Area 51 began its gaming life as an arcade light gun shooter in 1994, wherein you played as a soldier responding to an outbreak at the infamous Nevada base. It was memorable primarily because the scenery was rendered out with then cutting-edge CG graphics, and it spawned a few pseudo-sequels of similar style. Fast-forward to around 2004, when someone at Midway remembered that they still owned the series. An updated reboot, now a first-person-shooter, soon made its way to the major consoles plus a port to the PC.
2005’s Area 51 puts you in the pressurized suit of Army Hazmat technician Ethan Cole. Your unit is one of a few that the military has ordered to clean up an unspecified disaster in the deepest bowels of the clandestine complex. It will take you about as long as it takes to step off the elevator to discover that, yes, it’s an escaped alien virus, and both you and your A.I. crew will have to contend with mutated humans and shadowy military forces. Some star power rounds out the game’s notability. Cole is voiced by David Duchovny – along with XIII, his only non-Mulder videogame role – while Marilyn Manson croaks out guiding messages from a mysterious alien presence.
The game’s first third is typical shooter action, and awfully comparable to Half-Life in both tone and scenery. You and your team descend further into the underground labs, scavenging for limited ammo and defending yourselves against waves of mutants. You can’t control your team in any way – plotwise you’re just a grunt following orders – so their influence in these areas is rarely felt. In other words, don’t let “A.I. squad” throw you off. They do a fair job of staying out of your way, and are quickly taken out of the equation anyway.
It’s still not much of a spoiler to reveal that Cole himself is soon infected with the alien virus – but for reasons unclear, he’s able to control it. This adds a gameplay mechanic to the rest of the game where you’re able to switch between human and mutant forms at will. Mutant form bestows vision highlights, increased speed and strength, and the ability to regain health by striking enemies. However, you can only use guns in human mode, and your time as a mutant is limited by a separate “mutagen” bar that diminishes quickly in mutant form.
The theory here is that you’ll have to balance your time effectively between both forms to survive. In practice, this is simply not the case. Mutant form doesn’t give you the enhanced survivability required to charge at gun-toting baddies, and combat’s focus is so heavily on the various available weapons that there’s no good reason to take them all away. The eventual ability to launch homing leech projectiles as a mutant makes it an effective way to regain health in a jam, but there are just as easily collectable medkits for that. Even on the hardest difficulty, the game won’t pose much of challenge anyway – perhaps because the accuracy of the mouse spanks a game designed to forgive gamepads.
Gunplay is also handled more smoothly than mutant mode’s awkward first person melee. The game’s first half sees you relying on shotguns and scoped rifles, which are effective and reliable enough to keep using throughout the game. There’s a mechanic in place where you automatically dual-wield these guns (yes, even the shotgun) if you collect another copy. This happens frequently, allowing you to double your firepower, but the dual-wielding option cannot be de-selected. This can be a problem when you want to use the rifle’s scope, for example, or when you don’t particularly want two boomsticks blocking a large portion of your view.
As you proceed further into the base, you’ll gain access to alien energy weapons. These are satisfying and contain some quirky (and useful) secondary fire modes. It also marks the end of your search for weapons and ammo entirely. One of the first alien weapons you grab is a rapid-fire energy ball launcher that quickly regenerates its own ammo and ricochets off walls when an optional laser sight is engaged. You’ll never need another gun again, though you at least have the option to pick up an old favorite if you get bored.
The story unravels through cutscenes and collectable archives. A small bar in the right corner of your HUD fills as you get close to a collectable, and once the item is spotted, you can scan it using an arm-mounted analyzer brought up with the “1” key. Downloaded files range from humorous inter-office letters and fictitious explanations of classic alien phenomena, to fairly important plot points and backstory. A series of unlockable video diaries from key characters does much the same. The problem with these is that you must quit the game and return to the main menu to view them. On top of that, a daft interface (requiring the mouse for some parts, and the keyboard for others) doesn’t make it easy to keep track of the plot-important material.
Area 51 takes place across 18 levels, and Cole’s journey sends him winding through labs, mines, and captured alien craft. These range in quality and interest from fairly standard corridor crawls, to a few inspired set pieces (like an alien autopsy in progress, or using alien anti-gravity generators to bypass a broken staircase). There’s also a few good gags on a film set where, in the game’s mythology, the moon landing was faked. The lab levels are generic, but move you quickly through them. The mine levels are forgettable, but also brief. The alien levels are colorful and appropriately strange, and probably the best in the show. It also doesn’t look much like a console game, with sharp textures and a fluid engine. Lighting is occasionally moody, and effects – from weapon blasts to anti-gravity waves – all look the part.
However, all the levels themselves are pretty short; likely another console consolation. Each lasts about 5-10 minutes before loading up the next, and each is designed as a contained level instead of one broken into multiple, limited-RAM-friendly parts. The entire game is short by consequence, and can be beaten easily in a weekend. It definitely feels breezy, and an insignificant plot (made up of an almost campy amount of conspiracy theories packed under one roof) brings the game’s value down quite a bit. It’s a competent shooter with little to really set it apart.
There’s not much that stands out on the audio side, except for the limited voice work for what was given top billing. Duchovny’s voice only appears at loading screens between levels, where he summarizes the events from Cole’s point of view. Manson only makes brief appearances during the levels by controlling specific corpses and making a few cryptic hints. Powers Boothe was also roped in as your commander, barking orders over the radio. I doubt any of the three were in the VO booth for more than a day. Duchovny’s here because The X-Files made him “the alien guy” in the 90s, but his sleepy voice (like Joel Hodgson from MST3K) makes him seem bored and distracted if you can’t see his performance – obviously, not a good a fit for voice acting. Manson is wasted on a simple exposition character, and Boothe’s voice fits the part, but isn’t distinctive enough to attach a name to. It seems like Midway was buying the names, not the performances.
The final bit worth noting is that, after a lackluster release, the PC version was released for free in the United States. This was apparently supposed to be a limited-time promotion, but it’s still available. The free version is also supposed to be supported with ads for the U.S. Air Force (which is confusing, as the game doesn’t present the Air Force in the most flattering light), but I didn’t see a single ad of any stripe. If you like your freeware legal, this is the rare professional FPS that fits the bill. It’s also not the total Half-Life clone you might have heard it was, but I still hesitate to recommend it (even at the free price). It will kill time, but you won’t remember much of the experience.
Hits all the points it needs to be a decent FPS.
Barely hits those points. Few “wow” moments, limited use of the advertised star power, mutant mechanic is quickly forgotten.