Area 51 is a fitting extension of the B-movies it emulates, providing fun FPS combat and some truly awful voice acting.
To begin with, the plot in Area 51 is a convoluted mess. You play as a machine gun-toting HazMat operative named Ethan Cole (voiced by the previously mentioned Duchovny), who is sent into the titular facility after an apparent virus outbreak. The player knows better, of course, and after a few minutes you're blasting away at zombies and aliens intent on world domination. If the game's story development had stopped there, it would have been alright (who buys this sort of shooter for the plot, anyway?), but Midway couldn't leave well enough alone. Plot twists and conspiracy theories (covering everything from Roswell to fluoridated water) are piled on at a rapid pace, with no real thought given to how these elements fit together. World-changing events happen spontaneously and are totally forgotten about five minutes later (as the plot moves on to its next world-changing event), and the conclusion fails to wrap up almost all the plot's many threads (opting instead for a couple of big explosions). Despite a number of bonus videos that admirably try to stitch the story back together, the villains are also extremely poorly defined, with classic big-headed aliens, mad scientists and teleporting Illuminati (!) with their alien-enhanced soldiers all competing for screen time. On top of all that, the game actually treats itself extremely seriously in the dramatic cutscenes, making the whole affair seem even more unintentionally hilarious. Some levels just have no plot-related purpose at all beyond getting from point A to point B - if Area 51's gameplay had disappointed, there would have been little to encourage players to keep going.
In the gameplay department, Area 51 is very by-the-numbers, but it's also quite competent. The weapons set predictably includes a pistol, a machine gun, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, an alien ray gun and a rocket launcher, with homing alien grenades thrown in for good measure. Regardless, all the weapons feel powerful (largely due to the very good sound effects), and some can be dual-wielded (although this feature isn't as fleshed out as you might hope). Levels are linear and scripted affairs, with lots of locked doors in need of Doom-style key cards. Early on in the game, you'll be fighting with three other squad mates, easing players into the (occasionally surprisingly tough) cover-oriented shooting. Soon, though, your entire team is killed off (boy, who saw that coming?) and Cole becomes infected with the alien virus. For reasons that aren't entirely explained, though, he doesn't lose his humanity, instead gaining the ability to transform into a powerful alien being at will. From then on, the gameplay spends most of its time with lone-wolf FPS battles against ever-increasing numbers of Illuminati forces (who now spawn out of aliens, for some reason), with optional bursts of Alien vs. Predator-like alien combat (the ability to recharge health by killing enemies can make this mode invaluable during the tougher gunfights). There are a couple of gameplay issues, though. The game provides the player with a tricorder/wrist computer capable of scanning the environment for optional extra goodies (à la Metroid Prime). However, the results are only accessible through the main menu, so you'll have to quit out of the level you're playing to figure out what you just scanned. Additionally, there's not a lot of variety in terms of enemies - even once you're deep inside the menacing alien spacecraft, the little grey extraterrestrials will just produce the same soldiers and mutants you've been battling for hours to slow you down. Most irritatingly, though, the game still uses a console-style checkpoint system, leading to much frustration when a poorly-placed checkpoint lands you back at the beginning of a long level.
It's also worth noting that Area 51 isn't a particularly effective survival-horror title. Part of this is due to the goofy conspiracy elements and the game's cartoonish animation (which reminds me a lot of the tongue-in-cheek TimeSplitters titles), but mostly it has to do with the pacing of the campaign. Enemies are lurking behind every door in almost every room, leaving little to no time for the quiet ambiance-building moments that really make a successful horror game. By the time you're ten minutes into the adventure, you'll be able to accurately predict the scripted trigger moments from a mile away. I honestly found more scares in five minutes of Cryostasis than in the entire ten hour campaign of Area 51. That said, this lack of terror doesn't make the game any weaker as a ferocious run-and-gun experience.
Graphically, Area 51 is an extremely nice looking PS2 game. Visual effects and animations are smooth, ragdolls fly everywhere, and bloom lighting is put to excellent use (particularly when Cole embraces his alien side). On the PC, however, the game looks merely solid for its time - it's pretty clear which platform the game was primarily developed for. From an artistic perspective, the gray hallways that dominate the first half of the game can be pretty bland, but the title mixes things up a bit in the second half nicely (even if it doesn't always make sense - why exactly are there volcano lairs in Area 51, again?). There are also four CGI cutscenes spread throughout the campaign, and each looks extremely slick. Most of the other cutscenes are assembled from still photos, and these can be surprisingly moody.
Or, at least, they would be, if David Duchovny wasn't sucking the life out of every line. To say Duchovny is on auto-pilot would be an understatement - he's practically asleep. Every single line is utterly devoid of any emotion outside of boredom, which is particularly problematic since he's supposed to be playing a traumatized soldier whose world view and personal identity have just been suddenly, inalterably shattered. There was a lot of opportunity for some great drama here (even with the sloppy story), but Duchovny completely fails to capitalize on it. Rock star Marilyn Manson also shows up as giant quasi-benevolent alien, and while I'm no fan of the guy's music, at least there's some life to his vocal performance. Apart from the voice acting, sound effects are generally good, with some nicely pronounced ricochet effects. Music, however, is forgettable to the point of being barely noticeable; I seriously can't recall a single melody from any part of the entire game.
In many ways, Area 51 is a fitting extension of the B-movies it often emulates - you'll blow through it having a reasonably good time (laughing at some elements of the product as much as with them), and then you probably won't be back for a long while. Put simply, this isn't the most unique package in the world, and you've probably already played through several similar shooters that do just about everything better. At the same time, though, this is a perfectly solid title on its own merits - it's just the sort of game that one could easily like, but never quite love.
+ Intense, challenging shoot-outs
+ Graphics are slick, even if they're not pushing a modern PC
+ Alien mutations are nice, if not terribly original
- David Duchovny's voice acting is just awful
- Sloppy, incoherent plot doesn't hold together
- Checkpoint system can be frustrating
Reviewed on 10/11/2010