BlackSite: Area 51 Hands-On

We check out the latest work-in-progress version of this alien-infested shooter.

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Earlier this week, during a meeting with Midway, we had an opportunity to spend some time with the latest Xbox 360 build of BlackSite: Area 51. Currently in development at Midway Austin, BlackSite: Area 51 is a first-person shooter that's predominantly set in and around the titular "secret" military research facility in Nevada. Our prior time with the game was limited to exploring the small town of Rachel, which we now know to be one of five distinct areas that you'll be doing battle in. On this occasion we were treated to gameplay sequences from three previously unseen locales: the Iraqi village of Ad Dawr (where Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003), another area of Rachel, and a road through the Nevada desert.

The first level of BlackSite: Area 51 is set in Iraq, a couple of years before the events that take place in subsequent levels. Your mission, which takes place during the current real-world conflict, is to enter the village of Ad Dawr, locate an underground bunker where weapons of mass destruction are being researched, and assassinate the guy running the operation. The portion of the mission that we saw started out on the dusty streets of the sun-bleached village and, after moving through the rooms and corridors of a dimly lit makeshift clinic, ended with a lengthy battle in a large courtyard. The environment featured more destructible elements than we've seen in previous builds of the game (including the Xbox Live Arcade demo), including almost all of the most obvious objects to take cover behind, and a statue of a former dictator that we were able to shoot the limbs off.

We were accompanied by a couple of squadmates for the duration of the Iraq sequence, and it didn't take long for us realize that they each had quite different personalities. This mostly became evident through conversations, but also in the ways that they reacted when our orders didn't meet with their approval (sending them into an exposed area during a gunfight, for example) and the game's morale system kicked in. One of our team didn't say an awful lot, but the other was quick to voice her displeasure and made sarcastic comments on more than one occasion. In addition to affecting how your colleagues interact with you vocally, the morale system will have an impact on how effectively they follow your orders. If you keep your squad in cover and make sure you get involved in firefights at least as much as they do, they'll make very effective allies, but if you make a habit of endangering them while hanging back yourself they'll be less interested in risking their lives for you and might become preoccupied with self-preservation rather than killing the enemy.

The gameplay in Iraq is relatively conventional and alien-free.
The gameplay in Iraq is relatively conventional and alien-free.

Our mission in Iraq afforded us not only the arsenal comprising a pistol, an assault rifle, and grenades that appeared in the Xbox Live demo for BlackSite: Area 51, but some time with a powerful sniper rifle and a couple of machine gun turrets as well. The latter proved very effective when we wanted to make a mess of sandbag walls and other objects that enemies were using for cover, while the former was able to kill most enemies with a single, well-placed shot. In one particularly satisfying sequence, we used the sniper rifle to pick off an enemy in a courtyard from a boarded-up window a couple of floors up. The fallen soldier's colleagues were quick to run for cover and, as they did so, we used the butt of the rifle to knock the boards out before picking off a couple more and then switching to the assault rifle. We were impressed at how realistically the enemies responded to our initial attack, and when more of them emerged as the battle ensued, we died after being pinned down behind a rapidly deteriorating wall that didn't serve as cover for nearly as long as we needed to regain some health.

The second level that we took a look at, titled quarantine, took place in a previously unseen area of the small Nevada town of Rachel that was featured in the Xbox Live demo. The town looked very different, not least because we were seeing it bathed in sunshine on this occasion rather than during a late-night downpour. We're told that the aliens in the game have the ability to mess with the weather around Area 51, incidentally, which is why the thunder and lightning in the demo doesn't sound entirely natural. We're not sure how accurately the team at Midway Austin is attempting to model Rachel, but we did notice that the town's "Little A'Le'Inn" restaurant and motel is in there. Our mission on this occasion wasn't to sample tasty alien burgers, though; it was to reach a civilian who had become trapped inside a hut while hiding from aliens. Only a few aliens were visible at first, but plenty of others came out of hiding as we approached the hut, showing off some believable and varied animation as they climbed over trailers and jumped out from behind corners. The battle that ensued was challenging, to say the least, and although it was the aliens that ended up as corpses on the ground rather than our squad, the way that the edges of the screen blurred red and all of the sound became muted (save for a noticeable ringing noise) suggested that we were very close to death at one point. Our time in Rachel ended with a cinematic sequence of sorts, in which the aforementioned civilian detailed some recent events and offered advice. Much like Half-Life 2, BlackSite: Area 51 lets you maintain control of your character during cinematics, which comes in very handy when conversations are interrupted abruptly--on that we'll say no more.

Before our time with BlackSite: Area 51 came to an end we were treated to a look at perhaps the most impressive level yet. Titled topside flight, the mission saw us manning a gun on one of a dozen or so helicopters tasked with escorting a convoy along a desert highway to a temporary military installation. The journey was uneventful for the first minute or so, affording us a great opportunity to admire the desert scenery, but when the convoy's progress was halted by what appeared to be a road traffic accident on the highway below, it was clear that trouble was imminent. If you've played the Xbox Live demo of BlackSite: Area 51, you'll know that it ends with the appearance of a large "flathead" alien that bears more than a passing resemblance to a giant worm. Two flatheads came up through the asphalt this time and set about attacking the convoy, hitting our helicopter in the process. What followed was a frenetic battle in which our pilot was evidently struggling to keep our bird in the air while we--being tossed around in what was essentially a rail-shooter sequence--did our best to contribute to the demise of not only the flatheads but also the Reborn scouts and soldiers that were coming to join the fray. Our helicopter wasn't downed on this occasion, so when we happened upon a truly gigantic alien (known hereafter as Jumbo) that was similar in appearance to the flatheads but with huge tentacles wrapped around a bridge and the ability to spit fireballs, we were in a great position to take shots at its head and exposed underbelly as our pilot circled the monster. When Jumbo died he took the bridge down with him, and it was only after witnessing his spectacular downfall that we learned that a friend's helicopter hadn't fared as well as ours.

If you thought the flathead at the end of the demo was big, check this guy out.
If you thought the flathead at the end of the demo was big, check this guy out.

The friend in question is Noah, a female who also appeared in the Iraq level and may or may not represent your love interest in the game. Her helicopter was downed near a military base of sorts that's been overrun by the Reborn, and so our next mission--which we never got to complete--was to go in and rescue her. The gameplay inside the base was similar to that in the other on-foot missions that we've seen, except that instead of being accompanied by squadmates on the ground we were assisted by a helicopter hovering above the base. The same button that we'd been using to give orders to other soldiers in previous levels was now used to assign targets for the helicopter's gunner, which proved very useful when we came up against enemies armed with sniper rifles and the previously unseen Javelin missile launchers, which will fire around corners and such with no problem at all once you've locked onto a target.

After spending an hour or so with BlackSite: Area 51 we talked to the assembled Midway representatives about some of the gameplay features that we hadn't had a chance to see for ourselves. The first topic up for discussion was weaponry, and we learned that later in the game you'll be able to use weapons taken from fallen Reborn enemies, including a gun that can fire through solid objects and a shotgun-style weapon with ricocheting projectiles. We also discussed multiplayer support and, although most of the specifics are being kept under wraps for the moment, we can confirm that 16-player deathmatches, team deathmatches, siege games, and human-versus-Reborn battles are planned. Cooperative online play for two players will also be available, and we're told that while details are still being finalized, the current plan is for player one to retain control of the rest of the squad. We were also told that BlackSite: Area 51 will run at a steady 30 frames per second when it's finished and that it should be arriving in stores this fall. We look forward to bringing you more information as soon as it becomes available.

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