Earlier this week, we braved the cold London weather to visit Atari's worldwide headquarters to play the first three hours of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. On arrival, we'd not even removed our jacket, gloves, or scarf before our representative was attempting to set the record straight on what the game actually is. "There's been a lot of confusion surrounding Dark Athena," he said. "I've had people asking if it's a remake of the original, a multiplayer expansion, a new game. In truth, it's all these things." This is most definitely a full game, with a brand-new story and multiplayer mode, as well a remade version of 2004's Escape from Butcher Bay as a bonus. With the record set straight, we were let loose on the story part of the game, playing nonstop for three adrenaline-packed hours.
Dark Athena continues the story from Escape from Butcher Bay, with Riddick and the bounty hunter Johns in cryostasis, drifting through space. Their ship is eventually picked up by a pirate vessel--the titular Dark Athena--and though Riddick manages to wake up in time, Johns' pod is infiltrated and he is taken prisoner. Hiding in the shadows, Riddick steals the captain's hairpin and is soon scouting the ship with nothing but the darkness and the hairpin as his weapons. However, before getting into the story, you have to play through a tutorial that is presented as one of Riddick's deep-sleep dreams. The basic movements remain the same as in Riddick's Xbox debut, but he has picked up a couple of new moves during his time in stasis. Many weapons are ID-tagged to their owner, but Riddick can now pick up dead bodies and manipulate them to fire. This is useful in a firefight, but at the start of the game, it's actually more useful for puzzle-solving--dragging a body around to shoot out glass windows, for example. Playing on the Xbox 360, we were also able to use the left bumper to pop our gun around corners, which lets you take cover while still going on the offensive. Atari promises that Dark Athena will be much more focused on gunplay than Butcher Bay was, and it was only a short time before we had regular access to guns. We ended up using the tranquiliser gun most frequently, temporarily stunning opponents before slicing them up in incredibly stylish fashion using the ulak blades. There will even be mechs that you can jump in, although we didn't make it far enough to see them.
It doesn't take a lot of play time to realise that the pirate ship is taking humans and converting them into drones, which are slaves that will automatically patrol a given area, or that can be controlled from afar by another person. Their faceplates change between red and white to indicate their current state, the former meaning that they'll follow set movement patterns, the latter meaning that they're more alert and looking for something specific. The game still favours the stealthy approach, at least during the time we played, and to enhance this you can still enter a crouched mode to hide and activate Riddick's night vision to help you in the shadows. What's most surprising is that the game still uses the NanoMED system to replenish health, so you need to collect med canisters and use them at certain points to regenerate. It feels more retro than the regenerative health system favoured by most shooters these days, and it results in quite a tough game even on the normal difficulty setting.
We managed to meet some of the major characters and get a feel for the overall story. The first person we spoke to was a young girl hiding out in the ventilation system; her mother was taken prisoner, and her father was "turned into a monster." Then there is the captain--played by actress Michelle Forbes--who clearly has a history with Riddick, and you can overhear soldiers talking about wanting to become her sex slave. Indeed, the world of Dark Athena is a very seedy place, from the conversations held by its crew, to the military pornography such as the Warchix magazine, and characters who masturbate as you walk past. The game's story is told completely using the in-game engine, with excellent lighting and character modelling, particularly for Vin Diesel's Riddick. Atari also teased us with news that 80 percent of the game will take place on Dark Athena, but a final act will offer something "completely different."
Although Dark Athena is often shockingly violent and even depraved, it manages to remain mature thanks to some excellent dialogue and voice acting. About an hour and a half in, we came across prison cells housing about eight different prisoners. Some of them were vital to our progress, whereas others were merely there to fill in the backstory. One female character had clearly been wronged by Riddick and told us that, among a shower of expletives, she was going to kill him. One particularly nasty character called Jaylor explained how he wanted to rape one of the other female inmates, after which he referred to you as a c***. Thankfully, this was offset by more sympathetic characters such as Senate, who had previously captained the ship, and Dacher, whose story about losing his wife was quite touching.
Some of these characters also turned out to be necessary in progressing through the game. Jaylor requested that we kill one of the pirates onboard and return his gold tooth, and in return he gave us the access code for a locker. Silverman was an engineer who made us a tool to enter certain other areas, and she also turned out to be the mother of the girl that we saw in the vents. And Dacher, the widower mentioned before, helped us hack into the ship's communication system and make it down to the drone control area. Our play time drew to a close with two fantastic set pieces. The first was one we'd seen in a previous demo, in which we jumped into one of the remote drone terminals and caused havoc from afar. You have access to only a limited number of drones, but running around and shooting up everything was great fun. The second was at the heart of the ship and its gravity generator, wherein shooting people sent them flying into the huge gravity pillar at the centre.
Before we left Atari, we also managed to take a quick look at the remake of Escape from Butcher Bay. Fans of the original game should remember that it was released in 2004, fairly late in the Xbox life cycle, which means that it was one of the most visually attractive games ever released on the system. The remake improves these visuals even further, with new textures for the environments and characters. The new weapons and moves have also been included from Dark Athena, and consequently you'll be able to pop your gun out from behind objects for the first time in the game.
Our three hours with Dark Athena were incredibly enjoyable, and we really wanted to stay longer and play more. The game offers all of the elements that made the first game so great, and the voice acting, set pieces, and new combat elements added even more to the experience. Atari claims that the game is finished, and that the team is now bug testing and polishing ahead of the March release date. We've also been promised a chance to play the multiplayer game against the developers very shortly, so expect to hear more on this promising package very soon.