BlackSite: Area 51

January 15, 2008

The Area 51 series started in arcades as an on-rails light gun game, and that influence shows in Blacksite’s level design and light story. The primary focuses of this game are quick fights, interesting looking enemies, and one-shot mechanics that are used for a fun boss fight. The single-player campaign is fun, but why can’t I go through with a friend? At every turn there are two other soldiers with me, and it makes the lack of either local or online coop all the more obvious.

The story, as expected from an Area 51 game, is forgettable, but the graphics and sound design are both excellent. Weapons are detailed, and they all look, feel, and sound appropriate. If you’ve got a shotgun then your roommate in the next room will know it. Levels, although linear, are large, open-feeling, and detailed; the Unreal 3 engine is doing its work well here. There may only be one door that leads into the mini-mart, but the way to that door is large and littered with explosive varied enemies and destructible cover. Area 51 takes a lot of cues from its on-rails arcade brethren, but Midway didn’t forget that the rails are gone here, and it shows in the level design and available cover.

Mechanically, Blacksite stumbles a little bit. Prior to release Midway made a huge deal out of squad AI and its morale system. Neither is particularly good. Even when playing on Casual (the lowest difficulty available) you will run into a new area, hide behind a concrete barrier, and watch as your two squad mates run into the fray, complain loudly about being shot, and then fall over dead. At this point your squad morale will drop to low, and you’ll be left alone to fight the wave of enemies without worrying about your teammates blocking your shots. Outside of normal combat your squad is useful for two things: opening doors, and driving humvees and tanks while you man a turret. The morale system may work wonderfully, but your squad will spend so much time dead that it’s impossible to tell. In theory when you perform well squad morale will rise and your teammates will also perform well, but if you perform poorly they’ll take a dive, too. In reality, they just die a lot because they don’t realize that there is cover available, and that it isn’t smart to reload while being mauled by an alien.

It’s still fun, though. The shooting mechanics are well-implemented, weapons are different enough from one another that it’s often difficult to decide whether you really want to trade that reliable M-4 for a nifty alien shotgun, and there are a few straight-from-the-arcade boss sequences. It’s satisfying to take down a giant alien worm that has wrapped itself around a bridge with nothing more than a half-broken helicopter and a single turret, and the fact that Midway managed to successfully combine the arcade shooter with an FPS makes for an entertaining game.

Multiplayer, both cooperative and competitive, is a letdown. Cooperative is missing altogether, and there’s no good reason for it. Everything that is fun in single player would have been better with a buddy. One of us could shoot while the other drives, we could each have a turret on that helicopter, and fire brute fights would make sense because when one of us provided a distraction the other could go hunting for the heavy artillery (despite telling you to create a distraction your teammates won’t take down the brute; it’s all on you). Competitive multiplayer is uninspired and there are better online experiences to be had in Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty 4, and Halo 3. Blacksite‘s multiplayer feels uninspired, and the game types are limited – all you’ve got is deathmatch, team deathmach, capture the flag, and zombies, and CTF is only available on two of the game’s eight maps. It’s okay to make a purely single-player game; I don’t need deathmatch available to me no matter what I have in the drive. If you aren’t going to do it right then please, don’t do it at all.

Blacksite has a few flaws, but it’s entertaining to get alien headshots and save the world by operating a helicopter-mounted turret with unlimited ammunition. Blacksite isn’t just Area 51 in name, as the arcade original’s inspiration can be felt in each episode. If you like FPS, shooting aliens, and fondly remember your time on the STARS team, then Blacksite is worth your time. All others probably have enough current FPS games on their shelves by now.

Score: 3/5

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