Developer: Midway Austin
Release Date: November 12, 2007
Midway's arcade stand-up Area 51 exploited pop culture's fascination with the military's mysterious base by Groom Lake in the Nevada desert by sending you in, guns blazing, to stave off an alien outbreak. It would be re-imagined for the PC as an FPS shooter featuring voice-overs by Marilyn Manson and David Duchovny and letting you explore the secrets behind the government denials. Blacksite: Area 51 offers much of the same thing, offering up sly commentary ripped from today's headlines as part of its controversial backdrop. When the alien slime is sprayed off of this title, there's a lot more to worry about than the secrets that could kill you.
The story makes a clean break from Area 51, which might disappoint players hoping for a continuation. Other than the use of Area 51, there is little here that ties to the events from the older title. In Blacksite, you're Aeran Pierce, a Delta Force member who has been sent to Iraq to hunt down a secret chemical weapons bunker with two of your buddies, one of whom doesn't make it back because everything goes wrong at the last minute. Fast forward three years, and you're called back to deal with a mysterious militia group that has taken over the desert town of Rachel, Nev., which the military has quarantined and cordoned off. But as in Iraq, not everything is as it seems … especially when the town of Rachel is located next to Area 51.
A lot of hype has been made about the story's politically charged direction, which has dialogue containing references to the current state of the union, disposable soldiers and the war on terror — when you can hear the NPCs over the background noise, that is. It's not quite as controversial as purported; the references to hot button topics come off more as a spiced-up version of water cooler talk. The conspiratorial smoke that should billow out from the narrative comes off as an odorless tease, turning the whole experience into a typical monster mash. The political attachments seen in Blacksite's level names and the occasional comment by one of your teammates come off as cheap stunts to get a rise out of your ideological leaning, whatever it might be.
The title's combat gear, ammunition and targets will be old hat to FPS veterans, or to anyone who has picked up a first-person shooter with simple, straightforward controls. The action is solid enough to be entertaining, but it doesn't veer too far from the lead-laden formula with which your typical action shooter starts. Regardless of whether the action is set in Iraq or Nevada, much of it invokes the feeling that you've been there and done that before, although there is plenty of cannon fodder thrown in to feed your trigger finger. At one point, you get to control a vehicle and race it down canyons and enemy-filled obstacle courses, which is kind of fun as long as you don't mind the toy car feel of the controls as it bounces around. Unfortunately, the dense enemy AI behind those cloned faces make each battle feel like a shooting gallery you're simply moving through, with only the difficulty levels to make things a bit more challenging.
Ordering your squad around in Blacksite isn't as exciting as it might seem. You can send them behind cover, order them ahead of you to scout for enemy activity or tell them to stay put, which they may or may not do. Or you can order them to hit a specific hot spot, allowing them to blow open a door with explosives, kick it open, activate a key lock or simply open … another door. You get to join in the fun once in a long while by pushing a button, but for the most part, this is what your squad is apparently trained to do during most of these special moments. Occasionally, they get to set C4 or push their own buttons, but not often.
Blacksite offers another gameplay twist with its morale system. As you gun your way through the heart of this particular conspiracy, you'll be followed by one or two teammates who will occasionally comment on what they see and try to watch your back when they're not busy opening doors. As you do well in fighting off the enemy, your squad morale rises, making them a lot more lethal in combat. If you're hiding behind a dumpster and allow your foes to fill the air with lead, morale drops, making your teammates as useful as a wet paper napkin. The AI comes through when morale is high, but most of the time, you'll be doing all of the work. You really don't have to worry about your teammates' well-being, either. If they go down, they'll eventually get back up. As for yourself, Blacksite uses a regenerating health system and checkpoints to save your progress.
Blacksite is built using the Unreal 3 engine, but it can often feel like it hasn't made much use of it. Much of the game looks really good; strange techno machines, a rain-drenched town and walls covered with propaganda posters are among some of the highlights. Map seams, floating objects and an extremely unpolished feel to a lot of the other visuals kill some of the excitement. A lot of the scenery mixes together props that look great when compared to the flat textures against which they're held. Some areas are filled with plenty of detail, like the trailer park or neighborhood that you must fight through, while others look as if they were just cobbled together from textured polys, like the canyon levels or many of the indoor areas in Iraq. The game is also reliant on scripted events, some of which can create situations that don't exactly make a whole lot of sense.
One example has you defending your Hummer from attack as you race through an oil refinery in Iraq while on the run from enemy soldiers. At one point, they pile into a pickup truck and chase you down. You might think that shooting the driver's side cab should shatter the glass, perforate the metal, kill the guy behind the wheel and save yourselves, which is what your teammates tell you to do. You would be wrong, even if you fire at the window point blank. You must wait for your Hummer to smash into it and push it out of the way with its bumper of death because that's what the script calls for.
Physics add a few other visual surprises, especially when your bullets rip through a pillar of stone or barricades that you can blow apart with a grenade, sending fragments flying everywhere. Whatever they use for concrete in Blacksite must be something close to plastic foam, as a rifle butt can also shatter a stone divider that normally stops trucks. Some of the effects are pretty cool to watch, like when drywall shatters, the ground erupts and deforms when a giant worm bursts to the surface, or when enemy soldiers are blown through the air.
Enemies get old quickly since most of them look exactly alike, although the giant alien mutants are a lot more fun to watch and take out. Some of these monsters, with weak points that you must hit for massive damage, are the size of small aircraft carriers and provide some of the more exciting game moments. Other moments put you behind a machine gun in a helicopter to rain death down on unsuspecting baddies, or on the ground as your AI teammate covers you from the sky.
Accompanying the by-the-numbers action is the music, which actually doesn't do too bad a job in providing a soundtrack as you gun your way through mutants and monsters. The voice acting isn't bad, either, although you may have a difficult time listening to some of the commentary over your gunfire. There's no subtitle option, either, leaving you to either drop the sound of everything else in the game except the voices or simply live with missing out on anything interesting that your squad members may say. Some of what they say is actually pretty funny, but quite a bit of the political humor is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in a glass factory.
When the single-player portion of the game comes to its predictable climax less than five or six hours later, you might wonder if the developers actually finished the game because the ending feels as if the plug had just been pulled ("Sopranos" series finale, anyone?). The action and the visuals make the ending battles a lot more engaging than the rest of the journey; just don't expect a reward for doing so outside of achievement points. There will be no Congressional oversight testimony behind closed doors, no unmarked trucks and tankers leaving in the middle of the night to cover up what's left of the town of Rachel as it's written off as "collateral damage," nothing but a brief congratulations on a job well done. You can always replay any of the missions that you've completed and try to find the missing dossier files, little fictional extras that you can read through from an extra option on the main menu, or you can hit up the multiplayer options.
If you can find enough people to play against, you'll get to sample some of Blacksite's action against other soldiers in matches of up to 10 players. Across eight maps, it offers the usual deathmatch modes and capture the flag, but it also introduces Abduction, in which a player spawns as one of the Reborn, one of the mutant super soldiers from the single-player campaign. Other players that you kill as the Reborn will turn into other Reborn until there are no "human" players remaining. It's an interesting twist to simply running around and shooting everyone in sight, but other than that, Blacksite's lackluster multiplayer experience doesn't bring much else to the virtual arena.
Having enjoyed Area 51 and hoping for a return to the "X-Files with Guns" vibe, I was looking forward to Blacksite: Area 51 ever since it was announced, and I fervently hoped that it would do well. Taking advantage of the rumors and hearsay drawn from today's headlines in much the same way that Area 51 pulled together the conspiracy theories surrounding it in pop culture, it sounded like a daring experiment in political commentary coupled with exciting, squad-based gameplay. Unfortunately, Blacksite's FPS action offers nothing beyond what already exists and has been done better by the competition. With a disappointingly forgettable story, solid but unremarkable action, and with little else to look forward to in the multiplayer mode, there's not much of a reason to dig for the truth behind this particular conspiracy.
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