Hands on: Blacksite: Area 51

[Note: Robert Summa also spent some time with an earlier version of the game back in January. You can find his impressions here.]

Depending on how much (or what kind of) pot you smoked in high school, you may or may not have tender memories of the original Area 51 arcade light-gun shooter. Years later, Midway games released a surprisingly solid first-person shooter, loosely based on the original arcade game. The title fared well enough at retail, so a follow-up was inevitable, as there’s certainly money to be made.

While the upcoming first-person shooter, Blacksite: Area 51 (set to hit Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC later this year), shares similarities with its predecessor, it’s most certainly not a direct sequel. Gone are the alien powers and other fancy sci-fi claptrap found in earlier iterations. According to Midway’s Reilly Brennan, Blacksite aims to be grounded more in reality. Taking into account that game is so grounded as to feature chrome-plated aliens and monsters as its central antagonists, a raised eyebrow is wholly justified in this case.

What he means, of course, is that the protagonists and the settings are “real world” We’re talking active, ex-Gulf War soldiers, fighting along comrades that react logically and accordingly based on the situation at hand. If that sounds less interesting than alien infection-induced telekinetic powers and superhuman strength, you’d only be half right.

I played four next-gen games at Midway’s Gamer Event and every single one of them used (in some form or another) Epic’s Unreal Engine 3.0. At this point in the next-gen game, one thing should be taken for granted — the games are going to look great, especially when they’re taking advantage of Epic’s technology.

So it goes without saying that Blacksite (which uses Midway Core technology, a modified version of the Unreal Engine 3.0) was sporting some sharp visuals, particularly obvious when looking at the in-game weather effects. As the demo started, a wet city sign glistens as cracks of lightening fill the sky. It’s beautiful in high definition, but like I mentioned earlier, should we be surprised?

One way in which Blacksite attempts to set itself apart, visually and gameplay-wise, is its use of the Havok physics engine (incorporated here into the Unreal Engine 3.0 for the first time). One of the first enemy sightings was that of a tall, metal alien violently attacking a puny human’s car. As he rocked and banged on then automobile’s frame, various parts (like the door or the entire frame itself) shifted in real time.

Just to test the system, I fired off a few rounds inside of a convenience store. As I had hoped, crap went soaring everywhere, which made me giggle like a little schoolgirl. But the real test of the promised destruction was yet to come.

As I made my way outdoors towards a set of gas pumps, I knew it was on. Enemies began firing from all directions, shooting holes in the glass behind me and ripping plaster from walls. As I took up my offensive, I noticed the Havok engine at work. Carefully firing at gas pumps created the predicted (yet completely unpredictable) explosion, causing a car, and other debris, to fly through the air. Tossing a grenade out into the open was always a delight, because I never knew what to expect. Physics, as always, are fun.

As enemies were flanking me from all directions, my two comrades were close at hand, covering my back or screaming for their lives accordingly. Commanding them was simple, with only a point of my reticule and a click. And even though I appreciated their support (and always sent them into a room first … suckers), I did feel as though I were a one man army at most times.

In its current state, Blacksite: Area 51 doesn’t seem like it’s going to offer anything we haven’t seen before in an FPS. In fact, something about it felt oddly familiar to Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man. Still, more of the same isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, as long as Blacksite can bring the goods in terms of solid gameplay and bring plenty of “Oh, shit!” moments to the table.

If the gigantic beast that emerged from the ground at the end of my demo is any indication (it sent cars and debris flying in all directions, as the game went into slow motion – a sick effect, for sure), Blacksite: Area 51 could deliver when it hits later this year.

According to Midway, a 360 demo should hit Xbox Live Marketplace soon, so you might have a chance to judge for yourselves sooner than you think.

Nick Chester