Blacksite: Area 51 (PS3)
Around the midpoint of BlackSite: Area 51, you fight a generic boss monster who begins to spawn smaller monsters. Your burly comic relief sidekick says, "Aw, hell, it's crapping out those octopus dog things!" This is perhaps BlackSite's most insightful moment, and a metaphor for the game itself: something big, generic, derivative and absurd that craps out octopus dog things.
This is the sequel to the forgettable Area 51, which was Midway's attempt to claim a bit of the shooter mindshare. In that game, you descended into a military base infested with the traditional big-eyed grays of UFO lore. You gradually mutated as you played, acquiring a few superpowers to complement the gunplay. But BlackSite has none of this because the developers decided to reboot the franchise, and in this case "reboot" means "make more like Half-Life."
As a shooter, BlackSite's main problem is that it does nothing to stand out. It begins as a sort of modern-day Call of Duty, using the same medkit-less health system and a rail-ride gunner mission. Then the mutants show up and it goes all Half-Life, complete with headcrabs, cloned commandos and a dead ringer for Alyx for its token female. At some points, it also attempts a Gears of War vibe with a buddy system, gruff grunt talk and the equivalent of corpsers for boss monsters. Halo's vehicle controls make an appearance. The boss at the end of the game, who has about a thousand hit points, is just what you'd expect from such an unimaginative shooter. In short, there is nothing you haven't seen before.
This might not be a problem if the game were more competent and less sloppy. At one point, you get to fight with a helicopter hovering overhead to help you, but it won't attack anything unless you manually point at and then designate the target. Which begs the question, why don't you simply shoot your target? The plot sometimes makes no sense. Early on, you're told that you can't be extracted from a mission, but a vehicle will be delivered so you can drive out. At which point a big huge helicopter arrives, hovers fifteen feet overhead, and drops a Hummvee. It doesn't even occur to BlackSite?s developers to offer an explanation for why the helicopter couldn't simply drop a rope and carry you away. If the point of the level is that you're an elite special forces operative who's been abandoned -- and, yes, this will be important -- shouldn't someone have been paying attention to such a glaring plot hole?
The lack of attention is also apparent technically. Although it's built from the Unreal 3 engine, you'd never know from the murky visuals and restrictive level design. The engine doesn't fare very well on the PlayStation 3, which has recently seen stellar graphics in titles like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Unreal Tournament 3. The frame rates get choppy and there are pauses for loading that might make you think your PS3 has frozen. Enemies are outlined with a white glow to keep them from blending into the brown soupy palette that supposedly evokes Iraq, and then Nevada. The character models look terrible, bullet holes float in midair, and scripted doors don't always open when they should. It seems that so much energy was spent on a few canned door-opening animations that nothing was left over for something as simple as having an NPC look at you when he's talking to you.
The level design is built around one-way ramps that might as well be loading screens for how they signal that you're moving into a new area. Far too much time is spent driving through canyons, either literal or figurative. A big chunk of the endgame has you dangling helplessly on a string, being lowered into masses of bad guys. There are some mildly lively small town and suburban settings, most notably a trailer park and drive-in theatre. A boss battle against a giant octopus on a bridge, fought from inside a helicopter, is actually pretty impressive.
BlackSite features a squad morale gimmick that doesn't go anywhere. The idea is that the better you play, the more efficient your two teammates will be. While this might be a good idea in theory, in practice it simply means you'll be rewarded for doing well (which is precisely when you don't need help) and you'll be punished for doing poorly (which is precisely when you do need help). Who thought this was a good idea?
The most memorable thing about BlackSite is its clumsy attempt to make a political point. Most of the levels are named after familiar Bushisms, such as Mission Accomplished, Coalition of the Willing, Fighting Them Over There, Misunderestimated, The Surge, Stay the Course, and Last Throes. In the dialogue, you might catch references to the ozone layer, mortgage rates and Abu Ghraib. The bad guy's final monologue includes chestnuts like "no one told us it was torture" and "men on the ground always get sent home in a box". By the time the storyline is fully revealed, you've got a laughable hybrid of Resident Evil and Walter Reed.
BlackSite obviously takes issue with the current Administration, which is hardly a controversial position. But by cramming this position into the game, it comes across as passive-aggressive and slightly insulting, particularly to those who might share that perspective. Does political commentary really work in a shooter this facile? Because if our government is using pieces of a recovered UFO from Area 51 to mutate kidnapped soldiers, homeless people and convicts into mindless zombie warriors, then a little waterboarding doesn't sound so bad.
As a multiplayer game, there's not much here. In addition to the standard deathmatch and capture-the-flag, there's a clever "abduction" mode that involves one team converting the other. However, the weapons are bog standard, with only two "alien" weapons to mix up the usual shotgun/machine gun/rocket launcher schtick. It?s worth mentioning that you're unlikely to find more than a handful of players on the PS3 servers, and even then the browser takes a fair bit of shuffling around before you realize you may be the only one online. There's no option for split-screen multiplayer, either. It's a shame Midway didn't add split-screen cooperative play, especially considering you play so much of the game with artificial-intelligence-controlled squadmates. This could have been a selling point for this otherwise unremarkable shooter.
In the end, this is exactly the wrong time for Midway to release a dull, unimaginative, sloppy shooter like BlackSite: Area 51. With so many excellent titles available, this game and its octopus dog things are going to quickly find their way to the bottom of the bargain bin.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.