of abuse at the alien creatures, not so much for it to be gratuitous, but just enough to allude to the fact that those you fight alongside are less killing machines and more desperate souls who happen to be in the wrong place.
David Duchovny (who else?) lends his voice to our hero's thoughts with his trademark tones of deadpan resignation. Not every line is perfect - you get the feeling that perhaps he's only read through the script that morning - but generally he suits the role. Even Marilyn Manson turns up, and although his is not a large part, he equips himself well, even if it's an unintentionally amusing cameo.
Even with the story propping it up though, the game does drag on in places. New weapons are dished out infrequently - you only get the sniper rifle, weapon number four, a third of the way through - and the number of enemy variations at this point can be counted on one hand. Instead, the game prefers to assault you with numbers, dozens of mutants succumbing in any one locale. After a while, the pitched fights seem to merge into one another, as you fight off wave after wave, crawl through a series of corridors, then search for a keycard which takes you into another battle against surmountable odds. If it wasn't for the cut-scenes and the odd stint in charge of a gun turret, the game might have descended into unending tedium.
Graphically the game is surprisingly good. Bizarre creatures fling themselves about the place with desperate abandon and the detail and resolution of the models is uncharacteristically high for what is basically a port of a console game. The layout of the complex itself tends to repeat and although getting lost is not a problem, you might be forgiven for thinking that you're constantly treading old ground. That said, the game runs like a dream, even clocking up a respectable frame-rate on a minimum spec machine.
Yet, even though the price and technical requirements are low, Area 51 is still a difficult game to recommend. The number of quality shooters on PC is stuffed to the point that you could only buy those scoring 90 per cent and still have enough to fill the coming year with unrelenting action. With the likes of Prey, F.E.A.R. Quake 4 and a new Unreal Tournament coming our way soon as well. Area 51's contribution to FPS history is unlikely to constitute more than a brief footnote... If that.
However. Midway's conspiracy-laden blaster is still a competent and rewarding game worthy of a couple of days blasting, so if money is tight and your PC is lacking the necessary oomph to power games that you should be playing, warm up that alien probe, lie back and think of Earth.
BeingSpecial'isn't All That It's Cracked Up To Be
With shooters these days enabling you to give orders to members of your team and drive various vehicles, it's something of a refreshing change to have a game that offers no such gimmicks. For most of it you're indoors, underground and on your own. Area 51 is consequently a relentlessly dark place to be, often claustrophobic, with aliens/mutants/whatever predictably breaking through glass and bounding towards you eager to fall under a hail of bullets. But the action isn't always as derivative as you might fear: a third of the way through - and it's very difficult to explain this without giving part of the plot away - you acquire some rather extraordinary abilities and the game becomes something of a battle for survival, with even the human contingent turning on you. From this point on you can switch between human and inhuman, and clearly the design aim was to allow you to make the switch depending on the situation. However, since melee attacks are limited, you'll be glad you're not forced into using hidden powers to progress.
Midway Is on a bit of a roll at the moment, having secured forthcoming Unreal titles and a steady stream of decent console fare, such as The Suffering and Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. Pride of place in its showroom at the moment, however, is Area 51, a shooter that picks up UFO folklore and runs with it.
You play the role of US Army Hazmat specialist Ethan Cole, explained producer Zach Wood when we quizzed him on the PC release of his relentless shooter. Cole is sent into Area 51 with a small team on an emergency call to investigate a bio-chemical outbreak. When you arrive, you find out that a previous team had been sent in and communication with them has been lost. You soon discover, however, that the outbreak is an alien virus that is mutating the base inhabitants. The game then turns, apparently, into a fight for survival - while said virus rampages itself towards destroying every scrap of life on earth. Moral of the story: don't trust viruses.
That's the plot then, but clearly the impetus for the game is shooting lots of monsters in the face with a wide array of large guns. The game begins on the top level of the military base with a squad of three, before taking your team deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Area 51 and its spiky-toothed residents. Eventually all your mates are offed, and the game takes a much more survivalist stance as you battle your way j through on your tod -getting infected with the alien virus that you're battling against in the process.
You get a contagion ability as part of your mutation, continues Zach. It allows you to infect an enemy host and change their faction to fight for you for a short time. It's fun to infect an enemy from a distance and watch the fight that breaks out as your new mutated friend goes aggro on your enemies. Now ever since the days of Doom we've enjoyed turning our enemies against each other, and the Midway man's promise that you can even recruit bosses with your contagion conjures up happy memories of pitting Cyberdemons against Spider Masterminds back in the olden days.
We're not suggesting that Area 51 is going to be a life-changing experience, but it shows every sign of being an enjoyable blast through an intriguing environment - the domain of The X-Files' smoking man and various Independence Day aliens pickled in formaldehyde. It was a big part of our pre-production phase to research as much of the lore surrounding the base as possible, explains Zach, clearly slightly weary from trawling through the paranoid frenzies of various shotgunstroking American isolationists. So if you're a conspiracy theorist or an avid Area 51 lore junkie, you'll love the detail in the game. Makes you wonder what was going on in Area 52 doesn't it?
I love finding jewels in the rough. They're precious, special, and should be nurtured and appreciated. What I like finding even more are those games that fall just short of this mark, being great in a few small ways, yet only held back only by a few nagging flaws. These games indicate potential, and it means that maybe, just around the corner, a truly great developer, maybe even the next Bungie, is waiting to be born.
Such a game is Area-51. Great visuals, decent gameplay, and a strong eye towards the cinematic make this a relatively enjoyable game. Simultaneously this game suffers from such problems as hectic, poorly planned out action and unresponsive controls. In addition, David Duchovny's trademark monotone acting marrs the overall experience, and occasionally makes you wonder why he was so successful on The X-Files.
A plain vanilla FPS, there's a few endearing elements in this game that should make you smile. First, you can dual wield some of the most basic weapons, like the SMG and shotgun. You'll also frequently have NPCs along to help you through the early parts of the game, and while they didn't seem to be amazingly good, they also won't get in your way. With only four players at most, multiplayer isn't this game's strong suit, but it'll do in a pinch since Area-51 does have cooperative mode, which I'm always a fan of.
Cinematically seamless, you'll only get thrown out of the gameplay by pre-rendered cutscenes, because everything else is handled in the game engine, and while the individual items in each environment (waste paper on the floor, spilled supplies, rubble, etc.) don't seem that detailed, there's a great design to them, as the levels aren't spartan and lacking in detail like most games.
All in all, it's this continuous sense of good design that keeps the game looking good even in spite of its other problems. Aurally, you have some good voice acting, some really boring voice acting, and a decent set of sound effects, so all around not a bad job here. Lastly, the game is just fun, and that speaks to me. It has problems, but it's probably worth at least a rental, if not a purchase.
As a member of the S.T.A.A.R. (Special Tactical Advanced Alien Response) Team, it is your duty to respond, with full force, in the event of an alien invasion. Well, guess what: there's been one -- only this one was our fault. Research at the notorious government base known as Area 51 has gone awry. The base has been taken over by alien creatures, self-spawned from alien DNA, using the human workers as incubators. All communication has been lost. Along with the other members of your team, you must infiltrate the base, destroy anything that moves, including the human workers (you never know which of them may be a "host"), and purge the area of alien contamination. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I forgot to mention ... there may also be an alien craft on the premises.
If you understand the term "rail shooter," then you'll know what kind of gameArea 51 is. If not, picture yourself playing Doom with your feet buckled tightly onto a small moving platform. This platform moves you around the level, and you shoot everything that moves (and a lot that doesn't). I like to think of these as "shooting gallery" games: aliens pop up; you blast 'em.
The controls themselves couldn't be easier. You use the mouse to aim your target at and shoot the aliens. Among the other objects you will want to fire on are paintings, fire extinguishers, ammo crates (all of which will usually yield ammo), windows (some leading to secret rooms), and various explosive barrels, gas cans, etc. (these yield only points). Most of the aliens go down with one shot, with the exception of the dreaded purple Kronomorphs, which require a little more effort. You get into this nice rhythm-click, bang, move, click, bang, move. The only trouble comes every ten shots, when you have to reload (by right-clicking the mouse). At first, I found the constant need to reload irksome, but after I realized that most foes will die with one click, it wasn't so bad. Actually, it demands an extra skill -- learning that sometimes it will be better to reload early if you know you won't have time during the next sequence. This will also let you avoid hearing the little voice chanting "reload, reload" every time your clip empties.
Area 51 is an arcade game ported to the PC platform. The PC version remains true to its arcade heritage, but this causes several problems. First of all, when you run out of health, you get a message (continue?), and a timer counts down. (I guess this is so arcade players can put another quarter in the slot. For the PC player, right-clicking has the same effect, but I kept wanting to throw a quarter into my CD-ROM drive.) If the timer runs out, you start over at the beginning menu. You get up to 5 credits during the game, and you will use one each time you want to continue after dying. Since you cannot save your game, you need to have a very strong game to make it to the end and battle the alien ship -- especially on the highest of the three difficulty settings. If you make it, this means you can finish the whole game in one sitting, in around an hour. PC games should have more staying power to be worth the price -- especially in this case, where once you finish, playing over has little challenge, since to succeed, you had to memorize the patterns of kills. I have also heard that many of the arcade players would enjoy the PC version much more with some sort of game gun. Many of them seem to find the game too hard to control with a mouse or keyboard, although I haven't personally had any trouble in that respect.
Rather nice graphic work in this game, I must say. It has a definite arcade feel, with little variation in alien death sequences or explosions, but you sort of expect that in this genre. I ran the game at a resolution of 800x600 and was generally pleased with its performance. The cinematic effects are exciting and well-planned for the most part. The aliens themselves are well-designed and easy to hate: The Kronomorphs have a big, central eye that you just want to close permanently, along with a huge mouth where their stomachs should be. The Zombies are grotesque transformations of human hosts, removed enough from human appearance that you don't feel bad wasting them (on the contrary!).
The repeating opening montage was a little too much, though. You get this shot of doors slamming and an Area 51 logo, then a little demo action, then the slamming scene again. Wash, rinse, repeat. This sequence, I am aware, is another bit of arcade legacy shining through ... grab the attention of the guy strolling by in the bowling alley. But it is out of place on a home PC. I was also a little disappointed with the "victory sequence." After "going through hell" to destroy the alien ship, it struggled and climbed through the cliffs, flying away -- nearly the same thing it does when you fail. I was really hoping for a big explosion here...
Pretty standard audio features -- some of the shooting and explosion sound effects were particularly nice, as were some of the dying screams of the invaders. Still, nothing above and beyond the genre norm. The music was up-tempo and matched the action well; otherwise not original enough to linger on (nor would you expect/want it to be).
Although the game only came with one CD-sized booklet, I found it to be more than adequate. Area 51 is an arcade-style shooter, not Civilization III. By reading the booklet, you know how to install and what to shoot (which turns out to be, oh, everything), and that's all you need to know. My guess is that you won't need to use this book as a reference. You'll read it once and put it away, which for this type of game is the desired action. Nevertheless, the full-color illustrations and glossy pages of the manual put it a step above the typical fare.
One of the nicest features of Area 51 is its customization. You can choose from three difficulty settings and choose gory or non-gory video. (Parents should appreciate this, although the kid will probably toggle gory back on after you leave the room.) You can also toggle off the necessity to reload if it really gets to you, and you can set the number of credits you start with between 1 and 5.
Windows 95, Pentium, 8 MB RAM, 1 MB hard drive space, SVGA video w/ 1 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, SoundBlaster compatible sound card.
Recommended: P-60, 16 MB RAM, a really good mouse
Reviewed on: P-120, 16 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM drive, Diamond Stealth 64 video.
If you want a pure action title, where only the most reptilian, instinctive portions of your brain will be used, then Area 51 may be what you've been looking for. If you are looking to have a little more control over your movement and discovery of the environment, then maybe not. All in all, Area 51 is successful at what it sets out to be: an arcade shooting game presented on the PC platform. And although I believe that some concessions/modifications should have been made in order for this to become a strong PC title, Area 51 is still strong enough as a pure action vehicle to earn a score of 77 out of 100. With a little added value through multiplayer options or a greater depth/breadth of level building, that score could have easily gone higher.
The alien search-and-destroy stand-up game hits home. Area 51 has you searching a secret government base in an attempt to eliminate the threat of alien infestation. This game should support both the Sega and Sony guns.
- MANUFACTURER - Time Warner
- THEME - Shooting
- NUMBER OF PLAYERS - 1 or 2
The arcade hit comes home in all its trigger-pulling glory! As part of a Special Forces team, one or two players must blast through several stages of aliens, zombies, and toxic waste. Although less than half complete. the Saturn version previewed on the road to a nearly perfect arcade conversion. One small snag: The game doesn't fill the entire screen--it's cropped in on the sides and bottom, though you hardly notice with all the intense shooting and explosions.