In the ten years since its inception Midway Area 51 franchise has elevated from a archetypal arcade light gun game to a solid first-person shooter. The tradition continues with the latest release entitled Blacksite for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Much like its previous entry Blacksite is actually a well constructed shooter with solid visuals and an entertaining multi-player component, but will likely suffer at retail for the simple fact that it is being released alongside some truly top-tier titles during the mad rush known as the holiday season. However, if you are a fan of the franchise or just first-person shooters in general then Blacksite is definitely worth a second look.
The story is actually strong in some aspects. You assume the role of mute protagonist Aeran Pierce as you lead your band of brothers on a seemingly routine mission in Iraq. It isn’t long before you discover the fragments of an alien species and a weird infection that causes you to lose a team mate and finally blackout. The game then picks up three years later where the events you encountered in Iraq have begun to spring up in the states; Nevada to be exact. This is where the action begins to take shape as you will begin facing off against all sorts of alien creepies such as deformed soldiers with tentacles and a general assortment of bug-like monsters begging for you to pump them full of lead.
On the surface Blacksite is a standard squad-based first-person shooter. The squad commands are overly simplistic and criminally underused making them feel more like a tacked on gimmick than a full-fledged feature. The commands usually consist of pointing at an object and pressing the action button to cause your squad mates to open a door or flip a switch. What’s even more perplexing is that all of these actions you force your squad to perform you cannot perform yourself. Why I cannot open a door as an elite military operative is beyond my comprehension, but then again when you can’t jump over a two foot barrier in Ghost Recon or move a couch out from in front of a door in Rainbow Six I guess some things are better left as an enigma.
The other half of the squad dynamic is actually creative, even if it is a bit limited. As you progress through the game mowing down enemy scum your squad morale will fluctuate depending on your performance as well as your ability to keep your teammates alive. When morale is at a high your squad mates are far more accurate with their shots and more willing to provide human bullet shields for your safety. Of course the opposite effect is just as pertinent; when your morale is low your squad seems to go into idiot mode and fast. Their accuracy becomes non-existent, they forget to take cover, and even turn and run at the first sign of danger. Needless to say it is an interesting concept but one that needs more balancing before obtaining excellence.
Even with these AI problems Blacksite still manages to entertain for the duration of its campaign. The environments are nicely detailed and the enemies are varied and interesting enough to keep players chugging through the 6-10 hour adventure. In addition to hoofing everywhere the game also lets you take control of several different vehicles throughout the game. Just like a certain other game in the genre featuring plenty of aliens and a somewhat recognizable green protagonist you can opt to drive, ride shotgun, or man the turret and rain destruction upon the alien scum. Everything handles extremely well and these four-wheeled segments break up the monotonous on-foot action nicely.
While the campaign is certainly substantial on top of being surprisingly well paced and entertaining it wouldn’t be a shooter without some online action. When Blacksite was first announced midway had originally promised the ability to play co-op through the main story either online or via split screen. Unfortunately due to development time and other constraints this feature has been removed. There is however, a very nice, albeit a bit standard competitive component available over Xbox Live. Here you can play up to ten players in the typical selection of modes including deathmatch, team deathmatch, and of course capture the flag. There is one new mode introduced in Blacksite (which seems to be the theme with any new FPS these days) called Abduction.
Abduction is not unlike Halo 3’s popular infection mode. Here one player starts off as an alien and attempts to “infect” the human players. Once infected the human player respawns as an alien and chaos ensues until all of the humans have been tagged. The last man standing earns the most points and each round ends when the set number of points is reached. While it will certainly not set the online community ablaze with originality it is addictive and a nice addition to an otherwise by-the-numbers online component. Performance wise Blacksite runs pretty well online with only minor hiccups from time to time and the wide array of power-ups and scattered weaponry are reminiscent of classic arcade shooters such as Quake and Unreal. The online action is fast-paced and entertaining enough to keep players occupied once the single-player is complete.
The one area where Blacksite incessantly impressed me though was the visuals. Built on the Unreal Engine 3 this game shines especially in HD. Environments are absolutely gorgeous and a scattering of destructible elements really engross the player into the experience. There are some minor drops in frame rate from time to time, but the character animations, enemy designs, and overall ambience of the game is certainly impressive to say the least. Sounds are pretty standard with dialogue ranging from tolerable to downright cheesy and the music and sound effects are simply average. Overall the package presents itself well and the visuals do a great job of delivering a convincing atmosphere that is as much fun to look at as it is to play.
Blacksite Area 51 is a game that would have benefited greatly by being released during a slower period. The controls are silky smooth and responsive, the visuals are fantastic, and the multi-player is certainly proficient, but nothing really makes it stand out from the herd. If you are a fan of the series or simply an alien buff such as myself then Blacksite should definitely be on your must-play list this season. I only wish Midway had waited until the holiday rush was over so gamers could realize the potential of this well-crafted shooter without comparing it to everything else already on the shelf.