Version Played: Xbox 360
Current CEX Price: £1
Ostensibly a continuation/spin-off of ancient lightgun game Area 51 – as well as a sort-of continuation of the largely forgotten PS2/Xbox game, also called simply ‘Area 51’ – Blacksite has that brown, unmistakably Unreal Engine look that so many games on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC had in the mid to late 00s. You could present any number of Blacksite screenshots featuring human antagonists and pass it off as a Rainbow Six game from the same era – or indeed any other first person shooter that was around at the time.
Though that’s the case, there’s more than just a slightly distasteful terrorist hunt through Iraq here, as you may have guessed from the fact that it’s a pseudo-reboot of Area 51. The opening sequence is a flashback, with your team of soldiers encountering far more than just human enemies on a mission deep into enemy territory in the Middle East. It’s not long before you’re fighting what appear to be zombie mutants, who are shortly joined by swarms of giant bug-like creatures and then enormous monsters who erupt from the ground. During the discovery of a piece of otherworldly tech – and the accident that follows, along with some very nasty guardians – you lose a fellow soldier; it’s not long before we’re back to the present day and a military mission taking place in Nevada, home to the infamous Area 51. Things go wrong pretty quickly, as you’d expect.
Right from the start, the shooting feels solid and there are plenty of on-screen prompts to assist with the controls. There are points where you’ll need to instruct your team mates to open a door, plant C4 or attack specific targets – amongst other things – and this is all handled with the tap of LB. However, it never really feels as if you’re ordering around your squad tactically, because – aside from the fact that you can order them to certain points or attack certain targets – all of the explosive laying or situations triggered in a specific context are highlighted with a big icon, that you just highlight and issue your order to get your teammates to carry out the plan. It simplifies things, of course, but a little too much in my opinion.
There are sections where you’re able to take control of vehicles, which are reasonably satisfying; it’s straightforward to switch between vehicle and on foot, in order to get rid of any bad guys – terrestrial and otherwise – that may attack you. There’s plenty of variety in the enemies you’ll face – some are absolutely huge, too.
It’s a shame that Blacksite doesn’t have more character; overall, it feels very bland and even with the addition of aliens to the formula, it doesn’t feel much different to a standard military first person shooter – even your characters barely react when suddenly faced with mutants and aliens after being sent on a mission to kill terrorists. Setting the opening in Iraq is a bit of a misstep too, with the conflict there handled with unfortunately gung-ho jingoism and aloofness; you can imagine that, when this was first released in 2007, that was even more detrimental to the experience.
I do need to clarify that I don’t think the depiction of warfare or real life conflictss is a bad thing – on the contrary, if handled well it can be an important and informative experience – but it was pretty insensitive to drop players into what was then an ongoing and controversial conflict, particularly when you consider that aliens have been awkwardly thrown into the mix too. It just feels like it’s in poor taste – and it’s not particularly necessary, either. The flashbacks to the previous conflict could have been set almost anywhere else and the same story could have been told. It comes across as a deliberate attempt at notoriety, unfortunately.
The levels often feel incredibly linear too, which is most certainly another indication of its age. It’s only in more recent years that FPS games have become a little more open – even the vehicle sections here feel very restricted in terms of exploration; you’ll rarely do more than head from point A to point B.
There’s been an odd removal of the reference to Area 51 in the title, too – for the non-US territories only I believe. During production and even nearing release, the game was going to be named Blacksite: Area 51 in all territories. It’s almost as if the aliens are supposed to be a surprise reveal for non-US gamers – the menu and opening scenes of the game certainly do a lot to make Blacksite look and feel like a standard, relatively realistic military squad shooter; if that was the case, however, why stick a battle featuring a huge alien creature on the box art? Even the text and screenshots on the box make zero reference to the alien element, despite the aforementioned art making it clear that there’s more here than just a military shooter, subject-matter wise. It seems to be awkward positioning for a game that could have used the alien invasion angle to stand out from very similar-looking games.
Though Blacksite does have those issues to contend with, I’d still say that – at current prices – it’s definitely worth checking out. The shooting is solid, it’s a straightforward game to grasp and there’s a decent amount of variety in the levels and enemies (though you’ll be bored of desaturated grey and brown scenery in no time). You could certainly do a lot worse for a quid; it’s just a shame that there’s so little to set Blacksite apart from other shooters.
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