As arguably the best movie outing Vin Diesel has under his belt, Pitch Black was a great film, and created the memorable anti-hero of Riddick, the most dangerous man in the universe. As the second (and pretty dire, it has to be said) movie hit the screens, so too did Riddick’s gaming debut – Escape From Butcher Bay.
This title, arriving on the original Xbox and PC in 2004, explored Riddick’s back story, and detailed his escape from one of the galaxy’s most notorious prisons, and the location where he acquired his trademark ‘eye shine’.
Well, this classic Riddick adventure has returned for some re-mastered Xbox 360 action, along with an entire new campaign, hence the new title, Assault On Dark Athena.
If you’ve already played the original Xbox incarnation of Riddick, then you’ll be familiar with this title already. What we have here is a very stealth-heavy FPS that makes use of Riddick’s inherent sneaky abilities, as well as his considerable combat skills.
Starting out in the Butcher Bay campaign, your goal is to escape the inescapable prison by any means necessary. To do this you’ll need to converse and interact with the other inmates, fight unruly prisoners to make your mark and earn the respect of others, and you’ll also have to sneak around the prison’s off-limits areas, bypassing and incapacitating guards and avoiding security.
Combat in the game comes in two flavours – standard FPS gun play and melee hand-to-hand combat. Gun fights are solid, but nothing radically different, and it’s with the melee combat that the game’s action shines. Staying in first person you can engage in fisticuffs through Riddick’s eyes, and thanks to the intuitive control system, it’s easy to pull off vicious combos and powerful hits. With the correct timing you can also counter-attack foes, even disarming guards and turning their guns against themselves, in a grizzly, execution style.
Close combat isn’t just hand-to-hand either, and during the course of your adventure you’ll make use of makeshift ‘shivs’, knuckledusters and clubs, amongst other things. Each of these comes with unique, gruesome kills.
The stealth element is another highlight, if a flawed one. As hard as Riddick is, he’s not immortal, and to survive the army of guards and gun turrets, you’ll need to sneak around, hiding in shadows and making your moves when the time is right. When concealed in shadow and in stealth mode (crouched), the screen bears a blue tinge, and foes cannot see you. While undetected, you can sneak up behind foes and take them out silently without raising any alarms. Once done, you’ll also need to drag the body out of sight, otherwise you’ll alarm anyone discovering their fallen comrade.
As well as simply hiding in shadows, Riddick can also make use of ventilation shafts and other routes to avoid patrols, and often the environment can be used to his advantage, such as pushing a guard over a ledge, or into a giant ventilation fan – cosy! Of course, Riddick also has his eye shine, and so, can see in the dark, which often lets him get the drop on his foes.
I did mention that his system is flawed, however, and despite the chance to iron out problems with the original incarnation of Butcher Bay, Starbreeze apparently decided not to tinker too much with the game’s mechanics.
While the stealth system is great for the majority of the time, occasionally, even when in shadow, and soundly hidden, the stealth meter flits on and off, meaning for some reason Riddick isn’t quite obscured from sight. This leads to many mistakes, and random altercations with guards. This is an issue I was hoping the devs would address, but sadly, they haven’t, and as a result, the system feels sloppy, and undependable in places. This system seems far more refined in Dark Athena, however.
Another sticking point is the enemy AI. Again, this is spot on for the most part, but it’s also frustratingly common for the AI to mess up, with guards getting stuck on walls, or blocking each other. Sometimes guards glitch so badly, that the stealthy route is impossible, meaning you can either go in screaming, or you have to reload your last save point. Not good, and a fundamental issue that Starbreeze really should have spent more time on.
Now, as this is an Xbox 360 title, Butcher Bay has received a huge makeover, and although the original game was one of the best-looking titles on the Xbox, it looks even better here. The environments are excellently detailed and lifelike, and character animation is great (especially in Dark Athena, which features even more impressive visuals), conversing with other characters is impressive, and the whole title has a beefed up feel.
A few graphical glitches remain, again from the original version, but they don’t spoil the experience too much. The excellent use of lighting returns, and is improved thanks to the new platform, and the atmosphere is as thick as ever, with the intergalactic prison not only looking the part, but oozing an oppressive and institutionalised feel.
Of course, we mustn’t forget that this release is actually two games in one. Assault On Dark Athena is the second adventure on the disc, and in this, Riddick and Johns get captured by a merc ship called, yep, the Dark Athena, and Riddick has to escape in his own indomitable way. This campaign introduces, aside form the new location, a few new weapons, characters and some cool enemies (the Drones in particular), and expands on Riddick’s world.
Is the new jaunt a huge improvement on Butcher Bay, though? No, it’s not. It’s simply more of the same really, which isn’t all bad, thanks to Butcher‘s high quality and varied play carrying over to the new outing. Sadly though, Athena isn’t generally as good as Butcher Bay, with the original game being the better title overall.
Athena certainly isn’t a bad game, by any means, but when sitting next to the original on the same disc, it’s hard to hide its lesser status. Athena‘s design isn’t as tight as Butcher‘s and despite some great touches and interesting enemy design, it can’t stand up to its predecessor.
The rock solid ratio of action-to-stealth seen in Butcher isn’t present here, and instead Athena is paced much more like a standard FPS. Indeed, some sections impose gun play on you so much, that you almost feel like the game is punishing you for wanting to be sneaky, the main skill of the game’s protagonist. Other sections are simply cheap and frustrating, and stick out like a sore thumb.
This is a shame, as it’ll undoubtedly annoy players of the original Xbox game who are looking forward mainly to the new adventure, and who will be disappointed with the outcome. And, aside from the problems I’ve already mentioned, the game also suffers from a few show-stopping glitches.On more than one occasion I was forced to reload due to such problems (although none of these actually caused lock ups or system halting crashes), including a broken cutscene that became stuck, forcing me to reload, and other issues where the AI simply didn’t fire up, leaving guards stuck in place, immovable. I don’t remember these glitches in the original title, and so can only assume they’re by-products of the overhaul. Hopefully such issues will be resolved in a patch.
Assault On Dark Athena also adds a multiplayer element to the mix, which surely has the potential to be a winner, as Splinter Cell has already proved the stealth/FPS hybrid can work. Unfortunately, Riddick doesn’t fare as well. Yes, multiplayer is fun in short doses, but in the long-run, there’s simply not much here to come back to, and the controls and general feel just don’t add up to a classic multiplayer experience.
Riddick is a single-player title at heart, and while the addition of multiplayer is welcome, I can’t see it setting Xbox Live on fire.
I do seem to have been a little harsh on Riddick here, but don’t confuse my willingness to point out the game’s flaws with a dislike for the title. When all’s said and done, Assault On Dark Athena is a great game, and is one of the best examples of a stealth / FPS hybrid’s I’ve played in a long time; it just has a few issues. Butcher Bay is every bit the classic it’s always been, even more so thanks to the impressive retooling for the 360, and Dark Athena, while flawed, is still an enjoyable dose of Riddick.
If you’ve never played the original game, then you must buy this, pure and simple. If you’ve already escaped from Butcher Bay, then this package is still worth a go, not only for the new campaign, but also simply to replay Butcher in its new, tarted up guise. It’s also worth noting that the original Xbox game isn’t compatible with the 360, so even if you own the original, the only way you’ll be playing it on 360 is by purchasing Athena.
For pure value, it’s hard to knock this release, and it’s a highly recommended title, just don’t expect a flawless romp through Riddick’s world, and you’ll have a blast.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is out now.