We are looking for fans of film and games who want to contribute reviews, lists, or features.
Publisher: Midway Games
Designer: Harvey Smith
Developer: Midway Austin
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows
The first-person (or third-person for that matter) shooter genre is a bloated, highly-competitive market that rarely sees a title stray far from the formula. Innovation largely comes in graphical upgrades, though the industry leaders, such as the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises set the bar pretty high, flooding the industry with yearly releases. A lot of developers have tried to leap on the success wagon of these and a few other names but few have lasted, mostly due to poor design, mediocre gameplay and zero creativity. Blacksite: Area 51 manages to find a balance in there for most of its lengthy campaign, not truly standing out as something new, but offering some very challenging gameplay and surprising set pieces, even if it doesn’t really re-invent the wheel.
Taking a more serious tonal approach than most in the field to this point, the story begins with the discovery of a supposed weapon’s bunker in Iraq, filled with mutant humans and a strange alien relic. You are Captain Aeran Pierce, leader of Echo Squad, and upon retreating from the infested site, leave behind one of your men, who based on the tropes, will surely make a return in a villainous role.
Three years later, you and your squad of elite soldiers, and the head of a science team named Doctor Noa Weis (who was in Iraq), are tasked with heading to Area 51, where a powerful militia has taken control of the site along with an army of alien soldiers like the ones found in the bunker. Controlling Pierce, you start in a nearby town called Rachel and discover that the militia fighters are in fact former US soldiers, now cybernetically-enhanced and called ‘Reborn’. That one soldier left behind three years earlier? He shows up as a Reborn and tells you that it was Doctor Weis who was behind the Reborn operation, which sought to replace the standing volunteer Army with Reborn, people who had no families, immigrants, homeless and such that became a failure and all were locked in Area 51 when they tried to revolt. Now the Reborn want freedom and are taking revenge for how they were treated. Can’t blame them for that.
The gameplay is robust if not familiar, especially playing it after so many years of other shooters, but it has some great appeal. Level design is surprisingly good with plenty of cover and divergent routes to take you to the targets. Even on the more difficult levels, it’s hard to die as Pierce is a bullet sponge, and during missions, squad-mates can only be incapacitated, knocked down and revived over and over. There is a regenerating shield naturally, but no cover system or lean so it’s mostly run and gun. As this is a squad-based shooter, you can control your team members movements and there are many contextual triggers to get them where they need to be. This works for the most part and their AI is good, though it’s only a one-button command having them man gun turrets or open doors. At least they don’t get in your way.
Like any shooter, it’s do or die when it comes to weaponry and Blacksite: Area 51 lives because of its solid but limited arsenal. While you are outfitted with standard military fare throughout, such as pistols and rifles (faves are the default M4A1 Carbine with Holographic site and the The Heckler & Koch XM8), you can only carry two at a time. You do get to use some alien tech guns, but not many, most notably a scatter gun that has bullets bouncing off walls. The aim assist, when turned on is pretty aggressive so firing down the barrel is nearly a guaranteed hit, but it’s no worse than others in the genre.
As mentioned, the level design is great and there are some really fun environments to explore, and the graphics, even for today, are sharp and clean. Using the Unreal Engine, the characters and gun models are truly good and there’s never a dull look to the game. Issues pop up with what to do though as repetition and enemy fatigue settle in once everything is introduced. You fight generally the same enemies over and over, the Reborn, and occasionally a monster bosses will arrive signaling what could be a fantastic fire fight but amounts to targeting the big orange bright spot and bombarding it with rocket shots. It’s a bit of a letdown considering how good it all looks. There’s also no cooperative gameplay unfortunately, which really limits the life of the game. The squad-based gameplay practically screams for it but your friends can only watch. There are a few options for multiplayer, but all are online and relatively stale.
Still, firing up the old Xbox 360 (also available on Playstation 3 and Windows) for some older gameplay, this one is a fun ride to revisit. There’s plenty of good challenges and I like the combat with the Reborn. The story is dark and cynical but I wan’t paying much attention. Just give me bad guys to shoot. Currently, Blacksite: Area 51 is hard to find if you don’t own it. It’s not on Steam. If you can find it at a local game dealer or buy off online, it’s worth a play.