November 18, 2007
Developed by Midway (most recently responsible for Stranglehold and currently working on new Mortal Kombat, Unreal Tournament and Blitz titles), Blacksite: Area 51 is a modern shooter with a new take on an old myth: Area 51, the fabled scientific facility that houses a military operation on the study of aliens. The story begins during a war in Iraq with a man by the name of Aeran Pierce on a mission to search for WMDs in a large Iraqi facility. You storm the facility with two squadmates, soon meeting up with a military scientist. It is not long before you start seeing some strange things; from humans running rabid on all fours, attacking without warning to small creatures that rush you and explode. You're now convinced that something is seriously wrong here and that's when you find a giant, floating, glowing rock. Upon investigation, the rock emits a gas that knocks you out. You awake just in time to watch a squad mate rushed and killed by what appear to be aliens.
Three years later, the army calls upon you to investigate a small town by the name of Rachel in Nevada. Some of the strange things you saw back in Iraq are being reported there, so who better to check it out? The rest of the story goes about how you'd expect: things continue to get weirder as the story goes with more gruesome and dangerous aliens popping up as you discover exactly what is going on and how deeply this has been covered up by the government. It all heads to a climactic showdown against a very serious alien boss. Maybe this wasn't such a new take on the myth after all, with Midway simply using a modern setting to give a sense of familiarity to it.
The gameplay is both the best feature and biggest setback for Blacksite. The general stuff is akin to every other FPS game you've played, but the squad feature is where it really stands out. On each mission you have two or three soldiers that accompany you, which you can order around with the simple press of the right bumper. If you feel they've been naughty and want to send them to the corner of the room to think about what they've done, simply aim at the corner and hit the button. They will lovingly rush to the corner and stay put, assuming no enemies distract them.
Of course, treating them like pets isn't the only fun you get to have. The biggest help they offer is the focus fire feature. Aim at any enemy, hit that magic bumper and all your squad mates turn their fire to whatever enemy you have just marked. This definitely can get you out of a tight spot if cornered by multiple hostiles, letting you take one yourself and delegating the other to your squad. The drawback of this is that they don't often take your safety into account, making ample use of grenades to take down the marked enemy. In their zeal, they forget that you could be standing right next to that enemy, sometimes doing more harm than good.
Another use for your squad is for manipulating surroundings and taking care of objectives. If you need a door opened, point and click and they're on it. Setting up charges to blow a bridge? They've got you covered. It's definitely nice to be the leader in a world of FPS games filled with "grunt" heroes, but at the same time the feature tends to make you feel more helpless than powerful. All these tasks you can have your squad perform? You must have your squad perform. You can't open doors or set blast charges yourself, that is all done by delegation. The feature was a good idea, but most of the time you'll clear an area of enemies, then open a door. This forces an awkward pause in the action while you wait for your squad to do it, instead of just running over and doing it yourself. What would have been nice is to be in the middle of a fire-fight and be forced to send your squad to open the door while you lay down cover fire, or vice versa.
Compounding that problem is the fact that you can't send one member on one task and another member on a different task. If you need a door opened, every person under your command rushes to the door in hopes of being the one who actually opens it and wins the gold star from you. Likewise, you can not mark more than one target for your squad to fire on, so you better pick the right enemy. You can always have them switch targets, but this just ends up getting them confused.
The one thing the squad system does well is the morale aspect of it. If you are doing well on your own by taking little damage, not hiding from battle and popping off headshots, your squad follows suit and becomes more aggressive and accurate with their shooting as well. If you are hiding and letting them die or missing a lot of shots, they will feel uncomfortable and perform poorly. Keeping their morale up helps much more than you would think, so playing well rather than playing just to get through the game makes it much easier, especially on harder difficulties.
Speaking of difficulty, the game is not that hard. However, once you get in a vehicle, all bets are off for some reason. You are extremely vulnerable and take massive amounts of damage in a short amount of time. Playing on Red (Hard) difficulty, I must have tried the two vehicle sections in the first two levels about twenty times each before I passed them, and only then because I memorized where every enemy was and what path to take. Making a game difficult is always a good thing (in my opinion), but jacking up that difficulty without warning is never a fun feeling.
The multiplayer in Blacksite is surprisingly fun for such a mediocre single player experience. Normally it is just the opposite where you'll have an awesome single player with a terrible online section tacked on (see 2k Games' The Darkness for that), but this is far from the case. The game modes are the generic Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. However, a fourth and more unique option called Abduction is available. One person starts as the "Reborn" and hunts down the normal Human players (everyone else) and for every one he kills, they are converted to the Reborn side. This continues until everyone has been converted and the last survivor now becomes the first Reborn, tasked with hunting everyone else and so on until the end of the match. This would have been more groundbreaking had Halo not done the same exact thing with the Infection playlist weeks before the game's launch, but it's still pretty fun anyway.
The maps are also surprisingly well thought out and exciting. They steal elements of the campaign and format them to work with the deathmatch aspect of the game, such as the town of Rachel and a reststop you have a significant battle at early in the campaign. The only real drawback of the online is the lack of original weapons and powerups. Aside from the generic pistol, rifle, sniper and rocket are two alien weapons called the Plasma Rifle and Scatter Gun. The plasma rifle shoots a large ball of energy, while the scatter gun is basically a shotgun full of nails. The only powerups come in the form of camouflage, shields, and damage upgrades.
The graphics are better than average, taking advantage of the Unreal engine. However, they don't push the envelope at any time and suffer from lack of detail at distance. Close-up, your squad, enemies, and surroundings all pretty good, but when you look off in the distance, there really isn't anything there. The lack of detail was a problem I spotted at a few points. Early on, you blow up and cross a bridge, on the other side of which a flag flies and sways nicely with the apparent breeze. However, you then have a vehicle drop-lifted to you by a helicopter and the flag continues to sway with the light breeze. Obviously with a helicopter ten feet away that shouldn't be the case. Most people wouldn't notice small things like that, but those are the things I look for to know if a company really meant to make the game great.
The voice acting and overall sound bank is pretty good. You can feel the personality of each character through their dialogue, which is always important. Their personalities aren't that impressive or unique, but at least you know what they are. The dialogue is written well, never sounding too cheesy. All the ambient noises (gunfire, aliens, etc) all sound about how you'd expect, though once again they are nothing special or unique. That about sums up the whole of the game though; just a little better than average but never pushing the boundaries.
The achievements at first glance seem very simple and fair, but they are a nightmare for various reasons. One of the weapon achievements has to be done in one clip which is not specified. For the two mini-boss achievements you apparently can't attack anything else during the fight or you don't get credit, and the 100/200/400 kills with each weapon are still a mystery at this point of how to achieve at all. If it is during the campaign, that will take ages of replaying missions, considering you don't encounter many of the weapons often. Online would be easier for those, but with the small number of people playing, you'd definitely have to find friends to play with. Also, the "beat the game on X difficulty" achievements do not stack, forcing at least three plays of the campaign.
The two squad achievements for getting them to high morale 20 times and having them help you with 250 focus fire kills are a good addition and take advantage of the only unique aspect of the game. There is also the usual collection achievements for finding all 48 hidden Dossiers during the campaign, though I'm not sure why they didn't do 51 to keep with the whole Area 51 theme. There aren't too many online achievements, but the "viral" achievements for playing in a game with someone who has the Blacksite Virus and coming in first place are unique.
Overall a good sound set and voice acting. Nothing stands out as outstanding, but it certainly does the job.
Once again, above average graphics but nothing amazing. Good details up close, but it loses focus at distances. Some factual inaccuracies (like the flag waving example) annoyed me a bit, but most people won't even notice those.
The game plays like any other FPS game out there and the one unique feature it has is all controlled by a single button, so there is no learning curve. The camera is good and the hit detection is as well. The vehicle sections play well, but are frustratingly difficult.
The story is very generic and the game is quite short as well. The squad system is fun, but often serves no purpose. The game plays mostly like a B-movie, which makes it fun, but overall forgettable.
The achievements are somewhat glitchy and confusing, which is never a good thing. The online stuff is less taxing than most games which is nice, but with so few people playing the game it is hard to work on. The dossiers are extremely easy to find which helps during the campaign, which is overall very simple even on the hardest difficulty.
While the game tends to be quite fun when you begin, after a while you'll feel the boredom setting in. The story is nothing new or even all that interesting, which is surprising for an Area 51 setting. The graphics and sound are good, but nothing extremely special. The online is just like every other FPS as well, though it was quite fun. Basically, the game isn't terrible, but it is nowhere near amazing. It felt generic and forgettable in almost every aspect. If you like alien themes or FPS games in general, I would definitely recommend it, but it won't have any lasting effect or win any awards.