New Games Keep 'Space Invaders' Alive

What is it with aliens? From "The War of the Worlds (search)" to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers (search)" to "Independence Day (search)," they can't seem to visit Earth without trying to enslave humanity. Have a few margaritas, guys! Do some shopping! It's a nice planet!

Of course, that wouldn't make for much of a video game. America's favorite benevolent alien — "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (search)" — also starred in one of the most notorious fiascos of all time, an Atari 2600 cartridge that nearly wrecked the nascent video-game industry back in the '80s. Extraterrestrials are much better at playing the bad guy, and the alien invasion has been a standard gaming plotline, from classics like "Space Invaders" and "Missile Command" to modern blockbusters like "Half-Life (search)."

With the new version of "War of the Worlds" about to land in theaters, it's a good time to look at some of the latest twists on the genre. And maybe get a little practice for when the aliens really do arrive.

"Destroy All Humans (search)!" (THQ, for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox): This is an often hilarious parody of 1950s sci-fi, as a bug-eyed monster descends on Eisenhower's America. This time, however, you're seeing the action through the bug-eyes of the alien, sent to Earth to harvest human DNA. All the clichés of the alien invasion are sent up, from the mutilated cows to the hapless military to the conspiracy to cover up what's happening. Meanwhile, you get to wreak havoc with nifty weapons like a disintegrator ray, an abducto beam and the "holobob," which lets you disguise yourself as one of those squishy, disgusting humans. There's a lot of freedom in the gameplay, with each mission offering a number of secondary challenges that give you the chance to blow up more buildings or extract more brains. This lovingly detailed homage is filled with so many in-jokes (the gray alien is perpetually irritated that people keep saying he's green) that it's like a playable episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

"Advent Rising (search)" (Majesco, for the Xbox): OK, here we have some friendly extraterrestrials. They're called the Aurelians, and they've come to ... warn us about the bloodthirsty alien Seekers who are coming to wipe us out. Oh well. Better grab that rocket launcher and start blasting, cowboy. Majesco has made much of the scripting here by award-winning science fiction author Orson Scott Card, and if you've read any of his recent books, you'll be prepared for just how drab and derivative "Advent Rising" is. Everything about the game feels rushed, from the bland environments to the sloppy controls to the unforgivable bugs (and we don't mean aliens). Specifically, "AR" has one of the worst targeting systems we've ever encountered; it immediately locks onto objects whether you want to shoot them or not, which becomes exasperating even if you're just trying to walk down a hallway. Majesco says this is just part one of a trilogy, but I can't imagine anyone will be interested enough to see how it turns out.

"Area 51 (search)" (Midway, for the PS2 and Xbox): Welcome back to the notorious lab where the government has been researching alien technology since the little guys crashed near Roswell, N.M., in 1947. You are Ethan Cole, a hazmat specialist sent to investigate a virus that has gotten loose in the facility. The little gray men are the least of your problems; you'll also have to deal with mutant scientists, cloned black op fighters and genetically engineered monsters, not to mention the Illuminati. Unfortunately, the weapons at your disposal are the same old boring shotguns, grenades and assault rifles. How come the bad guys get all the cool toys? "Area 51" devolves rapidly into an ordinary first-person shooter, with repetitive fights, drab environments and an incomprehensible story. Whatever we're learning from alien technology, it can't make an uninspired shoot-'em-up interesting.