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Area 51

Before we make complete fools of ourselves again - after all, we were as guilty of everyone else of calling Killzone (sorry) a Halo-beater - we'd just like to point out that one of our dear chums from a neighbouring Xbox-magazine, and we quote, claims, "Area 51 is brilliant".

In fact, he's gone as far to say it's the best thing he's played since Halo 2. Not better than Bungie's epic - that would be an extremely bold/mental claim to make about 80% finished preview code - but very, very good.

In fact, if Midway's sci-fi shooter continues along this frenetic, expectation-defying trajectory, it'll be on course to collide with TimeSplitters 2 for the title of best FPS on PS2. And you can quote us on that.

Employing the voice talents of ex-X-Filer, David Duchovny and gothic cabaret act Marilyn Manson, Midway is boasting the early contender for FPS of the Year with Area 51.

That's not the only reason for its contender status, of course, but the aforementioned stars are, if nothing else, a major statement of intent - Midway mean all sorts of business with this alien-based shooter and the big(ish) name signings are symbolic of its expectations and development budget.

Of course, all FPS games offer unique weapons, characters or levels, but most titles betray themselves with core gameplay that's shallow and unchallenging.

Take, and it pains us to say it, TimeSplitters Future Perfect, for example - some people will argue that the coherent story mode fuels your desire to carry on playing and builds greater emotional attachment.

But, as we lamented last month, 'Splitters has lost its single-player sparkle after a dustfall of dumbed-down difficulty. It's too easy. What we need is a challenging, but fair, game that delivers a fine-balance between relentless action and a quasi-purposeful storyline.

Well, as if the previous sentence didn't make it clear, this could be the - in single-player, at least - FPS we've all been waiting for. Midway has doffed a cap to quite a few of the FPS big guns, and not necessarily those on PS2.

For example, it's got a HAZMAT (Hazardous Materials) suit, which was the name of the special get-up in Deus Ex/Half-Life - and it doesn't look too dissimilar to (whisper it) Halo.

One of the fringe characters has a striking resemblance to Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. And it's also got a scanning system lifted straight from Gamecube's Metroid Prime. Innovative? Nah. But the most successful products (take iPod, for example) rarely break the mould - just steal everyone else's and make it look a lot sexier.

Playing through the action as Ethan Cole (Duchovny), you have to battle your way to the core of the underground labs of famed US top-secret military zone, Area 51. It's some of the most intense gameplay we've experienced.

As you stalk around the myriad of corridors and labs of the industrial environment, you'll be fighting off aliens from all directions, without warning.

Your team-mates - bless 'em - will back you up as much as possible, even calling out your name if a murderous soul is lurking behind you.

But as you delve deeper into the murky chasms of the restricted area, friendships will be lost (or rather, taken away) as more and more mutants rip through your buddies like Cornetto wrappers, leaving you alone and cold with fear as you hear the heavy breathing of another human/alien hybrid.

And all the while, you'll be wondering which angle your own particular decimation will be coming from.

As you try to discover exactly what the hell is happening, you'll be wielding an array of human and alien weaponry. From your basic pistol to the ingenious rebounding plasma rifle that fires rounds off walls, each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, should you come face to face with a flailing miscreant, the shotgun will blow them off their feet. But if the same creature were 20 yards away, the shotgun would be the equivalent of throwing a handful of hot gravel - slightly annoying but in no way dangerous.

Our only concern at this stage is the amount of lead you have to reel off in order to down the early monsters - especially given the testing, but not unfair, scarcity of ammo packs.

Then you've got the seamlessly implemented puzzles. Where some FPSs allow you to plod unhindered around the level looking for a Level 1 Access Card, Area 51 forces you to rely on your wits as well as your ol' grey matter.

Early on in the game you have to acquire a security pass from an armoury, but the door's closed. The door only opens when two different people place their palms on the unlock pads.

Glancing into some debris in the corner, you notice a recently amputated arm, which can only mean one thing.

Yep, you have to place the soggy arm onto the other pad as you press the other one. But as you do this, mutants stream into the room, meaning you've got to fend them off, while the lifeless limb leaves a sloppy blood print as it slides off the panel and onto the floor.

This typifies the sort of frantic anxiety that Area 51 delivers by the bucket-load.

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