Review: BlackSite: Area 51 (Sony PS3)

BlackSite: Area 51
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Midway
Publisher: Midwau
Release Date: 12/10/07

I’m not sure what the appeal of the Area 51 franchise is. I mean, I get the appeal of Area 51 in media on a general level, as that’s where the aliens are (supposedly) and all, don’t get me wrong. Rather, I’m failing to understand the appeal of the Midway franchise of the same name. Originally created in the 1996, the first game in the franchise was another one of those “photo-realistic” on-rails shooters that were big at the time, a subgenre which also includes games like Lethal Protectors and Revolution X, which should tell you, I hope, why I am so confused; the games were, in the end, your typical on-rails shooters, only with real motion-captured people running about instead of sprites. I suppose that, at the time, they looked mighty swell and all, but in this day and age they look horrendous and haven’t held up very well at all. Regardless, Midway resurrected the Area 51 franchise in 2005, presumably to capitalize on the nostalgia inspired by the original, by creating a first person shooter under this franchise name. Starring the voice talents of David Duchovny and Marilyn Manson and featuring gameplay that involved shooting the hell out of aliens, Area 51 was sadly nowhere near as cool as the first part of this sentence might have implied. So BlackSite: Area 51 can be considered a combination of a sequel to the “rebooted” Area 51 franchise as well as another kick at the can. The upshot of this is that BlackSite ends up being a totally new game experience from the ground up, but the downshot is that, well… it still isn’t a really good one.

The basic storyline of Blacksite can be summed up in four words: stereotyped, underdeveloped, and confusing. You take on the role of one Aeran Pierce (contrary to my personal belief, Aeran is apparently a real first name, though not a common one), leader of a special forces team for the US Army. In the beginning of the game your squad is in Iraq, because topical commentary is SO awesome, investigating WMD’s (chlorine bombs, which don’t exactly cause mass destruction as much as bad breathing problems) when they encounter abnormal resistance that ultimately results in the loss and unconfirmed demise of another squad member. A few years later, you and your team are called in to investigate a militia uprising in Rachel, Nevada, only to discover that you already know where the rest of this plot is going without me having to say anything else. Seriously. The story is exceptionally cliché, and is more or less played straight (the developers claim it’s supposed to be satirical, but the satire is more than a little subtle), thus rendering the story both cliché and boring. BlackSite also never really bothers to explain where all of these aliens come from, assuming the player will either assume that they came from the Area 51 complex (or that they played the original game), and several of the plot points (a dramatic confrontation at the military staging camp between you and the boss of the game, for example) seem to only exist for the purposes of dramatic exposition, and not for any reason that makes sense. And frankly, the whole storyline is based around kind-of sort-of slagging scientific progress at any cost and the US government for torturing prisoners of war, and satire or no, it’s really just not all that well written or implemented, leaving the game feeling like a political statement instead of an actual story.

(Aside: There’s also this whole dialog exchange between field doctor Noa and one of your teammates where the question comes up as to what happened to the people you’re fighting, and she describes the condition as “severe encephalitis”, AKA brain inflammation. Brain inflammation does not cause human beings to look like Sloth from the Goonies, nor does it give them damaging projectile attacks, and the entire exchange just sums up the problem with the story perfectly: if that’s a joke, it’s not funny, and if that was serious, it’s insane.)

Visually, BlackSite is above average; character models look clean and animate well, but except for a few of the giant monstrosities, none of the models are terribly exciting, and game environments vary in look, with more populated areas looking nice while hills and roads look clean but not great. Technically, the visuals are fine, but there are times where the game will significantly slow down for no adequately explained reason. Draw-in is noticeable at times as well, though it’s not terrible. Aurally, BlackSite has decent, if not terribly memorable music; the score is exactly the sort of score you’d expect from, say, Halo, only not as powerful or memorable. The music does do the job required of it, but if it were absent you wouldn’t notice very much. The voice acting is back and forth; most of your squadmates are acted very, very well (Somers in particular) but some of the voice actors and actresses deliver performances that sound straight out of B-movie hell. The effects are all fairly spot on, though; gunfire sounds powerful and penetrating, explosions have the right kick and sound to them, and the alien monsters sound very… um, monstrous.

But most good games are good games because of their gameplay, and unfortunately, BlackSite fails in this respect. The standard gameplay elements one would expect from an FPS are here; movement on the left stick, looking on the right, right trigger fires and left trigger toggles aiming/zooming, and the usual compliment of melee striking, grenade tossing, jumping and reloading populate the remaining buttons. There are a couple of driving segments in the game as well, and the controls work well in these sections as well. These parts of the gameplay all work fundamentally well enough, and were BlackSite composed of little more than these mechanics, it would simply be wholly unremarkable.

Sadly, this is not the case.

BlackSite offers a squad mechanic of sorts, where you are provided with multiple allies (in most cases, two at one time) and can direct them in various fashions, both for battle purposes (go here, attack this) and non-combat reasons (go here, open this). In theory, this is a solid addition to any game, but in practice, not so much for BlackSite. The entire system more or less comes down to pushing a button to direct your squad to attack/move to/interact with whatever you’re pointing at. This seems like a cute concept, except that it’s not useful except in cases where the game makes it so. Combat against weaker enemies can be resolved without telling the squad to attack specific targets, your teammates tend to eat it in combat against stronger foes (thus reducing the need to target specific enemies since your squadmates are DEAD and all), and directing your squad isn’t terribly necessary as, in most cases, they’ll follow you around (unless you want to make them the meat shields, and even then it’s not terribly worthwhile). There’s also this whole Morale system in the game where, in theory, your allies will react well when morale is high, and poorly when morale is low. The trouble is that first, since your allies are often useless, this isn’t a very big deal, and second, The Thing did a similar thing years ago with the Trust/Fear system, which worked a lot better than the Morale System in BlackSite. Thus, the only time the squad mechanics become useful is for hacking terminals and opening doors, because apparently YOUR CHARACTER CANNOT OPEN DOORS BY HIMSELF. In other words, the squad mechanic is superfluous and serves little purpose aside from the few instances where the developers made using it a necessity.

To further compound matters, there are elements of the gameplay that are, simply put, wrong in new and exciting ways. The game only supplies you, IN TOTAL, six guns to choose from, which is one less than the original Doom and the same amount as Bioshock. That said, the original Doom came out over a decade ago and is thus excused from having tons of weapons, and Bioshock gave you all sorts of Plasmids to goof around with; BlackSite does nothing beyond this. Of the six guns, you’ll spend almost all of your time playing around with the assault rifle, as most of the rest of the weapons are uninteresting or, in the odd case of what passes for a shotgun here, don’t seem very effective (in the single player mode, anyway; in multiplayer games the shotgun is absolutely devastating). Level designs are basic and uninteresting, and are about as linear as they could be without converting the game into an on-rails shooter. Combat itself is generally very by-the-numbers except in two or three instances (specifically when fighting giant monsters), and in those instances it’s vaguely interesting for maybe five to ten minutes at a clip. BlackSite also works off of the Halo gameplay mechanic (you can only carry two weapons plus grenades, health regenerates when you’re not taking damage, etc) thus making an otherwise uninspired game feel exceptionally derivative on top of it all. BlackSite is also very short, clocking in at less than five hours, yet somehow manages to feel incredibly long towards the end sections of the game. And to top it all off, the last boss battle is rather anti-climactic and uninteresting; from a storyline perspective it’s supposed to be the climax of the plot, but from a gameplay perspective it’s woefully uninteresting and feels like a huge letdown.

One could, of course, jump into the multiplayer mode to draw the financial value out of BlackSite, but there too they would be disappointed. The actual gameplay modes are limited to Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF, and a mode called “Abduction”, which essentially works as “Humans, when killed, become Aliens; mode ends when only one Human is left, repeat”. The dearth of modes is further compounded by the dearth of weapons and the relatively uninteresting layouts of the multiplayer maps, ultimately turning online multiplayer games from a saving grace into yet another chore. The worst part of BlackSite’s online play, unsurprisingly, is that even if you DO want to play it, chances are good that you WON’T be able to; of ten attempts to play the game online, I was only able to play it twice because no one else was online, and the two times I did play online, the games weren’t full. Honestly, this speaks for itself.

The end result of all of this, between uninteresting single player missions, a lack of things to do, and unexciting (and unoccupied) multiplayer, is that there’s really not much reason to go back to the game once you complete it. There are additional difficulty levels to poke around with if one is so inclined, and they’re sufficiently balanced out well enough for those looking for a challenge, but honestly, once you’ve played through the game there’s no reason to go through it a second time on any difficulty, as there are no surprises awaiting you for doing so, save for collectible dossiers… and I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m making an unfair assumption in saying that no one buys FPS titles because they want to spend hours READING. The overall game experience feels very also-ran and derivative of other, better games, from the story to the weapons to the combat mechanics and beyond, and while the game does entertain to a certain degree, it won’t keep your interest long unless you’re a serious FPS junkie, and even then the only reason one would come back to it is because of the dearth of gaming on the PS3 at this point (sorry).

And it really doesn’t help that the game is buggy on top of it all; console games really, REALLY should not be shipping with bugs, I don’t CARE if they can be updated via downloadable patches at this point. BlackSite has several minor bugs smattered around the game, most of which are visual in nature (floating enemies, for instance) though some are more annoying than others (at several points weapons will be stuck in the air where the enemies drop them; when fighting enemies in a helicopter, their guns were left in the sky, leaving a rather… abnormal visual) and one, where the final boss became stuck and could not be killed by any means, crippled the game outright. It’s bad enough when a game isn’t terribly exciting in its own right, but when the game is broken to boot, that’s inexcusable.

The Scores:
Story: 2/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 6/10
Control/Gameplay: 3/10
Replayability: 2/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 1/10
Addictiveness: 4/10
Appeal: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 1/10

Overall Score: 3.8/10
Final Score: 4.0 (POOR).

Short Attention Span Summary
All of the flowery words and adjectives one could possibly use to describe BlackSite: Area 51 are mostly unnecessary, and in the end, the game can be summed up in five words: BlackSite is not very good. Rote and repetitive gameplay yanked from other games, a dearth of options, a mediocre story and notable technical issues make this one to avoid at any price.



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