The sheer brilliance of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay eluded many discerning gamers simply because it was associated with the Chronicles of Riddick films. This was a hugely disappointing realization for now-defunct Vivendi Games, as the title was such a revolutionary first-person experience, and received high praise from critics.
Skip five years and Activision has taken over as sole publisher of the Butcher Bay sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (AoDA). Does the game live up to the hype of its predecessor, or does it simply fade into the background like so many other movie-based titles?
Firstly, I have to mention that the packaged deal of both Butcher Bay and AoDA on one disc is brilliant marketing. The 2004 game has been revamped to look like a game worthy of the Xbox 360, and while it doesn’t entirely achieve that goal, the level of immersion and gamer satisfaction in Butcher Bay is enough to make it worthy of purchase.
For those who haven’t played any Riddick titles before, you are advised to complete Escape from Butcher Bay before starting the sequel. It will give you a greater idea of the vastness of the universe, as well as a useful back-story as to why Riddick and Johns are floating through space.
Assault on Dark Athena picks up exactly where Butcher Bay left off. Playing as Riddick, you and Johns are in cryogenic sleep having just escaped from Butcher Bay. However, a certain evil henchwoman by the name of Gale Revas has other plans. Your ship is captured by the mercenary vessel, Dark Athena, and it is your job to figure out what is going on and how to escape.
Immediately, you are thrown in the deep end. For those who are not accustomed to stealth-based first-person shooters, you may find it difficult at first to adjust to hiding in the shadows and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Despite what you may have seen in any of the films, Riddick is not an invincible killing machine; on the contrary, it is quite easy to be killed by a few stray bullets. Stealth is your best weapon.
The first-person perspective in AoDA is ideal. Once again, you have the ability to see in the dark, which is extremely handy given that a fair amount of game time is spent in ventilation shafts and unlit corridors. However, when completing actions, such as climbing ladders or opening hatches, the view immediately switches back to normal sight, which can affect your own eyesight if you are playing in the dark.
Graphically, Tigon has developed a rich, intense environment that allows you to immerse yourself entirely in the fantasy. Even though the majority of the game is set aboard the Dark Athena, there is never a hint that the designers copied and pasted anything. Each deck, room, and hallway has a different flavor to it, allowing you to get caught up in the moment. This makes for intensely gratifying sequences, such as hijacking a MechWarrior-esque suit and controlling harvested drones.
With all of this in mind, it would have been perfectly acceptable – even expected – for the creators to hire a voice actor to play Riddick. Not so. Vin Diesel gives possibly his best performance ever – without even appearing in the flesh. His voice is chillingly brilliant. His quips will make you smile, while his arrogance will make you despise him; this is all done by Diesel with the greatest of love, and you can tell he truly cares about the character that he has helped create.
The rest of the cast are standouts as well. Never have I heard better voice acting from an ensemble cast, nor seen such fluid, realistic movements from characters as they converse with you. When you reach Cell Block 12B, you’ll understand what I mean.
Unfortunately, Assault on Dark Athena has its drawbacks. About halfway through the game you will find yourself on a sparsely colonized world ripped right from the pages of a stereotypical sci-fi novel. It is at this point in the game that players may begin to get frustrated. After spending several hours building up an arsenal of weapons, and finally getting into some full-blown FPS action, you are thrown into a world that looks far too similar to Butcher Bay with only a handful of enemies.
I found myself running around, climbing on boxes, and running through sewers for ridiculous lengths of time, and it eventually started to feel like another game entirely – not in a good way. Luckily, this is only a small portion of the entire game. However, it is sufficient enough to mention.
On to multiplayer! I must admit that there is only one good point to acknowledge: Pitch Black mode. If you are simply playing standard multiplayer, the gameplay often feels clunky and unresponsive, and it ends up becoming just another carbon copy MP clone added on to boost sales. Single player is where the real brilliance lies, kids. If you are looking for a unique, edge-of-your-seat multiplayer experience, then it’s best to look elsewhere.
Despite its downfalls, AoDA is one of the best games I have played this year. I found myself reminiscing on bygone days of playing Escape from Butcher Bay for the first time, revelling in the rare gem I had found in the bargain bin. And while Assault on Dark Athena doesn’t surpass Butcher Bay in terms of gaming genius, it definitely deserves a place beside it.
Reviewer’s note: The Xbox 360 version was tested for this review
It is a visual masterpiece. Tigon and Starbreeze have managed to create a terrifying world where you can almost taste the fear of Riddick's enemies.
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First-person shooters are, more often than not, built around the "all guns blazing" premise. AoDA turns the genre on its head, and forces you to rethink your natural gaming reactions.
If nothing else, the voice performances are top-notch. It's games like this that make me wonder what the hell the Two Worlds creators were thinking. Ship noises, footsteps, and machinery sounds all add to the engrossing soundtrack as you traverse the Dark Athena.
The addition of a spruced-up Escape from Butcher Bay can't hide the fact that AoDA is only a ten hour ride. Exhilarating as it may be, there is no excuse for the dismal multiplayer experience. After you've played it once, you probably won't be going around a second time.
The finest first-person shooter experience since Bioshock. It is a great pity that so many people will pass this game by.