Remember the nineties? Lads mags, Britpop, clothes – whoa! It certainly was a mad time! Then Midway released the Area 51 lightgun game in arcades, and people gave up on life. It was that bad. Thus ends this brief history lesson.
Of all the franchises in the world, you really wouldn’t see a company wanting to revive one that got nothing but appalling marks across the board, but Midway have, and, well.. it turns out it wasn’t the Worst Idea EverTM like expected. Ditched is the lightgun format, replaced by the choice of a new generation – a first-person shooter. Shock horror. We don’t see many of those these days. But no, we do not immediately write it off as being copycat schmuck fodder, instead looking past the derivative nature of the game and finding, at the heart, an enjoyable romp.
The player takes control of one Ethan Cole, voiced by Captain Charisma himself, David Duchovny – don’t expect to be taken on much of an emotional rollercoaster with Doctor Monotone, though Mulder pulls of his job well enough. Anyway, Cole is part of one of the government’s HAZMAT team – a unit of Master Chief look-alikes who go and clean up messes. This mess in particular being a particularly messy mess. Along the lines of: there have been some genetic experiments in a secret base and it has gone unbelievably tits up. Conspiracies abound: the Illuminati, mad old scientists and mutations. It makes for an interesting story if you’re twelve and male. Fortunately, I have developed an ability which allows me to regress ten years, to a time when I enjoyed stories like this one and didn’t find them to be uninteresting gibberish. It’s pretty much standard fare through the game – uninspiring but inoffensive. It won’t challenge you intellectually, but it will provide a bit of a giggle in short doses. This applies to both the story and the game itself.
The beginning of the game actually provides a lot of fun, as things start off as a squad-based shooter, with your team fending off intense onslaughts of mutant gits. And when I say intense, I mean pretty damn intense. The sheer weight of numbers faced at the very start conjures up the same feelings experienced when being charged down by the villagers in Resident Evil 4 – the panic feels very familiar. It’s such a shame then that these feelings soon give way to a much more sedate and generic flow, where enemies jump out of the shadows in much fewer numbers and provide nothing in the way of fear. It could be compared, if we’re going to be lazy boring journalist scum here, to a less atmospheric Doom 3; in a way. Enemies jump out from the most predictable of places and seem to have a real fondness for hiding behind doors, just as the hellspawn on id’s offering did.
When things calm down from the first few sections’ blitzes, the mediocre nature of things really hits home. Get this key, go here, do this, be quite bored, enjoy shooting people/things, get bored again – repeat ad infinitum. Nothing really gets added to the experience to shake things up or add factors of interest – even the point where the player receives superpowers (of a sort) doesn’t change things around enough or shake up gameplay significantly.
Looks, sound, story, gameplay – it’s all so middle-of-the-road. The shooting is fun. The initial mutant onslaughts are impressive and exciting, even if the PS2 does grind a little during them – otherwise the game is handled well by the aging black box. Graphics do their job well enough, though nothing will make a player go “wow,” conversely nothing will make a player vomit blood from their eyes in disgust. Standard. Functional. There. Even the online mode is thoroughly standard, offering no more than a couple of fun, if uninspiring, modes of play.
Area 51 is a surprising update to a series with an appalling legacy, but it manages to drag the series’ name from the mud and put it on the sidelines, in a crowd full of identical faces. It’s the Topman of the games world, if you will – functional, occasionally exciting, generally boring, and the same as everything else. Even with the fun of shooting things, it should have and could have been so much better. A rental is recommended, or if it can be found in the holy ground that is the bargain bucket then by all means pick it up, but a £40 purchase is not suggested.