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Area 51

Review By:  Tim Mitchell

Developer:  Midway Austin Studios
Publisher:  Midway Home Entertainment
# of Players:  1-16
Genre:  FPS
ESRB:  Mature
Online Play:  Yes
Accessories:  Memory Unit, Xbox Live
Date Posted: 


Crop circles. Assassinations. Fake moon landings. The Bermuda Triangle. Area 51 manages to tie every conspiracy theory you can imagine into its story, albeit in a simplistic fashion more suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon series than anything. A first person shooter in a similar vein to the shoot-em-up arcade games of the same name, Area 51 is the latest big console effort from Midway. In it you’re cast as Ethan Cole, an army Hazmat specialist sent into the fabled installation after another Hazmat team disappears. Seems a plague has swept through the base, turning ordinary people into zombie-like creatures. As you play further you’ll learn that the base is really just cover for a deeper secret, a group called the Illuminati that has been working with an alien race known as the Grays for years. The plague is their ultimate weapon, overseen by their mysterious leader Dr. White. The nearest thing the game has to a main villain, White has created clones of himself to carry on his evil (I guess) research. You’ll encounter him maybe three or four times total, none of which are particularly memorable. That’s about on par for this game’s characters, which fit in with the generic story perfectly. The other major player is Dr. Cray, a scientist bent on stopping the Illuminati with the help of his mysterious alien ally, Edgar. Apparently he determined that the best way to do this was to release the plague in the base. Go figure.

The arcade pedigree is quite apparent throughout the game, as if the makers of it played a console FPS once and decided this freedom of movement thing was pretty cool. But true to its arcade roots, Area 51 will have you constantly turning around to face waves of enemies that appear from every nook and cranny of the level at predetermined times, often out of a hallway that was clear a moment ago. Also in arcade style, even on the easiest difficulty your foes are relentless, and can cut your health down quite rapidly. This is compensated for by health upgrades tucked into nearly every corner of every room, turning what would have been an unplayable game into a mere annoyance as you are constantly forced to backtrack to top off your health between every engagement. The game is fairly short, 10-12 hours at most. It boasts 19 levels but in reality the number is misleading, as these are some short levels we’re talking about. Even the longest of them will take 30 minutes on the outside. Perhaps the most annoying feature of the gameplay is the controls. Both Y and the black button cycle weapons, while B throws grenades, L zooms and clicking the right thumbstick performs a melee attack. The white button does nothing at all. Maybe I’ve just played too much Halo 2, but this all felt vaguely unintuitive to me and I was hitting the wrong buttons right up to the end. In any case, the ability to configure your controls couldn’t have hurt. I’ve never liked games with a control scheme that leaves one button totally unused.

Comparisons to Halo are inevitable, but in reality the game Area 51 tries most to emulate is Half-Life, right down to the zombies, aliens and small crab-like enemies. Neither contrast reflects favorably on Area 51.The weapons are about what you’d expect to find: there’s a machine gun, a pistol, shotgun and a few others, including the requisite shiny chrome alien weapons. Unfortunately they all sport short magazines and long reload times, which is not good news when you’re facing large numbers, that being most of the time in this case. The screen also shakes considerably when you’re firing. This simulated recoil is original for about the first ten minutes, and then it just becomes a nuisance that makes aiming more difficult. One gun does feature a unique aiming mechanism involving using a laser to plan out ricochets, but in practice this is useful in a very limited number of situations due to the time it takes to line up such a shot. Finally, early on in the game you’ll become infected by the plague that has swept the base, but for some reason never totally explained it leaves you still in control of your mind. From this point forward you’re able to switch between your human and mutant selves at the touch of a button. The latter is somewhat overpowered, as it slows down time, highlights enemies, is surprisingly bulletproof and sports a melee attack that can take down all but the toughest foes in one hit.

The graphics are a high point of Area 51. Special effects are nice, including fire and various laser weapons. There are a few cut-scenes, all acceptably pretty. Environments are rich in detail; unfortunately they suffer from severe lack of variety. All but the last six levels find you crawling around a blood stained military base, and with few exceptions all the corridors and rooms look pretty much alike. The audio department is headed by the game’s voice acting, including such names as David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson. Celebrity voices or not though, the dialogue never really exceeds the spoon-feeding mandate of the plot. Actual sound work is serviceable, if not particularly original. Some of the clips used for various things, I’d swear I’ve heard before in something else. I do have to take minor issue with the constant sound of the main character’s breathing. Usually in a game breathing warns me of a nearby enemy, and it was difficult to keep myself from constantly looking for a zombie that wasn’t there. The music is barely worth mentioning, generic techno tunes that all scream “secret base level” and might have passed mustard in a game eight years ago. They fit the bill, but don’t expect to even notice the music most of the time.

Once you complete the campaign, Area 51 does leave you a fair amount of things to do. Scattered throughout each level are various documents and other items of interest, which can be scanned with an arm mounted device you carry, adding entries to your database, viewable from the game’s main menu. These entries range from humorous to interesting to dreadfully boring, most of the time explaining a classic conspiracy or mystery in the context of the game’s story. The real purpose of collecting these is that they in turn unlock “secrets” mostly videos featuring the games’ characters…which, honestly, are about as interesting as the databank entries. But in the end you can score the alien skin for multiplayer if you find everything, so there’s your motivation. And that multiplayer is probably where you’ll be spending most of your time. While not up to the level of certain other popular Xbox Live shooters I shouldn’t even have to mention, it’s very much playable. Some of the levels aren’t too balanced as far as mix of weapons go, allowing whichever person/team grabs the sniper rifle first to dominate. These levels do, however, sport a feature I found innovative- there are areas in them that are apparently opened up and blocked off according to how many people are in the game. If this has been done before, I haven’t seen it, and it’s a great way to eliminate the need for small and large maps.


  • Passable shooter

  • Lots of unlockable content

  • Pretty good multiplayer component

  • Deathmatch levels open up new areas as more players join

  • Final boss fight is unusually original for this game

  • Ties many different conspiracy theories into its story

  • Sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. I don’t think I need to say any more.


  • A little on the short side
  • Lack of configurable controls, and the default scheme isn’t the greatest
  • Severe lack of variety in environments
  • Unmemorable music
  • Simplistic story premise could have been written in five minutes
  • Recoil effect makes aiming more difficult than it needs to be
  • Constant backtracking for health
  • Uninteresting characters act as mere placeholders in a cookie-cutter plot
  • Short magazines and long reload times are not a good combo

Final Verdict: 

It’s not an unusual story in the gaming industry. Big game ideas and big game ambition meets too little talent or too little time. Area 51 tries to shine, but several gameplay flaws and a lackluster story keep it from being any more than above average at its best. Rent it for the weekend if you like first-person shooters, buy it only if you really need another shooter to play on Live, or just really love conspiracy theories.

Overall Score: 7.2

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