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Review by: Bob Mandel
Published: July 4, 2005
Quite a lot of lore surrounds Area 51, the fabled secret military installation where secret experiments are conducted and mysterious alien technologies are housed. You see references to it in science-fiction novels and movies all the time, and few know for sure whether such a place really exists. Now Midway has released a new title called Area 51 to allow gamers to explore the legend still further. Unlike the totally unrelated Area 51 video arcade machine, this new release — ported from the console versions available on the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox — is a full-fledged first-person shooter. Can it live up to the hype?
The story in Area 51 is pretty much what you would expect given the mythology surrounding this covert site. As usually happens in titles like this, something has gone terribly wrong, with some kind of mutating plague having been let loose. To investigate the problem, you get to enter the infamous military installation, playing the role of Ethan Cole, a HAZMAT operative. You undertake your mission as part of special operations team, most of which gets killed off early in the gameplay. After brief training, you get to begin fighting hordes of foes, largely by yourself. So it is up to you to save the human race. The quest is fascinating if not novel, as you learn lots of interesting secrets along the way.
Toward the beginning, Ethan himself is infected with the virus, and gradually begins to mutate grotesquely. Afterwards, although he feels himself uncontrollably degenerating, he can transform at will to use newly acquired mutant powers. When he transforms, you view of the action changes dramatically, as everything appears in a soft blur, and you gain the ability to see enemies that are otherwise invisible. You really feel different when you are in this mode. In addition, you take less damage in this mode. This turns out to be a really enjoyable feature that adds significant depth and strategic choice to the gameplay.
The 18 substantial levels in Area 51 exhibit exquisite design. The winding corridors and tube-like pathways are always intriguing, with few simplistic right-angled passages encountered along the way. Even though — unlike most first-person shooters — all the action takes place within one facility, you never feel bored or face repetitive scenarios. While much of what you see is in a sad state of disrepair, you get an excellent sense of how everything was supposed to fit together in a functional manner. As one would expect in such a facility, you encounter many environmental hazards, such as obstacles to movement, open lava pits, dangerously dangling electrical wires, and burning fires.
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