Midway's Area 51 has aliens aplenty, enough conspiracy theories to sink Dan Brown, plus the voice talents of David 'I want to believe' Duchovny all wrapped up in one action-filled paranoia-fest. Listen up tin foil hat fans -- Area 51 says the truth is out there, and when you find it, you'll probably want to shoot it.
Think X-Files meets Halo 2 meets X-Men with some Men In Black thrown in and you're approaching the narrative patchwork that is Area 51. Players take on the role of Ethan Cole (voiced by the red Speedo-wearing Duchovny), a HAZMAT soldier sent inside the secret Area 51 military base when some experiments go horribly wrong. Cole goes in with a team, but soon finds himself alone battling waves of mutants, aliens, secret society members and more, with nothing but various high-powered weapons for protection.
With so many elements being thrown together into the mix, story isn't Area 51's strongest suit, although avid conspiracy buffs will have a fun time spotting the different theories popping up here and there. Thankfully, Area 51 offers up solid gameplay and responsive controls (for a PlayStation 2 shooter anyway), making for an above average experience for action aficionados.
Controls are fairly standard for a PS2 first person shooter -- the two joysticks are used for aiming and movement, while the four shoulder buttons are used for firing, jumping and crouching. The Triangle and Circle buttons are used to cycle through your weapons, X is for reloading, while Square is for throwing grenades. Controlling Cole is a breeze for anyone who's mastered previous PlayStation shooters, but newbies may initially find the controller's design makes aiming far too inaccurate.
You'll start off the game with some team based combat as your small squad of HAZMAT soldiers take their first tentative steps into Area 51. The game throws wave after wave of enemies at you at the start, and it's probably some of the best fun you'll have in the game. These early stages also serve as a tutorial of some sorts -- since your squad mates are invulnerable, you can rely on them to take out enemies while you concentrate on getting used to the controls. The rest of the game, however (and it's quite a long game for a FPS), will see you on your own in more typical corridor-crawling shooter-style.
Combat for the most part is enjoyable, with players facing a good variety of weird and wonderful beasties that all look great and present varying levels of challenge. The action changes gear about a third of the way into the game as well, with Cole gaining some special 'mutant' abilities that essentially beef up his melee attacks and give him some new ranged abilities. In a nice touch, the screen takes on a visible shimmer when you are in mutant form, though for the most part we found going mutie didn't really add that much to the gameplay.
And while the weapons you find in the game do have a satisfying feel and impact to them, we have a minor bugbear with the small number that is on offer. There's only six different weapons in total in Area 51, which considering the length of the game doesn't add as much variety as we'd hope. The game does let you dual wield some weapons, however.
Another small criticism lies with the game's scanner system. Area 51 has literally dozens of secrets and hidden extras scattered throughout its levels, all of which can be found by using a biometric scanner that Cole is equipped with. Unfortunately, there's no way to view these extras while you're in the game (you have to access them through the main menu), meaning there's little incentive to actively seek them out.
Area 51 is an extremely well presented title -- graphics are top notch and sound is equally impressive. Area 51 pushes the PlayStation 2's graphic capabilities to the hilt, with the characters and environment all presented in fine detail. The voice acting is also generally impressive. Duchovny delivers his line in his typical monotone style, and there's also a special guest appearance from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson.
While it doesn't present any outstanding new additions to its genre, Area 51 presents a decent challenge for action junkies, and is a great addition to the PlayStation 2's limited first-person shooter list.
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