Also available on: Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release date: April 24, 2009
Richard B. Riddick is unlikely to be remembered as one of cinema’s greatest action heroes, but his impact on the gaming world has been far more profound. Back in 2004, the goggle-wearing anti-hero exploded onto the Xbox with Escape From Butcher’s Bay, one of the games of the year and finest film tie-ins to date.
Fast forward five years and the game is given a deserved HD re-release, bundled in with its sequel Assault On Dark Athena. Like any true classic, the original stands up tall today, hiding its age behind a fresh coat of high definition gloss. The follow-up is competent, but feels more like a contrived afterthought than standalone sequel.
Anyone who has played the original will no doubt relish the opportunity to step into Riddick’s sizable boots once again. Striving to emulate its superlative predecessor in the best way it can, Dark Athena plays to its strengths, combining first-person action with stealth, platforming and light RPG elements.
Set immediately after the titular character’s escape from Butcher’s Bay (essentially a deep space version of Alcatraz), the sequel’s premise finds Riddick on board another den of depravity, a pirate ship named the Dark Athena. Crewed by a band of renegade mercenaries, the Athena trawls deep space, subsequently taking captives to transform into mindless drones. With no desire to join the braindead fraternity, the shaven-headed protagonist must do what he does best - become one with the darkness.
What made Butcher’s Bay work so well was that it accommodated several varieties of gameplay, elevating it far beyond your average first-person shooter. Dark Athena attempts to continue this trend but never quite achieves the equilibrium of its predecessor. Stealth strategy plays its part but this is usually optional rather than a strategic necessity, with the emphasis on out-and-out action. In this respect, the game feels like a regression from Butcher’s Bay, which tested your wits far more than your trigger finger.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the satisfaction that comes from dispatching foes. The finishing moves are nothing short of brutal. From surreptitious neck breakers to barbaric brain skewers, there is no shortage of novel ways to take out those drones. Stealth kills are by far the most rewarding, but there are some interesting blasters to get to grips with too. It’s just a shame that the latter part of the game ditches the stealth altogether, in favour of run-of-the-mill first-person action.
Enemy A.I. is something of a mixed bag. We can forgive the drones for being braindead, but their human counterparts have no such excuse. Once you have mapped out an enemy’s attack pattern, countering them with a lethal counterstroke is all too easy. On the plus side, you will find yourself pitted against some excellent marksmen, who will have no trouble picking you off from a distance. Getting the upper hand on these foes requires you to use the scenery to your advantage, leaning out from positions of cover to reel off a few shots or merge with the shadows until your unsuspecting opponent moves into range.
Another of Butcher’s Bay's laudable features was its character-driven element. Progression was as much dependent on interacting with other prisoners as it was dispatching guards. Dark Athena attempts to recapture this, requiring you to go from cell to cell, extracting information from inmates and completing side-quests to gain their trust, but this aspect of the game feels contrived and is nowhere near as well integrated as it was in the previous game.
Character interaction may feel somewhat contrived but the cast themselves are one of the game’s greatest strengths. The character models look very convincing and are fluidly animated, but it is the voice acting that really brings them to life. Regardless of how highly you rate Vin Diesel’s portrayal of Riddick on screen, he performs with just as much zeal here as he did in its cinematic predecessors. When it comes to voicing film tie-ins, it’s not uncommon for actors to lazily treat the occasion as an annoying contractual obligation, but Diesel goes the extra mile. His supporting cast is equally competent, particularly the menacing villainess captain Rivas and her band of hardboiled space pirates.
It isn’t just the character design that impresses; the graphics are sharp throughout, with light and shadow harnessed to great effect. There are, however, too many bleak interiors to navigate and oppressive venting to crawl through. Granted, the developers were going for a work that is dark in tone, but there are only so many dank locations that you can explore before it starts to weigh heavy on your mood.
Athena and the revamped Butcher’s Bay only make up two thirds of this package, with an online multiplayer mode sealing the deal. There are several different styles of play, including a free-for-all deathmatch and Pitch Black mode, in which one player takes control of Riddick with his night-vision capabilities, and the others hunt him down using flashlights. As the first-person shooter aspect of this game is among its lesser points, the multiplayer mode isn’t anything to write home about. There’s nothing particularly negative about it, but nor is there anything compelling or innovative to keep you logging in, with the exception of a few cheap thrills in Pitch Black mode.
It may come as no surprise to hear that The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Dark Athena was originally intended to be an add-on mission to Butcher’s Bay rather than a standalone sequel, but as the project grew in scope, they decided to pad it some more and bill the title as an official follow-up. The problem is that it shows; at no point does this ever feel like a worthy sequel to the 2004 classic, only reminiscing on its predecessor’s finest moments rather than building on them.
If the original Butcher’s Bay passed you by five years ago, then this is certainly a worthwhile purchase, but anyone expecting a follow-up of the same magnitude will be sorely disappointed. The first Riddick game still measures up today and is more than worthy of this HD re-release, it’s just a shame that Dark Athena feels like the straight-to-DVD sequel to a cinematic masterpiece, rather than the worthy successor that it deserved.
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