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Released a year after Far Cry and Doom 3---two PC first-person multiplayer shooter games that upped the bar in graphics standard---Area 51 didn't garner a solid following of full game FPS fans and faded gradually out of the limelight almost immediately after its release. Recently though (after Midway folded?) Area 51 has stormed its way into the freeware arena, stomping its full game free fps shooter game brethren. Touting Midway-backed production values, the game---which garnered only average reviews from reputable gaming sites like GameSpot and IGN---now stands as one of the must-downloads in the downloadable freeware scene.
See the in-depth review---complete with screenshots and the download link---after the jump.
Area 51 is a sci-fi PC first-person shooter that is reminiscent of the Half-life series. As specialist Ethan Cole, you get to go inside the Groom Lake facility where---yes, you guessed it---something has gone terribly wrong. A virus has spread inside the facility, infecting its personnel. While in the beginning the base is under military control, things slowly start going south as you blaze your way through the game's levels. By the time you finish its first half, all your companions will have died.
While in itself the game's hackneyed story can't hope to captivate its players, Area 51 does provide PC FPS fans with a cathartic experience delivered by a decent game engine.
Despite being trumped by Crytek and id Software's games, for a 2005 release, the engine is more than capable, rendering light sources convincingly, bathing in-game objects with bloom effects. It also has no trouble rendering firefights with multiple adversaries; these play out smoothly, exhibiting consistent framerates.
The game initially pits you and the HAZMAT team that you belong to against hordes of infected AREA 51 personnel. Sadly, the developers didn’t quite get the cathartic, frenetic feel of popular horde games like Doom 2 and Serious Sam. This can be attributed to the fact that despite Area 51’s superb audio---glass shatters convincingly and you can almost feel the recoil of the guns---infected react to injury in a very anemic manner. Even if hit by multiple bullets, they don't even scream until before the moment they croak, making shooting them as exciting as shooting moving pieces of cardboard. This comes as a disappointment given that the first part of the game is chock-full of these creatures.
Without spoiling anything too much, the game does pick up in the second half. You become infected and gain the ability to mutate temporarily into a long-taloned, thick-skinned monstrosity that soon enough gains two more abilities:
• Parasite - enables you to shoot tentacled flying things that seek out and latch on to the nearest enemy, leeching health and giving it to you (how they do that I have no idea) and
• Contagion - lets you shoot a stream of bacteria/pheromones/whatever at an enemy, making them go postal. Enemies in this state will attack whoever is nearest. The infection then kills the afflicted after a short period.
The game also introduces a new type of enemy ----- spec ops soldiers. These baddies are as smart as the infected are dumb. While not exhibiting an AI as smart as of FEAR, they do take cover and lob grenades. They also take cover behind crates though I think the programmers have defined “safe zones” for Area 51’s AI. When they come near one of these (crates, alcoves, etc), they immediately make a beeline towards the zones come hell or high water. Though they use these self-preservation tactics consistently, they don’t know how to flank and more often than not rush headlong into your fire while their comrades provide suppressive fire. Again, the behavior isn’t FEAR but it does the job fairly well, pitting players against competent enemies.
One ax to grind against this game however, is the poor implementation of several features, namely its dual-wield system, grenade “inventory,” and how you access the in-game documents you input into a mini-computer that is attached to your character’s wrist. (Yes, it’s like Q collaborated with Vulcans to invent a tricorder-disguised-as-a-wrist-watch thingamajig.) I believe that all video games play on the concept that the player is in control. It’s with the aforementioned things that Area 51 fails.
The game lets you dual-wield assault rifles. While this is cool, aiming is hard. In the early stages of the game (when the sniper rifle isn’t available yet) this forced me to use a pistol in long-range firefights. An option to drop the second rifle when the situation calls for it would have been nice as it would have given the player greater tactical control over firefights.
The grenade inventory system fails --- big time. The game lets you use two types of grenades: the usual one and this alien-spawned Jelly Bean of Death that explodes on contact, bounces wildly once, creates a black hole, and then explodes a second time. Needless to say, the second is very powerful and is best reserved for very hard gun battles. Unfortunately, saving up on this JB grenades is an option not available to you. They “stack” on top of your regular grenades with no way to toggle between regular and alien grenades ala Halo. Again, this deprives the player of a greater tactical control.
Lastly, the in-game documents that you can gather throughout the game provide the player glimpses of the life of the scientists in the Groom Lake facility. They also bolster the conspiracy theory behind crop circles and various epidemics that have ravaged our planet. These are meant to improve the immersive atmosphere as the player runs through the previously sterile halls of the science facility. Or they would have, if the designers of the game decided that the player can only read them if the exits the singleplayer campaign and accesses them through the game’s main menu. How they reached that decision is utterly beyond me.
All these however, are minor annoyances if compared to the mix of cathartic audio, fierce firefights, and immersive environments that is Area 51.
And hey, it’s free.
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>>>(Warning: spoilers!!) Do you want to see the entire Area 51 Secret Files series?
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Friday, July 24, 2009
...and soldiers. Lots of them too. Wait until you play in Hard mode and see their entire tribe.