Area 51 is one of the last of Midway's arcade franchises (from back in the day) to be given a makeover for present-day consoles. The original game and its follow-up, Area 51: Site 4, sent you on a light gun blasting frenzy in the late '90s. Your shooting spree took place throughout the mysterious military installation said to hold irrefutable proof of the existence of aliens. For this new update to Area 51, Midway has teamed up with developer Inevitable Entertainment to craft a darker chapter that is, in many ways, a rebirth for the franchise on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Unlike its fun but ultimately simplistic rail-shooting predecessor, the 2004 incarnation of Area 51 offers a more contemporary experience. The now-fully 3D first-person shooter features a properly fleshed-out story that's more than a few shades sinister than the arcade games. You'll play as Ethan Cole, who is a HAZMAT (or hazardous material) specialist and the leader of a small Special Forces unit sent in to investigate Area 51 in the wake of a distress call from the installation. From the sounds of the call, a viral outbreak has caused the facility's fail-safe mechanisms to lock down the premises, thus trapping scientific and military personnel inside.
Theoretically, this type of mission is pretty much what Cole and company have trained for. However, there's a twist (There always has to be one, right?). The virus that's been unleashed is more than just your run-of-the-mill Ebola threat. Not only does the virus have some pretty nasty mutagenic side effects (which make it much worse than a rash), but it appears to control the minds of those infected. To complicate matters, you'll get more than a few unpleasant surprises, thanks to the presence of an ancient alien colony located underneath the whole facility. Rescuing those trapped in the facility and discovering just what the hell is going on will form the core of your objectives in the game. It should also go without saying that your initial perception of the situation (and even the virus) will likely change as the story unfolds. If decades of sci-fi and eight seasons of The X-Files have taught us anything, it's that space aliens and the US government are a recipe for trouble, intrigue, and a whole lot of killing.
As you'd expect, the trouble you'll encounter will come in many varied (and not entirely human) forms. You'll spend your time in the game navigating the facility, which becomes an increasingly twisted labyrinth as you make your way toward its center. You'll encounter both friend and foe on your journey--some of whom are hard to distinguish from each other--so you'll have to ally with friends and deal with foes accordingly. As per the previous Area 51 games, dealing with foes usually involves filling them with holes. Ethan's training in the Special Forces ensures that he's handy with a weapon, and the game also provides a nice assortment of expected firearms for use in Cole's travels. You'll also get some backup from your unit, which is made up of several AI-controlled individuals as well as other characters you'll encounter. Of course, we don't think it's going to come as a huge shock when we tell you not to get too attached to anyone. Situations like the one Ethan finds himself in don't exactly lend themselves to keeping everybody in one piece.
The narrative will follow a pretty standard structure and will unfold over the course of your missions. While you'll initially be directed by your forces that are outside the facility, when things get hairy, you'll lose contact with them and will be left to your own devices for a bit. This doesn't last very long, though, since you'll come to be helped by a resident of the complex. Specifically, this resident-helper will come in the form of an alien that the team calls "Edgar." He becomes responsible for sending you special messages to help guide you to your goals. While it's awfully sporting of Edgar to help you out--especially considering how unpleasant his time at the complex his been--you may wish that he would just send you notes instead of communicating with you by reanimating corpses (but we suppose you can't have everything).
One of the unique things about the way the game unfolds is its mission structure and gameplay, which are both being crafted to offer more than just a standard FPS experience. While you'll receive briefings from your forces outside of the base--and eventually from Edgar--Area 51 will feature some variety in the way things progress. The core of the game will obviously rely on the tried and true mechanics found in any first-person shooter. However, you'll also find squad combat sequences that will place you alongside AI-controlled characters. The squad sequences force you to rethink your approach to some of the shooting sequences because you'll be providing (and receiving) cover fire. Your unit will also serve as a fine protector in certain areas, which will leave you free to go off in search of vital items that your unit will need to keep fighting, such as health and ammo. We saw a dramatic example of this in a demo that had Ethan and other personnel fighting off waves of aliens. You'll find that you can sneak away, if the time is right, so that you can collect useful weapons or health pickups to aid your battle efforts. The sequence we saw featured Ethan as he collected ammo and loaded it up into massive turrets that were manned by friendly forces; these turrets were then used to help take out the incoming alien menaces.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Area 51 we've seen so far is the mutation system. Details are currently thin on this mechanic, but while the arsenal you'll have at your disposal is mighty, you'll eventually need more than just small arms. To this end, you'll find that the mysterious virus can actually help you fight by granting you assorted abilities that are often just what you need to deal with surly aliens. These virus-powered actions will be invaluable as you make your way through the game.
In addition to the single-player game, Area 51 will also support the PlayStation 2 network adapter and Xbox Live. The game is broadband-only, and the team is aiming to support 16 players online in one of several different game modes. The game will also offer support for downloadable content for both systems, which includes hard drive support for the PS2.
The graphics in the game are still coming together and are looking suitably atmospheric and creepy. Despite the incomplete looks of the characters and the environments, there are already some nice touches in the basic environment to keep things visually interesting.
While Area 51 is still very much a work in progress, the game shows quite a bit of promise. The move to 3D certainly has potential, and the gameplay is looking good. Anyone who's searching for a decent shooter will want to keep tabs on Area 51's development. The game is currently slated to ship later this year, so we'll bring you more on it soon. In the meantime, check out the trailer, several gameplay movies, and a developer interview on Area 51's media page.