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Blacksite: Area 51 Review

JP_Hurh By:
GENRE Action 
PUBLISHER Midway Games 
DEVELOPER Midway Studios - Austin 
T Contains Blood, Language, Violence

What do these ratings mean?

It came from outer space. . . and all it got was this lousy game.

What do you call him, you know, that little alien dude with the guitar pick head and almond eyes? One would think that such an iconic image would have some identifying nickname by now: Abduction Abner, for example.

click to enlargeMaybe the reason he doesn’t have a name yet is because he (or she?) is just so damn unsettling. Forget werewolves and vampires and sasquatches, those remnants of the fear of nature and its beasts. A little alien doctor with a chrome syringe, on the other hand, hits a more contemporary fear, that of the sterile and austere scientific mind. And of needles. I hate the needles.

With its conspiracy-theory meets horror subject matter, Area 51: Blacksite would seem poised to capitalize on the rich pulp themes of lil’ Abduction Abner. Yet, besides a few oblique references on the billboards of the Roswell-inspired setting, Abner never makes an appearance. In fact, no aliens, besides a few monsters born in labs (that would make them American, right?) appear in the game at all. Were they abducted? Or were they just holding their very small nose holes in disgust?

The game begins in Iraq, apparently during the search for W.M.D.s in 2003. Your character, mute Army Delta Force member Aeran Pierce, finds a glowy rock thing in the basement of an Iraqi lab, but it turns out to be just some alien super crap, not uranium rods. Still no dice, Cheney.

Jumping forward three years and east several thousand miles, the story really takes off when Rachel, Nevada gets overrun by alien-looking badasses. It really isn’t spoiling anything to tell you that the bad guys are genetically mutated super-soldiers (and a few giant monsters) that escaped from the government lab assigned to glowy rock research. You get sent in, and the predictable ensues. They don’t call you Shooty McBangBang fer nuthin’.

click to enlargeThe story has some ambitious wrinkles—overt references to the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib seem to point towards some bigger stakes. But these political themes have little traction on what is essentially a brainless action game, and are little more than a running inside joke. The names of the levels, such as “W.M.D. M.I.A.,” “Hearts and Minds,” and “Regime Change,” glance sidelong at irony, then wander away.

Or maybe it isn’t irony at all, as the game feels at as old as the current war. The action is reminiscent of where first-person shooters were, say, in 2002. The game never wavers from its linear corridor presentation. Only a handful of the most standard weapons are available, with only two “alien” weapons that might as well be a shotgun and another rocket launcher. And the bad guys rely on overwhelming numbers, rather than tactics, to kill you. Rinse, repeat, and then the rail shooting bit!

The few “new” features are also old. Certain pieces of cover will disintegrate under enemy fire, a neat trick that discourages hiding. Your squad can be directed to go to a certain place, but cannot be persuaded to stay there. And that squad performs either better or worse depending on how well you are playing, a fact registered in a largely opaque “morale” meter. Kill a lot of enemies, and your squad shoots more, but then again, what’s the use if you’re so unstoppable?

click to enlargeOther than that, the game only separates itself from other shooters by being less encumbered, which is a nice way of saying that it is just less. Things you might have come to expect, like holding your breath while sniping or grenades that don’t behave differently whether they hit the ground or hit an enemy, are absent in Area 51. The best thing that can be said for it is that its lack of features makes it accessible—if you somehow missed the FPS revolution of the past three years, Blacksite might be a nice way to learn the controls.

Ah, but then it has all the little annoyances of the FPS of times gone by. Remember getting stuck in walls? How about trying forever to get through some invisible wall only to find out that the game just failed to load the next level? And enemy weapons that float in the air, remember them? Oh, they were just the best. You’d kill a bad guy and he would fall down but his gun would stay where it was. Pried from cold, dead, hands by miraculous gravitational anomaly.

Graphically and aurally, the game does not disappoint expectations of mediocrity. Some of the areas, like the trailer park, look reasonable, but most other areas are bland, lifeless levels each doing their best parking lot interpretation. The voice acting is trenchant, but the writing careens between satire and sincerity so you never can tell if anyone is being serious or funny.

click to enlargeThe multiplayer section of the game also feels decidedly old, as deathmatches frequently devolve into circling and shooting and swearing. There always seems to be some fraction of lag, which makes aiming impossible. Bullets travel absurdly slow, especially the sniper rifle’s, and since hitting a moving target is so difficult, the winning players are usually just charging around out in the open.

Blacksite is less than average as an action game, and stumbles through even the easiest paces. Lead designer Harvey Smith may have wanted to make something politically radical. He reportedly said of a scene in which “reborn” military veterans attack you from beneath a banner reading veteran’s memorial: “How can you look at all these elements and not think this is super fucking subversive?”. But to be subversive one must first be articulate, smart, and forward-thinking. As a message, Blacksite is about as subversive as a drunk rant in a crowded bar. It doesn’t make sense and no one is listening.

Of course, Smith also called the development on the Blacksite project “fucked up.” His comment scores points on brevity, which is one of the rare things the game does well. Five to six hours in and Blacksite curls up and expires, ending mercifully an experience that not even an alien would care to dissect.
D Revolution report card
  • An attempt at political satire
  • Feels like classic shooters of yesteryear
  • In bad ways
  • Bland, unresponsive multiplayer
  • Wall glitches
  • Few weapons
  • No aliens

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