Blood on the gameplay

Jul 6, 2005 at 12:00 am

First-person shooters are a videogame staple like Hollywood action flicks. You can trace their origin back to such classic PC games as Doom, Quake and Castle Wolfenstein 3D. Over the years they’ve grown increasingly sophisticated, thanks to more realistic interaction and movie-like cut-scenes that have deepened the narratives driving the action.

Area 51, which features David Duchovny voice actuing and cashing in on his X-Files connection, is similar in plot to the game Half-Life. You’re part of a military HAZMAT team sent into a subterranean base to control an infection that’s turned inhabitants into gun-wielding zombies. Soon you discover a far-reaching conspiracy that reads like a compendium of sci-fi themes: cybernetic soldiers, dubious government agencies, aliens and mutant zombies and so on. It’s a convoluted mess.

But the incomprehensible story comes alive, thanks largely to great graphics and gameplay. After entering with your fire team, your mates are killed and you’re infected, allowing you to switch between a feral, hand-to-hand mutant and weapon-wielding soldier. As you hunt for the cure, you are telepathically haunted by the source of the virus (voiced by Marilyn Manson).

The gameplay is unrelenting, with crisp, finely textured graphics and eerie, realistic audio. The game is long, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the limited artificial intelligence (things tend to always rush you) reduces it to a pretty straightforward shoot-’em-up after a while. Along the way you are supposed to collect clues, but they aren’t integrated in a meaningful way within the game. In concert with the hodgepodge kitchen-sink plotting, the game is reduced to a series of involved and, admittedly, enjoyable firefights.

Cold Winter, on the other hand, has a terrific story that recalls a John Le Carré spy novels, but falls short graphically. You play Alan Sterling, a disgraced MI-6 officer rescued from a prison and enlisted by a shadowy figure in a far-reaching plot involving your now-typical madman in possession of nuclear weapons. The plotting works here, and is well-integrated with the action. The AI is strong, as enemy soldiers move in packs, employ cover, and are not above throwing a fragmentation grenade or using smoke to mask their advance. Their canny movements make killing them that much more enjoyable, enhanced by exploding limbs and extreme rag doll physics.

Unfortunately, the settings are drab and poorly rendered, while many of the levels are excessively claustrophobic. This limits replayability, unless you’re a real sucker for graphically exploding heads.

Like an action movie, first-person shooters Area 51 and Cold Winter provide standard thrills in an increasingly stereotypical manner. Both Area 51 and Cold Winter are sturdy, if unsurprising, escapist fare.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]