Blacksite: Area 51ESRB:
Platform: Xbox 360
Category: First Person Shooter
Developer – Midway Studios Austin
Publisher - Midway
2-10 Players Online
My first true experience with Midway’s latest FPS, Blacksite: Area 51, was at E3 in Santa Monica in July 2007. I was both intrigued and somewhat impressed with the direction that the franchise was taking. Well the time has finally come and I received my review version of the game, and after having some extended playtime with it I have to say that I enjoyed my time with it. The only thing that I am worried about is that this game has been launched at the same time as other bigger franchise titles in the genre and it will probably get lost in the frenzy.
One of the things that really grabbed me at E3 was how the game looked. And as I have had the chance to play my review copy I am still satisfied with the on-screen visuals. The action that is displayed is quite sharp and clean and it really does look good on an HD display. I actually took the game home and played it in my media room on an Infocus IN-76 displayed on an 80-inch screen. Even on a screen of this relative size the visuals held their own. The guns were very detailed, the building exteriors and interiors were also quite detailed and the grenade explosions were fantastic.
All the character designs from the various enemies to your squadmates are pretty solid. There are a lot of different enemies (both human and alien) that are to be found in this game, however where my issue with them is that although there are a lot of them, you will come across the same ones a lot of the time. Even the most well designed enemies will get tiresome as you face a lot of the same ones in your adventure through the game. As for your own squadmates, they are quite well rendered right down to their flack vests that they wear in the game.
Technically speaking the game did suffer from some perceptible quirks. There was noticeable pop-up in the distance and even large bosses would all of a sudden just show up on screen. There was also some slowdown now and then too which was kind of strange given that this game has had a lot of development time. That being said, when the game does run flawlessly is looks damn good. It supports all the HDTV formats that the Xbox 360 is capable of and for that reason alone it really does manage to demonstrate some great visuals on screen. Even given the hiccups that you will come across, the game does manage to look pretty and you will find yourself enjoying a lot of the on-screen visuals, just don’t expect it to really wow you.
As seems to be a theme with the overall feel of Area 51, the sound is sufficient but yet nothing really special. The soundtrack manages to meld into the game quite well, just don’t expect anything like that of Halo 3 or COD4, which are two of the bigger FPS games that have been recently released on the 360. That being said, the soundtrack is competent and manages to add to the overall atmosphere of the game in a positive way.
What did catch my attention was the fact the guns and explosions really did pack some punch. All the individual weapons manage to sound distinctly different and the futuristic or specially made weapons sound very original. I liked how the various machine guns or rockets just managed sound so impressive from my speakers as they were clear, concise and quite boomy. As for the rest of the sound effects, from the vehicles, to the alien enemies, to the chatter of your squadmates, all of them manage to wrap up a solid audio package. And if you are playing through a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound set-up, it really sounds that much better too.
The story of Area 51 has you taking the role of Aeran Pierce, leader of a Special Forces squad and someone who has a lot of battle experience, considering that he has been to Iraq and back. Pierce and his squad have returned to the good ole’ US of A after some harrowing and quite strange missions in the Middle East. The squad lands in Rachel, Nevada, a small town just outside of the famed Area 51, which doesn’t exist of course. Media are reporting that a militia group is trying to take control of the famed non-existent base, but as our hero and his squadmates arrive the story takes some interesting twists and turns and you are left to keep Area 51 and the surrounding areas from becoming more then what it is. I could go deeper into the story, but as some readers know I try not to give away any plotlines, and with Blacksite: Area 51 it is best that I do the same. So the summation I give here is as deep as I am going to get.
At the core Area 51 is a squad based fps. You will find yourself giving some basic orders to your squad, and when I say basic I mean basic. You will mostly be telling your squad where to go and what item or weapon to use. This is as complex as it gets. What is somewhat neat though is a feature that is also squad based. It has to do with the morale of your team. Based on your own performance you affect your team’s overall morale. When their morale is high they work like a well disciplined team as they are accurate with their shots and they charge the enemy like a true soldier. However, if their morale is low your team members won’t be able to hit anything at all and they will even try to run away from the battle. I found that keeping their morale up was key (editor’s note: DUH!) and that a happy squad made for a better killing squad.
The environments you fight in have sufficient areas for cover, but be forewarned that some of these are destructible, which adds a bit of strategy on how you enter a fight. You will have to learn how to attack your enemies and how to find the right areas that provide sufficient cover while you blast away your foes. Don’t get me wrong, there will be times that you go head first into battle just firing and firing as you make your way towards your objective, but you need to be aware of your surroundings too which adds for that strategic element, no matter how basic it is.
I found that my computer AI teammates weren’t incompetent, just don’t expect them to be smart super soldiers. They were able to help me out in battle once in awhile, especially when their morale was high, however there were still prone to some strange behavior now and then such as getting stuck behind an object or just leaving me to do everything by myself. Overall it isn’t that debilitating though and it is something that can be overlooked as there are games out there with much stupider AI teammates. As for the enemy AI, it too is about average, with the enemies providing a fair fight that managed offer some white knuckle battles now and then, but it was not particularly overwhelming.
Area 51 also adds the ability to drive vehicles in the game. And although that sounds great on the surface, it gets even gets better as you can also man the guns or ride shotgun should you want too...a la Halo and its’ famed warthog. The vehicles handle quite well and you will find that there is no problem racing over the Nevada desert landscape. And although the vehicle sequences don’t particularly make for a strategic experience they do add some change in the gameplay, which is a nice touch.
Area 51 does add some multiplayer goodness. There is a competitive component to the game but unfortunately there is no cooperative component. I was initially under the impression that this game was going to have some cooperative fun, however this does not seem to be the case with the final version that I received. It is not particularly a deal breaker, but I do think that at a time when this game has so many other FPS games to compete with that it would have helped put this game in the limelight a bit more. As for the competitive modes, Area 51 supports up to 10 players all battling it out for online supremacy. There is your typical online fare here too such as deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag. There is a mode that is supposed to be game specific, it is called Abduction. Here one of the players starts the game as an alien and they try to take out all the other human players who are running around. If the other players are killed, they are reborn as an alien and join the original alien in trying to get the rest of the players. If this sounds familiar you are right, you may remember this mode from Halo 2 and 3, known as infection. Overall the online features and gameplay are fun, but not something that FPS fans haven’t seen before. In terms of online performance I found very little lag and very little issues when battling it out over XBL.
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