Widely considered the best movie to game adaptation ever, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay blended first person shooting, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth gameplay with a unique, interactive narrative that fit comfortably within — but didn’t shamelessly duplicate — the established Riddick chronicle.
This year marks Riddick’s return in a (somewhat) new game: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. Dark Athena had a peculiar development cycle. Originally conceived as a straight remake of Butcher Bay, the game evolved as the developers, Starbreeze and Tigon Studios, added new levels. Throughout the development process, this extra content continued to grow and eventually became an entire sequel to Butcher Bay. So, on the Dark Athena disk is a beautified version of Butcher Bay, and of course the new adventure, Assault on Dark Athena.
We’re not going to elaborate too much on Escape from Butcher Bay, since it’s the exact same game you played (or missed) five years ago. Do know this, though: it’s still excellent. Sure, standards have changed, and despite its updated visuals it can feel a tad “old” at times, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you forgo this game.
Now, let’s talk Assault on Dark Athena. The game is a six-hour romp through a rogue mercenary spaceship called — you guessed it — Dark Athena. At the beginning of the game, the ominous Athena ensnares Riddick’s ship, and Riddick must outwit Captain Revas and her army of space drones to escape. The premise isn’t as captivating as Butcher Bay’s, but the high-caliber voice acting makes it tolerable. There are around a half-dozen well-developed characters that you can interact with, and while you might not care deeply for their fates, they won’t bore you either.
What will bore you are the monotonous enemies and surroundings on the Dark Athena. Around half of all foes in the game are lifeless space drones. There are a few human enemies, a couple mechs, and some boss encounters, but variety is severely lacking on this front. The game’s setting is even less varied. With the exception of the tutorial and a brief interval toward the end of the game, the entire game takes place within the confines of the Dark Athena. Once you’ve seen a few rooms, you’ve seen the entire ship; there’s a large amount of backtracking, and a lot of the areas appear unnervingly similar.
Still, the innards of the Dark Athena allow for some gratifying gameplay. Stealth plays a major role – it’s always safer to stick to the shadows than to rush in blindly. It’s definitely satisfying to sneak up on an enemy and dispose of them with a sneak attack, partially due to the superb animations and effects during these moments. It would have been even better if the enemies weren’t mentally deficient. Alas, the AI is far from wonderful. If you dispose of a foe two feet away from his comrade and then leave, there’s a good chance he won’t even notice that his ally is no more. Ignorance is bliss… until you’re stabbed in the back.
When you’ve been exposed, and you don’t have a gun on hand, it’s time to brawl. The hand-to-hand fighting is pretty basic. Combat usually consists of picking a weapon (the Ulaks — curved blades Riddick wears on each hand — are undoubtedly the coolest), engaging an enemy, fighting until one of your ‘life boxes’ is low, then running away and standing still so that box is filled up. Rinse, wash, repeat. In open areas, it’s often easy to take advantage of programming deficiencies; enemies can’t go out of certain predefined areas. While fighting Iron Lord, an early boss character, there’s a ledge that he can’t walk on, so you hop on that and batter him with blows across the invisible line until he collapses.
About halfway through the game, gunplay becomes a lot more prevalent. There’s no cover system, but there is a lean and peak mechanic, which accomplishes the same thing. There are only a few guns on offer, but that’s understandable – it’s a first person action game, not a straight shooter. One unique weapon is the Tranquilizer Gun, which is extremely handy for strategic strikes. The gunplay isn’t anything special, but it’s responsive and completely adequate.
Assault on Dark Athena does come with online multiplayer, but it’s more of an afterthought than a main focus. With up to 12 players across a few maps and modes, multiplayer serves a decent distraction. Unfortunately, there’s no online community whatsoever. When we were on, there were a pitiful two games going. So, despite the cool ‘Pitch Black’ mode where one player is the all-seeing Riddick and everyone else plays mercenaries with flashlights, multiplayer won’t keep you busy for long.
When the entire package is examined, however, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is one hell of a deal. On the disc there’s one fantastic game — presented in shiny high definition graphics — and another good, if somewhat similar adventure. It has a few faults here and there, but Dark Athena doesn’t disappoint.