Version tested: Xbox 360
Maybe it's just creative fatigue. Maybe it's just an attempt to go with what sells. Maybe it's just another US government conspiracy to train us to be elite super soldiers against an impending alien invasion.
Maybe aliens have already landed and have sucked out the creativity of modern game developers. Whatever it is, the absolute deluge of shooters appearing these days can't be a good thing. Not for the reviewers such as I playing their 15th inside of four months. Not for Joe Public stuck wondering which ones to buy, and certainly not for the publishers who end up releasing less-than-brilliant offerings that are pushed to one side as the genre juggernauts roll over everything else.
Blacksite is, like it or not, just another shooter. It's not a turkey, but nor is it even close to providing the kind of thrills that its heavyweight contemporaries have managed so forcefully during the latter part of this incredible year for games. Quite simply, what probably looked like an exciting, cinematic prospect in the early part of development now finds itself completely out of its depth, unable to bring anything new to the table both in terms of gameplay, nor technically - where it arguably struggles most. It is, also, criminally short, with its six episodes all clocking in at well under an hour each. It you stuck on Blacksite after dinner, chances are you'd finish it before bedtime, with ample time for a toilet break, a quick check of the footy scores and a drink break between episodes.
Undoubtedly designed primarily to appeal to a US audience, Blacksite is nevertheless a thinly veiled attack on the Bush administration, and the climate of military dissatisfaction of recent years. But enough about politics. The game kicks off with a fairly humdrum episode set in Iraq, where you, Aeran Pierce, lead a band of generic military beefcakes on a forgettable mission that culminates with the discovery of some kind of alien infestation. A few years later, it transpires that this same threat has found its way to Nevada, and you find yourself seeking out the source of the disturbances, set against a backdrop of moral dilemmas and often baffling military orders.
With the exception of a few genuinely impressive set-pieces (the ones you'll have seen in the many videos), the thing that'll strike you immediately about Blacksite is how rarely it attempts to stray away from regulation FPS territory. From the word go, you'll look down your sights, easily kill the rather sleepy enemies, then try shooting without the sights and realise there's absolutely no recoil to worry about. Ok. (Dakka dakka dakka death.)
You'll also start to mentally note down a whole load of other little oddities, like the hugely forgiving recharging health system, and the amazing number of shots you can tolerate before the screen goes a bloody shade of red. You'll experience the same, predictable waves of AI-free enemies, and quickly realise how easy it is to take them down from distance without really having to try too hard.
The whole 'morale' system will strike you as particularly undercooked, seeing as it really makes no difference whether they're in high spirits or not. Supposedly if the two or three people accompanying you are experiencing low morale they'll be more cautious than when it's high - but you won't really notice or even worry about that. The main problem isn't their performance, it's whether they're currently incapacitated or not. Given that there's not even a cursory attempt to make you worry about their health, all you can really do is look after yourself. If they help out with the odd kill, great. If not, no great loss. They'll wake up in a minute anyway. It's only (the 432nd) flesh wound today. You can, by the way, instruct your team mates to fire on a target of your choosing by hitting RB over the designated target, but there's rarely any point. They'll only blunder in and get killed anyway. You really are better off just doing the killing yourself, and only using your squad for their miraculous ability to open doors that you can't.
Don't Die Hard
With careless enemies, an absence of gun recoil and an over-generous health system, it might well be some way through the second episode before you even come close to dying. To say that Blacksite is a challenging game would be a lie as big as the one about this being representative of a next generation shooter. Even on the middle difficulty (deemed 'Hard') you'll barely flinch.
And if the so-so opening episode with its ludicrously easy 'boss' seems a tad ordinary, the second is far, far worse, thanks to some truly awful driving mechanics. Placed at the wheel, you accelerate with the left stick and steer with the right, and wonder who on Earth thought that this ham-fisted system was a good idea. You might get used to the wobbly handling in a few minutes, but it feels about as natural as Jordan's boobs during a jog. Now and then you'll be forced to get out and negotiate with some tentacled aliens to clear a road block, but in the main it's a case of simply driving as fast as you can and trying not to steer in the path of those annoying exploding gits that pop out of the ground. Avoiding giant fireball-spewing worms is fine, but through a mixture of cheap game mechanics, bad luck and terrible handling, you'll die a few boring deaths before you get it right. But then all that's left is a succession of truly mediocre levels, full of samey, middling combat, over enthusiastic dialogue and uninspiring and overly linear locations.
The game tries to spice things up with some on-rails sections set in a chopper, as well as some meaty boss encounters, and for a brief period there's a sense that Blacksite could have gone onto deliver increasingly intense scenarios against an overwhelming enemy. But no sooner do you dispatch these monumental enemies, it's back to the dull, dire routine of seeing off perfunctory enemies with low hit points and even lower artificial intelligence. For a game put out as a flagship, full-priced offering it's not really acceptable, and, somehow, isn't even as engaging as the rather undervalued Area 51. Certainly, as a piece of conspiracy pulp fiction Blacksite falls flat on its face, which is the very least of its worries, sadly.
Given that it's the Unreal Engine 3 behind it, we at least expected the game to wow technically, but sadly that's rarely the case (unless you're only looking at the great stills). Not only is the frame-rate permanently in the doldrums, basic techniques like dynamic shadowing are handled absolutely horrendously in Blacksite, with the kind of wince-inducing chunkiness overlaid on otherwise pretty detailed character models. All manner of other jarring glitches and weird shimmering constantly trouble the texturing, and the amount of pop-up and jaggies on show make you wonder what kind of tortured development process lead to the game being allowed out of the door in such a painfully unoptimised state. Factor in the often bland, lifeless, linear environments, the inherent repetition in the enemies and a ludicrously short single-player campaign, and it simply feels like a game that was booted out of the door way before it was anywhere near finished. There's genuine talent not being given a chance to shine with this game, and we're quite sure there are plenty of frustrated individuals connected with this near-miss project.
Of course, we could tell you how much Blacksite has been rescued by amazing, innovative online multiplayer, but that'd be the biggest lie of all. It does what it does, with a routine checklist of modes including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Abduction, but nothing it does hasn't been done far better in dozens of other titles. Worse still, the mooted co-op mode for the single-player campaign was ripped out, while modes like CTF suffer by only offering two maps out of the available eight. Not only that, the multiplayer is online-only, and supports a mere ten players at once. Whoop. The Abduction mode is perhaps the only one to offer anything interesting in that you have to try and stay alive to remain human, or hunt down the humans as the Reborns, but it'd be clutching at straws to suggest that this rescues the game from its other sins.
Blacksite had clear potential to be an exciting battle against a twisted government conspiracy, featuring hostile unusual enemies and an interesting squad-based twist on the combat. The truth is somewhat more harsh than that, with the game ending up as little more than a seriously undercooked run-of-the-mill shooter that labours along with poor AI, botched squad handling and undemanding combat. With a desperately unfinished feel about it, Midway has ended up rushing a mediocre game onto the shelves at precisely the point when there's an embarrassment of riches for shooter fans. Even if you were a big fan of Area 51, this is one game that should come with government restrictions attached.
5 / 10