Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Midway's Area 51: A Free Shooter Game

I have always enjoyed a bit of sci-fi shooter so when I discovered that Midway's Area 51 is now completely free to play I downloaded a copy from here

The game got fairly lacklustre reviews when it came out in 2005 and I can understand why. It is a game that was already out of date when it was released. Area 51 doesn't do anything that Half Life, Halo and Unreal weren't doing much much earlier and the graphics and game-play are more 2001 than 2005. Happily the passing of time makes this fault seem less relevant. What the game does do it does very well and it is now possible to enjoy it much as you might enjoy any other retro game.

The game-play, involving shooting a variety of humanoid and alien opponents with a selection of mundane and exotic weaponry is too familiar to warrant explanation. You do get the ability to morph into a hard hitting virus spitting mutant which provides an alternative way to play through levels without really being stronger than the normal gun toting human.

The one area where the game really stands out is in the number of conspiracy theories it manages to cram into one script. Of course alien encounters and government cover ups are absolutely mandatory given the setting but it also manages to drag in the Illuminati, the Kennedy assassination, faked moon-landings, fluoridation of water and just about any other crackpot conspiracy theory you can think of. There is actually quite a complex story being told throughout the game with the aid of cut scenes between chapters and a host of secret documents that you must pick up and "scan" along the way. Scanning reads the document into your data files which is quite a nice touch except that I cannot find any way to access the data file from within the game. You need to exit the game you are playing in order to consult the archives. This really is a bizarre design choice given that some of the information is useful for playing the game.

I must warn anyone thinking of playing the game about a couple of serious issues:

1. There is an intermittent graphics fault whereby the in game lighting disappears leaving you in a pitch black environment. Happily I fond a workaround that turns the lights back on - alt tab out to another window (I leave task manager running in the background just for this purpose) and then alt tab back to the game and, hey presto, vision is restored.
2. The second fault is that there are intermittent crashes to desktop when the game breaks for a cutscene. It crashes before the game saves leaving you to repeat from the last checkpoint. This happens up to 50% of the time and has even happened to me after a boss fight.

These faults might be specific to my combination of an ATI graphics card and Windows 7 64 bit but I couldn't find help for either fault on the net. Given that Midway are in receivership there is no likelihood of official support. Happily the game has very well placed checkpoints and you never have to replay more than about five minutes of game but I know that even this would be a deal breaker for many. I guess it is a good sign of how much I am enjoying the game that I am prepared to put up with it.

PS. Apparently the free release of this game was sponsored by the US Airforce back in 2008 and there are supposed to be recruiting ads interspersed at various points in the game. I haven't seen any ads at all so I wonder if that is related to my crashes. Could it be that the game is going off to look for an ad server which is now offline?

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