"We're as excited about the fiction as we are about anything."
That's not the kind of thing you expect to hear about the sequel to 2005's Area 51. While that game was many things -- fast, pretty, entertaining -- "deep" was not one of them. But Harvey Smith, creative director of Midway's Austin Studios, is obviously aiming for something a lot more challenging with BlackSite: Area 51.
"We really wanted to go after what people are afraid of today," he says, "and do something interesting and relevant." To that end, the team has enlisted the help of Gears of War writer Susan O'Connor to create a story that is far more than a campy rehash of Area 51 conspiracy theories.
While the primary story takes place shortly after the events of the previous game, the two stories have virtually nothing in common. The research facility that was the centerpiece of the previous game has been sealed -- paved over Chernobyl-style -- and although later in the game you will end up back in that facility, you'll find it a very different place. See, apparently all those people abducted by "aliens" since the Roswell incident were actually snatched by the U.S. government as part of a program attempting to create a supersoldier. But now these abductees have broken out, formed a community of their own (calling themselves "the Reborn"), and set out seeking revenge. And they are pissed.
It's not just the story that's deeper this time, though. The game also introduces a simple squad-control feature that adds a layer of strategy the previous game lacked. "At any point in the game, you pull the left trigger and your squad goes to the spot you're pointing at, and they do something cool," says Smith. "They get in a vehicle, they demolish a door, they attack a particular target, or they move to a specific spot so you can flank it." This simplistic teamwork feature certainly won't have the Rainbow Six franchise running scared, but it does boast a level of personal interaction not often seen.
SCREENS: Get a move on, buddy -- the alien behind you is about to rip you a new one. Click the image above to check out all BlackSite: Area 51 screens.
"All the time, the game tracks your squad's morale," Smith says. "If they're doing well, they're psyched, and they're more effective. If you start doing poorly they take cover more often, they fire less often, and they're less effective. So you really have to watch the squad to make sure they're doing OK. But it never gets in the way of the fast-paced gameplay." Don't expect some kind of morale meter, though; your team's state is communicated much more naturally, with facial expressions, team chatter, and other subtle cues.
As with many squad-based games, this poses a challenge for multiplayer. But the BlackSite team appears to be addressing that in a unique way. The game will feature a two-player co-op mode in which one player controls the squad, and the other has access to a suite of abilities not seen in single-player mode. (While the team declined to offer any more details, we're wondering if the alien powers that developed over the course of the previous game might play some role.) You can also expect a more standard selection of competitive modes that should be familiar to any shooter fan. Surprisingly, while the previous game hit unprecedented team sizes on PS2, BlackSite will most likely feature multiplayer on a smaller scale, with the team aiming for 16-player competitive matches.
While the game is quite early at this stage, exhibiting some framerate issues and lacking the full implementation of the "Massive D" environment-destructability technology developed by the Stranglehold team, it's clearly a much deeper, prettier, and serious game than its predecessor. Yes, it's certainly "another alien shooter," but if the final product ends up as sharp-looking and fast-moving as the last game, and as story-driven as planned, this first-person shooter just might be able to go toe-to-toe with the best of them.