Although we're generally inclined to 'trust no-one' when it comes to the conspiratorial air of hype that surrounds almost any game likely to score seven or above, Midway has earned itself some deserved applause over the past year or so with some original titles arriving amid the licensed/franchised malaise like a breath of fresh air. With the likes of Psi-Ops and The Suffering gaining decent acclaim last year we were in the somewhat rare position of having a degree of expectation for the US publisher's long overdue entry into the first-person shooter arena. Another sci-fi shooter could have so easily have fallen flat on its face, but you know what? Two hours in we're far from disappointed.
It's a tough call though when you acknowledge what it's up against. The world doesn't really need another sci-fi shooter to rival Halo, Doom and Half-Life does it? Maybe not, but you can't deny that setting one inside the infamous top secret (perhaps even mythical) Area 51 base offered Inevitable Entertainment (now known as Midway Austin) a huge well of inspiration. Mad scientist develops Roswell aliens into biological weapons? Check. David Duchovny doing the voice of lead character Ethan Cole? Check. Crazed, bug-eyed mutant soldiers running riot and thirsty for your blood? Check. A beefy selection of weapons to deal with said crazed mutants? Check. In fact, make up your own wish list, it's probably somewhere within Area 51.
"I thought it was quarantined"
Answering a distress call from the US Army, you, as Ethan Cole, are one of four members of the HAZMAT team sent into Area 51 to work out what the hell's going on. It was supposed to be a routine mission: go in, identify the biohazard, get out. But as with so many "routine missions" it's never quite as simple as all that, and right from the start you know this isn't going to be anything of the sort.
After an exceptionally brief round of target practice it's scripted cinematics all the way as Area 51 keeps the pace high and the explosive action fast and furious and you fend off wave after wave of fast-moving mutants with Lizard-like eyes. Set in a dark, destroyed science lab environment, flames pour out of the shattered remains and electrical cables whip around violently, and you'll be fighting for your life at every turn.
To begin with Area 51 plays by the FPS rules; you might initially shrug that it's little more than a Halo wannabe. You'd have a point, with opening sections that borrow liberally from the dark, corridor-based face-off of the Xbox classic, but once you factor in the blood-smeared dark fear of Doom III, the mutant frenzy of Resident Evil: Code Veronica, the scanning intrigue of Metroid Prime and the spirit of X-Files conspiracy Area 51 quickly becomes an impressively monstrous place to inhabit. And if you're still in any doubt that it has enough of its own personality to stand out from the crowd it throws in a few surprises for good measure.
The Midway point
You'd be hard pressed to imagine that Area 51 offers much more than a retread when you're wielding the standard pistol/machine gun/shotgun array that we're all (too) familiar with, and taking on a posse of cannon fodder enemies that charge obligingly in your direction (and don't exactly take much to mow down) but the key thing is that the opening gambit is relentlessly explosive and visually impressive enough to drag you attention away from the feeling of having seen it all before. Okay, your adversaries don't necessarily put up much of a fight, but they're fast, well-animated, and go down beautifully thanks to some superb ragdoll physics.
Much of the early action is admittedly a case of flicking switches, heading to the next objective point (again, very much plucked right out of the Bungie school of game design), picking up discarded keycards and securing each area, but soon enough it becomes apparent that you're facing an enemy far too strong for even an experienced HAZMAT team with 100 odd previous missions behind them. One by one your pals bite the dust in grisly circumstances; first McCann loses his head, then Ramirez bites it, and finally poor old Krispy has to be put out of his misery once he inconveniently transforms into a salivating mutant and starts thirsting for our blood. Alone with only a few hundred dead mutants to keep you company, this is clearly not going to be easy.
But, without giving too much away, the game starts to come into its own once you start to gain some Biological Mutation 'enhancements' of your own. Powers that no doubt we'll have a lot of fun using against our aggressors in the fullness of time; we have absolutely no problem with the fact that our man is slowly transforming into an alien being - so long as we can find the cure, of course. We're looking forward to the Contagion Mutation ability - a weapon that lets you fire a projectile out of your flesh and infects an enemy, forcing him to switch allegiances and fight on your side. The Parasites also sound a lot of fun, sucking energy from your subjects and returning it back to you, while the Meson Cannon fires projectiles that attach to an object and then spawn tendrils that attach to up to four enemies before killing them in gruesome fashion. Nice.
Sporting a 37-level single-player campaign, online and four-player split-screen multiplayer (on both PS2 and Xbox versions), Area 51 is definitely a richly atmospheric game already, and one with bags of potential to stand alongside its illustrious competitors. Look out for a full in-depth review shortly before its May 20th release.