Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Midway Austin
Release Date: December 10, 2007
Blacksite: Area 51 is the current-generation sequel of sorts to the well-received Area 51 published for PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows PC. The seminal Area 51 was a popular, mid-1990s light-gun arcade game; the original console title drew inspiration from its quite different predecessor, but it was more homage than sequel or continuation of a series. The earlier console title remains something of a shooter classic from its platform generation: adrenaline-fueled action, a campy although perhaps dated plot, the lead role voiced by no less than actor David Duchovny, best known for the role of "open-minded" FBI agent Fox Mulder in the successful "X-Files" television drama about odd paranormal occurrences, nefarious alien abductions and sinister government plots. Just as Area 51 for consoles draws plot elements from its arcade ancestor without really copying from the earlier game, so goes Blacksite, based on the general premise and play mechanic of the first console Area 51 title, but introducing an entirely new cast and setting — although the nebulous key plot element, a mutagenic something of unknown but highly suspect origin, survives.
Several months ago, a playable "teaser" demo of the current-generation Blacksite was released for Xbox 360. The blip of a demo featured scant gameplay, maybe no more than five minutes if you really stretched it. But still it piqued interest in FPS gamers across the board, and PlayStation 3 owners delighted in the discovery that even if they didn't get the abbreviated demo, they were indeed getting the game. Sometime. Later than the Xbox 360 release. Okay, a little later now than we thought, but it's coming. Well, it's been pushed back again, but it'll be out before Christmas. And indeed it was, stocked on store shelves before the all-important holiday buying season came to a close. In the case of Blacksite: Area 51, PS3 owners would have willingly waited until next spring so that the title would be properly executed for their favored console. However, the super-short Xbox Live demo, perhaps discovered on a friend's 360 console, is almost surely the best it's ever going to get for this game on the PS3.
As befits a purely action-oriented shooter, there's not much to the plot save a shell, a context into which the gunplay with both terrestrial and experimental/alien weapons is placed. It doesn't have to make sense or be particularly well written, it just has to be, and in Blacksite, that's what it is — just there. Again, akin to the first console Area 51, you lead in the role of Pierce a two-person squad of military assault specialists. Pierce is an experienced hand, hardly a novice, and his performance affects the morale of the squad, which in turn influences how the squad performs in combat, coming back around in determining how well you perform as Pierce. If Pierce is running scared and failing to advance missions, his squad's low morale makes them skittish; they do foolish things in combat and provide inaccurate, near-useless fire support. Conversely, if Pierce performs like the ultimate soldier his reputation claims, squad morale remains high, and the two soldiers operating under your command are of real value, easing the way through difficult segments of action. Squads with low morale do manage to get killed, and in those circumstances, you're on your own for a bit. Unfortunately, this all works better on paper as a design model than it does in the finished game. Squad performance is a factor, especially on the higher difficulty settings, but Pierce can almost as easily get through the entire, short game gunning solo, especially if he searches for and discovers the rocket launcher at appropriate times.
Still, the derivative plot and fairly straightforward, pedestrian gameplay would not detract from having some fun, albeit brief, with Blacksite if it weren't for the fact the title is the most technically incompetent PS3 game I've ever played. It goes without saying that Xbox 360 is a console for which it is usually easier to develop than PS3: It's been around longer, for one, and it's essentially a specialized Microsoft Windows computer; although it uses a different processor architecture than standard-issue Windows PCs, the high-level development environment is much the same, and skills in PC game development smoothly translate to 360 development. The PS3 is no doubt a different beast; some may argue the Sony console will "scale better" and last longer in terms of creating consistently more sophisticated games in coming years. But for now, there is a learning curve for the new design; for some development teams on some games, it's a steep learning curve. However, a year into the console's public life, Midway Studios Austin could have and should have done far, far better with Blacksite, even if it meant delaying the title's release another six months or more.
Gameplay is constantly hampered by severe frame rate drops and graphical issues, causing the game to visually stutter so badly it's laughable — even the audio clips, cut outs and the like. Then there are the frequent total lock-ups, requiring a PS3 reset. Also, loading freezes with no allowance made for even slightly seamless disc-load periods, sending me over to the PS3 reset button on more than a couple of occasions, thinking the game had yet again locked up.
In the opening episode, one of Pierce's two firearms is a sniper rifle scoped with two levels of magnification. In some sequences, like shooting helicopter pilots through their windscreens, both levels of magnification are almost absolutely required. Using the default control scheme, the sniper rifle is unusable as a weapon. You can change the control layout to the third scheme, making the sniper rifle at least manageable, but even with this layout, the scope often takes on a life of its own, appearing to randomly select the level of magnification — indeed it would appear random, save for the fact it always settles on the one you don't need at the moment. Compounding matters, the third controller layout required for a usable sniper rifle places the other controls on odd buttons not standard for a PS3 shooter, requiring the gamer to relearn the basic mechanics of shooter play.
Otherwise, control of Pierce on foot, driving vehicles or firing mounted weapons — here the magnification works, although it's more a slightly enhanced aiming than real magnification — is haphazard and poor, although it's hard to tell if the control is so bad because the control is so bad or because the stuttering, chattering, skipping, hopping graphics interfere so terribly with proper control. For example, there is an off-road driving sequence early in the game. Certainly it doesn't last all that long; it's not possible it continues too long because Blacksite itself is quite short. But it's such a frustrating, awkward experience driving that Humvee, I felt it was an eternal damnation in a hot, dark, forgotten corner of hell.
Not long ago, word on the street was Midway Studios Austin removed voice-chat support from the online multiplayer component of Blacksite. I'm not the biggest fan of voice communications in games. Surely, it has tremendous potential for online play, but right now it's more frequently used to socialize, verbally harass teammates and competing players far beyond the scope of good-natured "trash talk," and sometimes, often hilariously, to determine who in the match is the most drunk. In my opinion, voice support as an essential element of online multiplayer gameplay does not in reality possess near its touted benefits, but it is expected as a standard feature. Earlier in the retail life of PS3, some version of Xbox 360 and PC games supporting voice made it over to PS3 without voice, almost surely as a shortcut maneuver for quickly releasing a game on PS3 before it expired its maximum lifespan. Again, though, a year later, entirely removing what is now considered a default online gaming feature, well-supported, although sometimes with varying degrees of success, in all of the new multiplayer PS3 titles, this is a bad, bad sign. I can only suppose Midway Studios Austin couldn't get voice support working in PS3's Blacksite, also realizing the rest of the game was such a bust it wouldn't matter; and therefore it was better to get the title out the door pre-holiday and hope gamers would pick it up on impulse, or on the solid reputation of their previous Area 51 title.
If voice support isn't particularly valuable in your average online multiplayer game, it's about useless in Blacksite. There are only four online modes. I'm not even going to mention the first three, as if you can't guess them, then you've never played an online shooter and you never will, either. The fourth, "Abduction," is essentially a version of Last Man Standing for extraterrestrial-kidnapper fetishists. Amazingly, in the graphics department, online play runs quite a bit smoother than in the single-player campaign, but it's still a complete wreck. Blacksite uses the contemporary, almost standard in today's shooters, accumulating, reversible player injury model: If you take enough hits, you die, but if you find cover and hide without taking hits, you'll fully recover in short order. In the single-player campaign, this works as expected: As you take more hits, your first-person view turns deeper and deeper shades of red, until you find cover and heal or you die. In online multiplayer matches, you'll see some red semi-circular bands in the center of your view, indicating from which direction you're taking fire and maybe a tiny bit of damage. Then, suddenly, without notice, without the slowly reddening view to warn you, you're dead.
There are also some issues with hosting network matches. The Blacksite manual includes some information about forwarding ports in order to successfully host matches through your network firewall (if you have any model home-networking router made in the past few years, almost all include in the least a weak implementation of firewalling). Some home routers don't play nice with online games, but my network configuration is perfectly suited to online play; I've never had to forward a port for any reason in any game on any platform, to host matches or join them. I discovered in Blacksite, at least in my specific case, not only do the recommended port-forwarding instructions fail to remedy hosting problems, but the same issues in hosting carry over to joining matches hosted elsewhere. Eventually I just put my PS3 in my router's DMZ. ("DMZ" is a military acronym for "demilitarized zone," but in computer jargon, it means opening the locally networked device to all external Internet traffic; network security professionals consider this quite risky, although the risk is likely less significant with game consoles than personal computers.) Only after this change was I able to compete, off and on, for perhaps a couple of hours, with the five other PS3 Blacksite online players. Had Midway Austin managed voice support in the title, I'm sure we would have all become fast friends, go onto to exchange birthday cards, arrange annual reunions, those sorts of things.
Although the game in concept is not itself rotten to the core, unless Blacksite: Area 51's developer can repair the technical disaster that is the PS3 version — I suspect this would require a substantial, cost-prohibitive reworking of the core software — I cannot under any circumstances recommend this title, although I must admit I am one of the PS3 owners who was most looking forward to its arrival, and therefore I'd be most likely to cut some slack where I could. But beyond blessing the general action/FPS model in the game, I can't find any place to dole out spare line. Blacksite barely rises above the bar of defective merchandise, even for a budget-title mill; in the case of Midway, over the years a respected publisher of outstanding top-tier games for many platforms, someone should have had the sense to scuttle the PS3 version of Blacksite, taking the financial hit as necessary, in order to spare the company's reputation. If there's any opportunity for the studio and publisher to fix these myriad, massive flaws in their game, I think they must do just that; and I'd welcome the opportunity to review it all over again and reassess the result of the repair job. However, for reasons of finance and timing, I doubt any such thing will happen. Absent a thorough reworking of Blacksite: Area 51 for PS3, the game should be swiftly buried and dismissed from everyone's memory as soon as possible. Instead of wasting your time with this, track down the PlayStation 2's Area 51 title and play it. Read every volume of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" twice, then read "Ulysses" aloud — and backwards, too, as it shouldn't make much difference. Go fly-fishing for a month. Snake the noxious, half-century-old sludge from your basement floor-drain. Anything.
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