The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is one of those exceedingly rare types of games that delivers exceptionally high quality through and through and single-handedly ups the ante for all similar games. It's so unbelievably good that it almost feels like it was brought back in time, because most all of today's action games (on the Xbox or otherwise) just aren't in the same league. The fact that The Chronicles of Riddick also happens to be based on a movie franchise--something that's usually a bad sign for a game--makes it all the more incredible. You could call it a first-person shooter, but that would be selling it short. This ambitious game is played mostly from a first-person perspective and effectively and innovatively combines excellent shooting, hand-to-hand combat, stealth, and adventure elements with a solid story and truly outstanding, highly atmospheric graphics and sound. It's easily one of the most-impressive games on the Xbox and seems destined to be remembered as the most inspiring collaboration between Hollywood and the gaming industry yet.
If you're fortunate enough to have seen the 1999 sci-fi horror movie Pitch Black, then you're familiar with the violent, resourceful Richard B. Riddick (played by Vin Diesel, who seems like one of the only actors around who can pull off a part like that). He's also the main character of this game, as well as the soon-to-be-released movie that shares the same title (minus the game's subtitle). Riddick, a hardened criminal, is as threatening and intimidating as they come--yet there's something genuinely admirable about his no-nonsense, no-holds-barred approach to survival. At any rate, you don't need to be a fan of Pitch Black, its sequel, or Vin Diesel to appreciate Escape From Butcher Bay. Leave it to the game to make you one if you aren't already. The game's plot is spelled out in the title. At the beginning, Riddick is delivered by a bounty hunter to Butcher Bay, the hardest and most dreaded prison in the galaxy. And Riddick doesn't waste a minute in his attempts to find a way out, even though they say that no one's busted out of Butcher Bay before. The game is actually a prequel to Pitch Black, which takes place before the upcoming movie. As such, no previous experience is expected or required, though Pitch Black fans will appreciate the fact that the game features a few sequences that are referred to in the movie but have never been shown until now.
There are too many great, little touches in The Chronicles of Riddick to mention, but they all add up to make it the superb game that it is. Here are just a few specific points: Each of the dozens of inmates you'll come across in the game is a unique character with his own name, voice, and likeness, which lends the game a sense of depth and personality that few other games of any genre can touch. Vin Diesel delivers all of Riddick's lines in a menacingly low growl that's perfect for the part. But it's not just Diesel, though, because literally all of the voice-acting performances in the game are outstanding. The game boldly defies the conventions of the first-person action genre's form by putting you in a variety of situations that are uniquely dangerous in their own rights, rather than just letting you use stronger and stronger firearms against tougher and tougher foes. That is to say, The Chronicles of Riddick continually keeps you guessing and never gets tedious by forcing you through repetitive sequences. And the game wears its mature themes with aplomb. What other game is so dark, so gritty, and yet so ironic that it tasks you with searching for dozens of different intergalactic cigarette packs to unlock extra features?
If the actual game itself has any shortcomings, they're minor and worth acknowledging just to temper all of the well-deserved praise. The Chronicles of Riddick, despite its overall spectacular appearance, lacks a bit of visual polish. So, for instance, there are some barely noticeable seams in some of the character models during some of the dialogue sequences, and once in a while, when you're taking cover from enemy fire, you can see bullet tracers seem to jut through the wall. Also, the richly detailed environments of the game are relatively small, which may not come as a surprise since the setting is a claustrophobic prison. However, brief loading times will interrupt your progress through these areas fairly often, but (luckily) they are the only things that take you out of the experience of the game.
Any other shortcomings are things that aren't actually in the game, so it seems almost unfair to even bring them up. The Chronicles of Riddick is paced extremely well for an action game and will leave you riveted for the 10-or-so hours it takes you to finish the first time through. That's about standard for the single-player portion of an action game, but then again, you can never have too much of a good thing. Fortunately, the game has multiple difficulty settings (the toughest of which is great to play after you've finished the game on the default setting) and is open-ended enough and simply good enough to warrant playing through at least one more time. There's no multiplayer mode to give the game long-term replay value, but the memory is going to stick, and that ought to count for something. In all seriousness, the absence of a multiplayer mode in The Chronicles of Riddick only bears mentioning because of the assumption that first-person-perspective games all ought to have both single-player and multiplayer features in them. Judged purely on its own merits, though, The Chronicles of Riddick offers a wholly satisfying single-player experience that concludes as memorably and as impressively as it begins. Furthermore, it leaves you wanting more not because it's short but because it's just so good.
You'll pick up on the particulars of the gameplay in the game's introductory sequence, where you'll find that The Chronicles of Riddick basically plays like a first-person shooter, such as Halo. You'll notice there's no heads-up display of any kind on the screen, which really helps draw you into Riddick's cruel world. In most games, you've got your ammo readout and your health gauge and such things along the periphery, with good reason. However, The Chronicles of Riddick doesn't settle for convention. For instance, when wielding a gun, your aiming reticle isn't a crosshair drawn in the middle of the screen as in other games, but it's the gun's own laser sight. And your health does appear as a row of simple, white boxes as you're taking damage. You have a limited ability to regenerate your health if you crouch down to avoid further injury for a few moments, which is a good system that encourages a tactical approach to combat. Rest assured that the game does have plenty of parts in which full-on, run-and-gun-style shooting is called for. Of course, you begin the game unarmed and will actually spend a considerable length of time fighting either unarmed or with hand-to-hand weapons, including various shivs, knuckle-dusters, and clubs.
The hand-to-hand combat in The Chronicles of Riddick is leaps and bounds better than that of any other first-person action game to date, but frankly, that really isn't saying much. Still, this is a great system that's just deep enough to be interesting without being too complex to easily pick up. You can execute different punches or strikes by moving the left analog stick up, down, left, or right while attacking, and you may discover various combos by stringing together these different moves. You may also block melee attacks with the left trigger. Most importantly, the melee combat just has a great, solid feel to it. Riddick's attacks look immensely powerful and painful (especially when he's cutting his foes with a shiv), and enemies' attacks that hit home will likewise send your first-person-perspective view careening side to side. This is as close as you'd want to get to being punched in the face. Best of all, Riddick has a few countermoves that he can use against armed and unarmed opponents alike. You can pull these off with proper timing, but since they're executed by pressing the attack button, you'll sometimes land them by accident--which is fine. This is made all the better, perhaps, when you see Riddick suddenly grappling an armed guard and forcing him to blow his own brains out.
Too bad for you, but not for the game, that you usually can't just grab his gun and carry on. One of the unique twists of The Chronicles of Riddick is that most of Butcher Bay's guards carry DNA-imprinted assault rifles that administer an electric shock to any unauthorized users. Rest assured, though, that Riddick will get his hands on several different firearms at various points throughout the game, and he will unleash hell with these in a manner befitting a man like him. The ranged combat in the game is straightforward but highly gratifying. There's (thankfully) no sniper rifle in the arsenal, so all the shooting takes place at close or medium range with direct-fire projectile weapons, including pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles. There's an admittedly small variety of firearms in the game, so it's fortunate that the ones to be found feel so powerful and are so satisfying to use. They make a terrific sound, pack plenty of punch, and helpfully display the number of rounds remaining in the clip. The bigger guns also feature an optional flashlight to help you see in the darkness, but using the light may tip off any enemies in the vicinity--or the other way around when they use theirs.
The artificial intelligence of the game's characters is remarkably good, especially during shoot-outs. Enemies will realistically dodge from side to side and use cover, and rather than rushing headlong toward you, they'll often hang back to fight from the proper range--tactics that naturally encourage you to attack using stealth when they're armed and you're not. They'll patrol plausibly when they're unaware of your presence, but if you give yourself away, you'll have to fight your way out. During battle, many of your foes will relentlessly and arrogantly taunt you, thus making you want to take them down that much more. Late in the game, when you turn the tables on your foes and get your hands on one of their best weapons, you'll be thrilled to hear their panicked cries. And, during relatively nonviolent sequences--when you're supposedly just being a good inmate--guards won't attack on sight but will savagely beat you with their rifles if you get too close. Not all of your foes in The Chronicles of Riddick are human, either, and suffice it to say that these other types of opponents are challenging in their own rights and make for great changes of pace.
Riddick is human, but he's extremely strong, hardy, and fast. He has a few other special abilities as well. Those who've seen Pitch Black know that the character has mysterious, shining eyes that allow him to see in the dark. You'll gain this special-vision mode during the course of the game, and you'll need to manage it thereafter. It's very useful for getting the drop on bad guys in dark corridors, but the flashlights on their weapons or various other light sources in the environment will be blinding to you when using the eye shine. You can instantly toggle your vision mode by clicking down on the right stick. Meanwhile, clicking down on the left stick causes you to crouch, which has the added effect of giving you a wide-angle view of the environment (as though Riddick is cautiously scanning his surroundings rather than focusing dead ahead). There's much more to keeping a low profile, though.
Crouching is also how you go into stealth mode. Here, too, the game has an innovative, brilliant solution. There's no graphical meter indicating when you're hidden from your enemies. Instead, the tint of the screen noticeably turns blue. It's a subtle effect that totally works. Riddick can still move quite quickly while crouched, and therefore he can silently set upon his foes while their backs are turned. Then he can snap their necks and shove their lifeless corpses to the ground with indignation. Or Riddick can stab his foes to death if he's packing a shiv. You can then drag the corpses out of sight, if you like. Stealth is frequently an option, but it is never a necessity in The Chronicles of Riddick, which is a game that implements sneaking mechanics more seamlessly and more satisfyingly than many other games in which stealth is the entire focus of the gameplay (rather than just an element of the action as it is here).
As mentioned, The Chronicles of Riddick doesn't follow the typical level-to-level structure of other action games, but, instead, effectively weaves together different types of gameplay in the context of a few discretely different, fairly open-ended areas. There are some well-placed and genuinely well-implemented adventure elements to round out all the action. Early on, for instance, you'll be interacting with other inmates, many of whom will offer you missions that you have the option to accept or decline. Complete the jobs and you'll collect a reward in the form of currency, which can then be used to buy weapons or other things, like packs of smokes. You can also ignore them and go about your business. More than anything, the presence of these optional missions is another element that helps make The Chronicles of Riddick so enthralling. Basically, you're given the impression that there's more going on in the world of the game than just Riddick and his escape plan. Anyway, your mission objectives will often appear onscreen when you first receive them, though they're always available from the game's pause menu, which also displays a map of all the areas you've visited.
Even the menus in The Chronicles of Riddick look impressive. Not only does this game look phenomenal on the surface but it's got tons of great, little details for good measure. You'll notice, for instance, that red-hot bullet holes lodged in solid steel will gradually cool off. You'll also certainly notice the game's display of blood, which spatters and streaks on walls and floors in exaggerated-yet-believable fashion as you fight. Riddick, whom you get to see from a third-person angle during dialogue, cutscenes, and certain miscellaneous actions (like climbing or using healing stations), looks just like Vin Diesel. The game's other characters also display lifelike facial expressions and look great either right up close or from faraway. Obviously, a game set in a high-tech prison isn't exactly going to be filled with a bunch of beautiful scenery, but the setting here is fully realized and looks so cold and foreboding that you could almost reach out and touch it. Everything in the game--characters and environments alike--has a real sense of depth and texture to it. But the ambient lighting effects almost steal the show, since they lend so much richness and realism to the proceedings. The occasional explosions also seem so intensely hot that you can practically feel them.
The audio in The Chronicles of Riddick is not to be outdone and is, perhaps, even better than the visuals, since it's even harder to find so much as a hint of a flaw here. Whether it's fists striking flesh or assault rifles spewing lead, the sounds of combat in The Chronicles of Riddick are extremely loud and satisfying. Again, the voice acting is uniformly superb, and it's even well directed. The inmates, for instance, all speak under their breath, as if trying to avoid unwanted attention. Vin Diesel and Pitch Black costar Cole Hauser put in the best performances and succeed at playing down their respective characters, instead of letting their over-the-top personas take control. The game's dialogue happens to be rife with cussing, but the dialogue fits the theme perfectly and is punchy and concise. And then there's an excellent, dynamic musical score, which explodes to life when the fists or the bullets start flying but tensely settles down between skirmishes. This memorable soundtrack is easily good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster.
That's surely no accident, nor could any of this game's countless outstanding elements be considered flukes. The Chronicles of Riddick deliberately approaches Hollywood-like levels of intensity, pacing, and sheer spectacle like few, if any, games ever have. Yet there's a truly great-playing game here, too, so the production values aren't just superficial. The Chronicles of Riddick was developed by Starbreeze, a previously little-known Swedish developer, in partnership with Vivendi Universal and Tigon Studios, the latter of which Vin Diesel himself founded. Vin Diesel is even credited as having contributed to the game's dialogue and design, but clearly, this game is the result of a lot of dedicated, hard work on the part of many extremely talented people. If you don't already have an Xbox, it's worth buying one to play this game. And if you already do have one and you're mature enough to handle the game's subject matter, then you'd be a fool not to play The Chronicles of Riddick.