Friday, June 5, 2009

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena  CoverThe Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Developer: Starbreeze Studios, Tigon Studios
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Released: April 7, 2009
Test Geeks' Freak Score: 8.6/10
I'm crouched down in a dark corner of my house, but my dog is still able to see me. This is disappointing because according to The Chronicles of Riddick, I should be completely hidden. But shadows in The Chronicles of Riddick work differently from real world shadows — they are pools of absolute darkness from which Riddick springs forth for the kill.

Riddick was the standout character in 2000’s Pitch Black who became a franchise in 2004’s Chronicles movie. He’s an antihero – a badass who’s willing to kill, yet he also seems to have a moral code. He’s called a villain, but in a future without heroes that label means little.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is two games in one: a remake of the 2004 Xbox/PC game Escape from Butcher Bay and the new Assault on Dark Athena, which picks up where the first game ends. Whether Riddick is escaping or assaulting he faces overwhelming odds, but Vin Diesel's voice and likeness ain't going to be no punk.

Of the two games, Escape from Butcher Bay is the superior one. Butcher Bay, half supermax prison and half mining colony, is a massive facility populated with distinctive characters, each with their own motivations. Within minutes of being tossed in a cell, Riddick must learn the rules of the prison while earning respect and — more importantly — favors.

Some inmates want Riddick to solve their problems with a shiv and others want him to gather information. But whether you're beating down inmates or provoking guards, you're also learning the layout of the facility and how to access restricted areas.

With escape as the goal, Riddick will have to move between prison towers and the mining facility to find a way off planet. This will not only draw the ire of lowly inmates and basic prison guards, but will eventually put Riddick up against trained mercenaries and heavily armored guards.

While it's fair to say that gameplay is stealth-based (the games are first-person-sneakers), it's also combat-friendly. If you're in a hallway patrolled by guards, you can move from shadow to shadow and stay unseen, maneuver behind guards and execute quick kills, or open up with an assault rifle.

The plus side is that you can find a style of play that works best for you. And failing to be stealthy doesn’t necessarily bring instant death. Some stealth games end abruptly when you're spotted, but Riddick can make the best of a bad situation by upping the violence. The downside is that Riddick can't take that many bullets before flopping over — and the game could desperately use a cover system a step beyond ducking behind crates.

Butcher Bay is one of those things where everything went right. Even before the game was brought up to today’s graphical standards, it had excellent voice acting, interesting missions and great level design. The thing that impressed me most about Butcher Bay is the pacing of the game. It plays like a well edited movie, rising to an epic conclusion.

In contrast, Dark Athena’s pacing drags the game down. Much of what worked in Butcher Bay has simply been transplanted here, with the setting shifting from a prison colony to a prison ship. What’s strange is that the boss battle and thrilling finale come at the game’s midpoint. Then the game continues on an island which looks like it’s been pulled from Myst and is patrolled by the Borg and creatures which have escaped from Prey.

By no means is Dark Athena a bad game, it just pales in comparison to the excellent Butcher Bay. Both games are ten hour experiences – longer if you’re seeking out every collectable or completing every side quest – and there’s several multiplayer modes too. Atari is to be commended for releasing the game with the most value since Valve’s Orange Box.