We've been monitoring Area 51's approach since Midway first revealed the reinvention of its popular arcade shooter in 2002. The update of the digitized sprite blastathon, one of Midway's last arcade hits, is a far cry from the days when you popped virtual caps into blocky alien ass. The game is now a first-person shooter that owes a thing or two to such games as Retro Studio's Metroid Prime and Bungie's Halo juggernaut. After having seen glimpses of it in various states of development, we've finally gotten the chance to try out a near-final version of the adventure to see how the update has turned out thus far.
Area 51's story has been considerably fleshed out from the arcade's minimalist narrative, and it's best summed up by the following: You shoot hella stuff. You'll be cast as Ethan Cole, a HAZMAT specialist who must infiltrate the infamous research facility when something goes very wrong. While "very wrong" can mean a lot of things, in Area 51's case, it means the appearance of hordes of mutants, a deadly virus, and some bona fide aliens, all of whom are none too pleased.
The story initially plays out in a very deliberate fashion as you start out as Cole. The action seems fairly business-as-usual as you go through the standard tutorial motions and get accustomed to the game's control. FPS and action fans may be a bit impatient with Area 51's slow burn at the start of the adventure. However, rest assured, things will go to hell quickly enough once you make your way in to the troubled facility and your teammates start dropping like flies. Once that happens, the action gets much more complicated due to a pesky infection Ethan suffers from. No, we're not talking about a cold. Instead, we're talking about the mysterious virus that's part of the reason Ethan is sent in to the facility. Fortunately, whereas the foul contagion has had some fairly dramatic and fatal effects on the other folks you encounter in the facility, Ethan is able to make it work in his favor by channeling it into several different mutant powers. Although it's certainly a shame to lose the rest of your team as you progress through the game, thanks to your handy new mutant powers, you'll hardly miss the old gang. Once you're tricked out with your cool new powers, the adventure cranks up the trouble factor, and the story gets considerably weirder. Conspiracy theorists will be pleased to have many of their wildest speculations confirmed as they're presented with the real deal on Area 51, even if this is only a game. (Or is it?)
As far as gameplay goes, Area 51's pacing does a good job of drawing you in with familiar FPS mechanics that mine the feature-set territory you've come to expect from a console shooter. As mentioned, the early part of the game--when you're beginning your trek into the facility with your squad--is very much in the Halo/Doom tradition, although there's also some Metroid Prime thrown in for good measure. The game features the key functionality you'd expect for its core mechanics, so you can duel-wield, peek around corners, use flashlights, jump, crouch, and melee attack like a champ. In addition, a portable scanner Ethan carries with him lets you scan certain enemies and objects around you, à la Metroid Prime, to gain information. Once you're infected with the mystery virus, you'll gain a host of new abilities that will serve as a fine complement to the well-rounded arsenal at your disposal.
Beyond the single-player game, Area 51 has seen its multiplayer evolve well beyond the modest offering of modes it was initially slated to have when it was first announced. You'll now be able to take on friends in de rigeur deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag contests. In addition, you'll be able to play capture and hold, as well as a unique new mode called "infection." Infection is a cool new twist on multiplayer that randomly turns a player into a mutant at the start of a match. The mutant's goal? Make more mutants. The uninfected humans' goals? Don't get turned into a mutant before time runs out.
The graphics have shaped up quite well, with both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox offering sharp, detailed visuals. The game's look is nicely done, and much like the story, it veers from very conventional to very unique once things get rolling. The interior of the facility features a healthy amount of variety, considering you're basically roaming halls and exploring rooms. Lighting is especially cool due to some of the unique designs you'll come across in your travels. The alien designs are basically good, but some rely on established designs--such as stereotypical grays--too much. Area 51 also features a healthy amount of fine detail, which is especially impressive. For example, the scope on your gun changes in real time, which adds some nice atmosphere. While the game looks great on both platforms via standard RCA or S-video inputs, the Xbox has an edge over the PS2 thanks to its 480p support, which is suitably impressive.
The audio does a fine job of setting the stage for the action. The effects for weapons fire and explosions are satisfying. The voice acting is well done, with the all-star voice cast fitting in well with the other actors. Meanwhile, the soundtrack comprises a good mix of nicely composed pieces and judiciously used uncomfortable silences, which both complement the action well.
Based on what we've played, Area 51 looks as though it's turned out alright. The single-player campaign works well thanks to an interesting premise and solid gameplay. The multiplayer is equally solid and does a good job of offering the expected modes, while simultaneously adding infection to the mix. Area 51 is slated to ship later this month for the PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. Look for our review of it in the coming weeks.