A great package that manages to overcome its numerous shortcomings...
dgsag wrote this review on .
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay took the gaming world by surprise when it released in 2004. Arguably one of the Xbox's few shining gems, it unfortunately never managed to reach the commercial success that its companions, like Halo 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, managed to obtain. Fortunately, Starbreeze Studios managed to continue on as a company, releasing the intriguing The Darkness and then announcing The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. Originally conceived as a high definition remake of the original with some minor added-on mission content, the game entered publisher hell as Activision Blizzard cut a large number of "risk-prone" projects. Fortunately, the reanimated Atari picked up the reigns, giving Starbreeze even more time to flesh out their package. The result is ambitious: the promised remake, an entire new campaign, and even some multiplayer content. In terms of pure value, Dark Athena could be considered this year's equivalent of The Orange Box. Even though the passage of time might have lessened the punch that Riddick could have delivered if it was released a bit earlier, it remains an atmospheric experience that even modern games can still learn from.
The engine overhaul that Escape from Butcher Bay has received is quite respectable, bringing in modern effects such as Depth of Field and HDR lighting. There are definitely flaws that have persisted as a result of the game's last-generation roots, but the engine covers these up quite well with some amazing lighting and shadowing. In the end, you won't notice these deficiencies due to the sheer quality of the overall experience.
Butcher Bay remains an impressive balancing act of different gameplay elements and story-telling conventions. Butcher Bay depicts Riddick's escape from one of the most oppressive penal facilities in the galaxy. As such, Riddick will have to call on a variety of skills and talents in order to guide him out. The gameplay doesn't stick to pure shooting, in fact relying on a variety of hand-to-hand techniques and weapons, ranging from your fists to shivs and clubs. The game also manages to mix in a stealth element, allowing Riddick to sneak up behind foes and dispatch them silently. These elements are individually strong, but combine to create an experience that's much more than the sum of its parts and even manages to surpass the quality and consistency of many recent titles.
The game is well-paced and presents a well-conceived world to mess around it. Mixing in some minor RPG elements, Butcher Bay allows you to interact with fellow prisoners in order to gain intelligence and scheme escape attempts. As the game progresses through its ten hour storyline, the tension and action steadily ramps up, building to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.
Assault on Dark Athena retains and even builds on some of Butcher Bay's strengths. The graphics engine utilizes the same impressive lighting, adding in some convincing character modeling and animation. In terms of presentation, Dark Athena's strongest suit is by far its superb voice acting, presenting a cast of characters that has some pretty memorable personalities, particularly featuring one rather obscene and disturbing character.
Where Dark Athena stumbles is in its pacing and use of the myriad of Riddick's gameplay conventions. The characters you meet are quite intriguing, but they simply aren't integrated as well as those in the previous campaign. This is a theme in Dark Athena, presenting an overall experience that simply isn't as well-integrated or elegant as Butcher Bay.
The laundry list of activities remains the same: you'll crawl through vents, use your eyeshine in dark areas, perforate men with bullets while sticking knives in the backs of others. The pacing is unfortunately not up-to-par. A combination of protracted sneaking sequences, cheating AI, and strange enemy placement create what is comparably a sloppy experience. The game also forces you through some extremely tedious platforming puzzles that bring the game to a screeching halt. In the end, this makes Dark Athena a relatively boring experience.
There are some fun moments, however. Sections where you take control of mechs and drones give a sense of empowerment as you mow down mercs, but they don't build on what made the original game so great. There's an unsound emphasis on shooting, leading to long stretches of action sequences that numb the senses. Dark Athena ends up being an average shooter that mixes in minor sneaking and melee elements. It's not horrible by any means, but its shortcomings are highlighted by the quality of the package that it is forced to succeed.
The multiplayer component is competent, though that's all one can say. Besides the standard modes, there is an intriguing mode named Pitch Black that has everyone hunting one player (Riddick). The mode is a novelty, but at least it offers some short-term entertainment. Butcher Bay Riot is Riddick's take on Counter-Strike, but even that didn't end up holding our attention for long.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is a great buy if you've never played the original game. However, if you're uninterested in journeying back to Butcher Bay, you should reconsider getting this package due to the subpar quality of the new campaign and forgettable nature of the multiplayer. All told, you can definitely go worse with a myriad of other modern releases.