Critically panned. Disowned by its own development team. Marketed as a sequel to a game nobody bought. It’s hardly surprising that Blacksite Area 51 can be found nestling in many a dusty bargain bin. However, with the new X-Files movie hitting cinemas it seemed prudent to go back and asses whether Blacksite can provide a fix of cheap alien killing fun.
The game starts off in war torn Iraq, with absolutely no aliens in sight. The controls are tight, the weapons are satisfying and Iraqi soldiers dutifully stand next to explosive barrels and/or stock still when you’re trying to shoot them (which is always nice). There is even a decent squad control system that allows you to direct fire from your squad on particular targets and order them about with an intuitive single button press. Nothing that would trouble Ghost Recon, but a good addition nonetheless.
During this first hour the game is just engaging enough to keep you playing, but not so immersive you won’t simultaneously be planning your grocery shopping. Because of the linear level design there is never any real confusion about where to go, so it is easy to play the game when tired, distracted or drunk (or all three). As the Iraqi level unfolds you get the vague impression there may be some sort of sophisticated political message behind the game. But just when you start thinking Blacksite might be trying to do something intelligent, along comes a badly drawn half-alien geezer with a tentacle growing out of his head and things begin to go rapidly downhill.
In a sudden switch from reality to fantasy the game quickly becomes a blur of laughable aliens, bad dialogue and a nonsensical story which wouldn’t trouble a made-for-TV scifi drama from the late 1970s. Without giving away any twists, somebody in your squad has a nasty exobiological encounter at the conclusion of the Iraqi chapter while everyone else decides to run away. Predictably, he pops up again later on and isn’t best pleased about being left for dead and turned into an alien-human hybrid. Which is understandable. Added to the plot blender is some other general stuff about aliens taking over the planet and mysterious goings on at Area 51, but fundamentally when playing Blacksite all you need to remember is to follow the objective arrow and shoot anything with tentacles.
One thing that slowly begins to become apparent as you play is that the game has more than its fair share of bugs (of the software problems sort, not the creepy crawly kind). In many ways Blacksite is a stroll down memory lane to 1994, where getting stuck on scenery in a game or hearing sound being blasted out of speakers at the wrong time was par for the course. Taken individually no one issue is too serious, but over the course of the game they begin to seriously grate. In one particularly bad example my entire squad of highly armed special ops soldiers became trapped in the back garden of a suburban house entirely unable to escape because the game refused to unlock a small wooden gate. In reality, I imagine the soldiers would kick down the gate and continue the struggle for humanity’s survival. Sadly, in this case they decided to stand around pulling faces like a cow trying to do algebra.
Further disappointment comes from the fact the game was clearly designed for co-operative play. Many areas are clearly set up for two players to flank the enemy, share vehicles or man two side-by-side gun turrets. It is widely believed that this feature was torn out at the last moment, and while the game is never broken by this decision, there are sections that are badly balanced and rather boring when playing alone. One other issue with the game is the vehicles. While the handling is not quite as bad as it could have been, the twitchy vehicles have very little inertia and a tendency to get grounded on even the smallest pebbles.
Blacksite does have a couple of redeeming points. One of these is the way the sniper rifle scope is handled. In many games using scoped weapons can block out nearby threats and cause a loss of spatial awareness. Blacksite features a sniper rifle that progressively zooms in depending on how hard you pull in the left trigger. It works brilliantly, allowing threats to be prioritised and then taken out with a combination of speed and accuracy. Visually the game also has a few moments of grandeur. Some of the larger alien foes are particularly impressive (in one memorable sequence you fight a gigantic alien triffid sprawled across a huge valley spanning bridge), and indeed the entire game is never less than graphically acceptable. The campaign is also blessedly short at about 6 hours, and never really outstays its welcome.
Multiplayer modes are included. While very simplistic the basic deathmatch and capture the flag modes are actually surprisingly solid and enjoyable. Sadly, on both Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 the lobbies remain about as sparsely populated as an American war memorabilia shop in the middle of Basra.
So is the game worth a punt at a bargain price? Probably not. There are plenty of better games on both the Playstation, Xbox and PC, but if you absolutely must have a game that involves shooting aliens, then Blacksite has enough substance to make it at least worth a rental. A slightly sub average 4/10.
Related: STALKER review