1 (2-16 online)Rated:
M (Mature)Release Date:
April 7, 2009Screenshots: LinkAmazon: Buy Now!Written By:
The vast majority of movie-based games are at best ignored and at worst over-marketed but underdeveloped products. In 2004 The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay became an exception and still holds up today in the recently-released remake. Bundled with that remake is a new campaign titled Assault on Dark Athena that while less impressive maintains its predecessor’s standards.
When Starbreeze (The Darkness) set out to make a game that captured the elements of being Vin Diesel’s Riddick character, they did just that. They didn’t try to adapt him to any single existing game formula but incorporated what they needed in order to make a game where you did what Diesel did in the films. The result is something that feels unique and quite a bit smarter than most action games.
I’ve seen both of the Riddick movies and honestly I think they’re pretty cheesy. The second movie, simply titled The Chronicles of Riddick, felt like the kind of thing I’d have come up with when I was I5 with no editing or moderation whatsoever. The redeeming feature of the films however is the character Riddick and how Vin Diesel has made that character his own. Richard B. Riddick is not an appealing character because he is super strong or really tough. Riddick is appealing because he’s an anti hero who combines his raw strength with intelligence and cunning. Both of the campaigns contained here have successfully captured and allowed players to experience a bit of those elements which makes them great adaptations and makes them stand out from other mindless shooters.
To do this Starbreeze combined elements of shooters, adventure games, and stealth games, and the balance is perfect. The whole thing is in first person and you do shoot things, but simply calling this a first person shooter implies the wrong mentality. Riddick knows that he is one man against armies. His objective is not to kill things, but to get out of places. As such, players will spend a lot of time not assaulting enemies in a hail of bullets, but hunting and quietly eliminating them from the shadows. As well as this comes off, this style of gameplay is also where the only real flaw between both campaigns shows up.
One of the staples of stealth gameplay is AI, and the Riddick campaigns’ main weakness is their very basic AI which works against them in two directions. Most of the time enemies are quite stupid, but other times the AI gets pretty cheap, showing unrealistic levels of awareness. It’s like playing the early Metal Gear games. Despite that there is some very good game design mapped around that poor AI which makes it all work nonetheless. As a result, stalking and picking off enemies in the darkness still feels about as satisfying as in any good stealth game. It’s this along with the escape theme that gives what you’re doing here real context beyond “just kill things.” Despite being in a generic sci-fi setting, that goes a long way towards making a game feel believable, but it’s not the biggest thing.
What contributes most to the uniqueness of the Riddick campaigns is the fact that they are really adventure games that happen to be set in heavy-action situations. That’s pretty interesting on its own, but what’s more profound is that you’re still interacting with nothing but “bad people.” The adventure angle takes what are always considered the usual kinds of enemies in videogames and populates a whole world with them. The result is a surprisingly deep interactive look at the world of criminals.
Yes it’s really just “the wrong side of the law – in space,” but Starbreeze pulls it off better than most game developers pull off contemporary crime drama. Both of the Riddick movies are about criminals colliding with malevolent world-changing entities, but both of the game campaigns are just about the interactions of criminals… in space. This is pretty much the crux of Escape From Butcher Bay but heavily subsides in Dark Athena.
The first thing that stuck out for me about Butcher Bay is that it treats prison as more than just a place to escape from. I’ve long wondered why prison as a setting has been ignored in games. Starbreeze has proven here that prison can be just as rich a setting as any. Usually when you’re locked up in a game, it’s just a short stint where you might break out of a cell and maybe meet some mean guards and fellow prisoners. Anyone who’s watched National Geographic recently though knows that prisons aren’t just places where people are locked up, they’re self-contained societies.
Escaping from prison in Butcher Bay means more than just breaking out of a cell and getting through all the guards and criminals. Those guys are all people too, people who can be interacted with. The Butcher Bay prison is laid out almost like a town is in a role playing game, just a lot meaner. There are different sections with different people; and every prisoner is a unique character with a name, face, and voice which creates a population that goes beyond just “a bunch of bad guys.” Oh it’s a dank, disgusting, and vulgar place, but it’s also a deep one. As such, you won’t just sneak around and kill people in Butcher Bay. You’ll spend time mingling with the prison populace – conversing and doing favors for information and shivs and things like that. Taking advantage of Butcher Bay’s characters and relationships is just another dimension of how Starbreeze chose to portray the world of Riddick, and it serves to deepen that portrayal.
The relative lack of real characters in Dark Athena to hold up the adventure slant is probably why a lot of critics are seeing it as inferior to Butcher Bay. Personally I don’t think the Dark Athena content is all that inferior to Butcher Bay. There isn’t nearly as much character interaction in Dark Athena which leaves you stabbing and shooting people most of the time. Furthermore, Dark Athena’s main feature is a cool-ass new gun that encourages assault tactics while stealth is now made unusually difficult. That doesn’t mean Starbreeze just gave up and made a shooter though.
Dark Athena is kind of a victim of its setting. Whereas Butcher Bay took place in a big prison full of people in the same situation as Riddick, Dark Athena takes place on a ship the crew of which is hostile to Riddick. The only way for Starbreeze to really bring the Butcher Bay feeling back to that ship was to give it its own captive population which in my opinion got the job done. From the half a dozen prisoners you meet in Dark Athena, you get a lot of narrative context that sufficiently fills out the setting. From the ship’s former captain to the vile ex mercenary to the grief-stricken mother to the gang member with a grudge against Riddick, you get a full, involving picture of what’s going on that is significant throughout the campaign. Even if it doesn’t feel as deep as Butcher Bay, the Dark Athena campaign still feels more involving than most first person games.
What completes the overall feel of both the Riddick campaigns is their incredible graphics. Through the years Starbreeze’s proprietary engine has remained one of the most impressive in console games. On the original Xbox in 2004, Butcher Bay had graphics almost comparable to today’s games. With a little touch-up, that campaign probably surpasses most of what’s out today in terms of lighting (although it still looks a lot like the DOOM 3 engine). Dark Athena, having been made from the ground up more recently, looks slightly better – which really means one of the most impressive-looking games this year so far.Bottom Line
When you think about it, the Riddick stories probably resemble those of videogames more than anything else right now. That’s probably part of why the Riddick games are at least as respectable as the movies are. What drove that home though is how Starbreeze looked at the current gaming landscape, took what they needed, and used that to make an adaptation that’s actually healthy for the license for once.8.5/
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