Review:The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Release: April 7, 2009
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
It’s 2004, and you’re sitting in a movie theater watching The Chronicles of Riddick… and it sucks. So then, when you see the Xbox game “Escape from Butcher Bay” at your local GameStop, you simply assume that it’s a terrible game based on a terrible movie, and you never pick it up. Five years later, you have a chance to make up for that extremely poor decision.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is a fantastic game that combines the Xbox original with a new direct sequel set aboard a mercenary ship. Together, these two short campaigns combine into a solid story that takes a good amount of time to complete. By today’s standards, Escape from Butcher Bay is quite short, but Dark Athena makes up for this by doubling the single-player length and adding an interesting multiplayer component.These improvements make the $60 price easy to swallow. However, the fact remains that you’re essentially paying half of that sum towards a last-gen game; despite a thorough re-working and drastic graphical improvement, it’s still easy to tell that the Butcher Bay segment of the game originated from the first Xbox.
At the title menu you’re given the option of choosing one campaign or the other; as I had never tried Butcher Bay before, I gave it a go first. A dream sequence tutorial teaches you all you need to know about shooting, melee, and stealth combat; it’s worth noting here that the entire campaign seems shifts from one gameplay type to another without any definite separation points. Every now and again you’ll find that your inventory has been wiped clean after a cut scene, and you must once again rely on your fists or a shiv in order to dispose of enemies. In a lot of ways, both campaigns are like at times like Splinter Cell; you frequently have a projectile weapon of some kind, but the benefits of staying in the darkness often far outweigh the health damage that can result from a gunfight. Accordingly, you can shoot out lights and use your “eye shine” to see through the darkness. Your enemies, meanwhile, have to rely on flashlights (which basically serve as a way of telling you which way they’re looking.) For a game that relies so heavily on lighting, it’s no wonder that the real-time shadows used in this game are absolutely stunning.
The game begins with a slow, RPG-style buildup to Riddick’s eventual escape from the maximum security cell blocks. You find yourself sent from one location to another to talk with inmates and do their dirty deeds. The act going from person to person isn’t terribly annoying, but the loading screens between areas are. It’s the most obvious relic of last-gen game design; you get to a door, the screen goes gray, and you wait until a progress bar hits 100% before you can play on. Overall, it’s an acceptable evil, but two of the loading areas in particular are incredibly frustrating. When you have to travel back and forth through them seven times in 20 minutes, it can get quite aggravating.
The locations in Butcher Bay are absolutely glorious; each security level of the prison has its own distinct aesthetic style, and Riddick accordingly has to handle them each in a fairly different manner. The maximum security wing is predominantly an area for gunplay, whereas double-max requires a greater focus on stealth (except, of course, when gigantic robots get involved.) Triple-max, meanwhile, is where things get really interesting, and vehicular combat gets to have its time in the spotlight.
Visually, Butcher Bay is not quite up to par any longer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very good looking, but developer Starbreeze Studios attempted to do things with bump-mapping that would never fly today. You can’t just add some pretty lighting affects to a wall and expect us to believe that there’s a cylinder sticking six inches out of it. It’s not ever a huge problem, but from time to time it can be extremely glaring and obvious. For those who don’t know, bump-mapping is a graphical effect that gives flat surfaces the appearance of having 3D, polygonal textures. Even Dark Athena falls victim to the “bump-map trap” from time to time, I once saw an entire water bottle bump mapped onto the floor; you couldn’t see it until you were standing on top of it. Of course, the overall use of the effect does make for some extremely detailed environments (so long as you aren’t too close to them.) This remake nonetheless manages to vastly improve on the visuals of the original Butcher Bay; lighting effects, textures, and character models all received noticeable upgrades. However, lip-syncing in the Butcher Bay campaign is still rather poor, and Riddick’s character model could have used some more work (polygon joints are frequently visible.) But these are both minor issues when considering how good this game is overall.
The Dark Athena campaign rectifies the lip-synching issues; the characters here feel and act like real people, and the voice acting is dead on. Starbreeze proves here that they’ve kept up with the times, but they do seem to have perhaps run out of time or resources late in the development cycle. For example, one main character from Butcher Bay makes a return in Dark Athena; however, he never speaks a single line, and he just sort of disappears with about a third of the game left. Missions, meanwhile, frequently require you to retrace your steps rather than explore new areas. In this respect, it feels almost like a role-playing game. In fact, I often found myself turning to an online FAQ just to figure out where I was supposed to go next; the game design shouldn’t have to force you to backtrack through an entire town, but it does anyway.
Happily, then, Dark Athena is heavier on the shooting component than on stealth. Don’t get me wrong, sneaking around in Butcher Bay was good fun, but at times it could get a bit frustrating. Trial-and error was my chief strategy during a good portion of Butcher Bay; in Athena, my run-and-gun instincts were able to take over. Weapons are no longer DNA coded as they were in the first campaign, so you can now use any gun at just about any time. Whereas Butcher Bay was quite hard in a number of places, Dark Athena is basically a breeze to play through on the easier difficulties. The AI is much less intelligent, likely due to the fact that the enemies are mostly mindless drones. The campaign introduces a number of new weapons, chief among them are the devastating Ulak knives and the formidable SCAR gun (essentially a sticky-grenade launcher.) Combined, these two could get you through the entire second half of the game with little problem. There are once again a few fun sections of vehicular combat in the Athena campaign, and at one point you might swear that you were playing Bioshock’s Big Daddy segment. I’m sure whether it’s meant as homage or as a blatant rip-off; what matters is that it’s fun either way.
The multiplayer component in Assault on Dark Athena is pretty solid… when you can connect to it. Pitch Black mode is a Riddick vs. Mercs mode set entirely in the dark; it’s the best of Dark Athena’s online offerings, and again draws comparisons to the Splinter Cell franchise. However, do note that finding an online game can be difficult, and even when you do finally connect there’s still a very good chance of encountering catastrophic lag. Nevertheless, when things work it’s a fun experience. The multiplayer component serves to round out what was already a great game.
I highly recommend Assault on Dark Athena to anyone who hasn’t played the original or wants to revisit it. It may not always be the best at what it does, but Dark Athena does manage to combine a number of different gameplay styles very well. The individual campaigns may each seem short, but when combined they make for a 13-18 hour experience that’s well worth the money. If the multiplayer issues can get sorted out, I don’t doubt that this game will manage to garner a small cult following in the online gaming community. If you never played Butcher Bay, then I wouldn’t hesitate into picking up this game. However, anyone who played the original may have to carefully consider whether or not Dark Athena adds enough content to make it worth the money.