The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay - Developer's Cut Review
The Chronicles of Riddick isn't a highly anticipated first-person shooter sequel, but don't let that make you assume it can't be one of the year's best action games--because it is.
- Incredible blend of first-person shooting, stealth, and exploration
- Excellent story, dialogue, and characters
- Breathtaking visuals and audio
- Exquisite pacing--never a dull moment
- Great PC-exclusive content--new gameplay sequence and DVD-style commentary.
- On the short side--only about 10 hours long
- A few graphical and AI quirks
- You might expect multiplayer, but there is none.
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. The fact that it 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 it 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. The game debuted on the Xbox earlier this year, but it has turned out to be every bit as surprisingly good on the PC, thanks to an excellent translation that shows no traces of the game's console origins. Furthermore, some exciting, brand-new extras that are exclusive to the PC version make it worth experiencing even by those who've played and enjoyed the original version of the game. No, the Chronicles of Riddick isn't a highly anticipated first-person shooter sequel. But don't let that make you assume it can't be one of the year's best action games--because it is.
Those familiar with the Xbox version of The Chronicles of Riddick should know that the new PC "Developer's Cut" version is fundamentally the same game, but with a few key differences: Its visuals have been enhanced to be proportionally outstanding even when measured against the PC's extremely high standards; its controls have been optimized to make it easy to pick up by anyone who has played a PC first-person shooter lately; it features a new and exciting gameplay sequence that has been seamlessly integrated into the middle of the story; and it boasts an unlockable "commentary" mode, which annotates the entire game with extensive, often fascinating DVD-style audio commentary from the frightfully talented development team at Stockholm-based Starbreeze Studios.
The commentary mode is a great treat, and its implementation is surprisingly clever, so much that we expect such a feature to become commonplace in games before long. Commentary tracks appear as actual floating objects in the game (complete with descriptions of who's speaking, what about, and for how long), and they show up in specific contexts and seemingly around every corner. So the experience of playing the commentary mode is comparable to what it might be like to play this game with the developers sitting next to you with nothing better to do than indulge your curiosity about any little detail that catches your eye. It yields great insight into how such a one-of-a-kind game came into being, and you get to listen to as much or as little of it as you wish while playing through the adventure once again. This level of behind-the-scenes detail would seem pretentious or pointless in a lesser game; here, it's a revelation and a great reason for fans of the Xbox version to justify playing the game again. The fact that the PC version retails for less than the price of most new games should make it all the more tempting.
As for the new gameplay sequence, it's a relatively brief but satisfyingly brutal romp from within the confines of a mechanized riot armor suit bristling with heavy firepower (you fought against guards wearing these in the Xbox version of the game). The whole scene plays out like a faster-paced version of the incredible "heavy guard" sequence that happens later on, and it's almost as good. And it has been carefully spliced into the game at a time when a furious shoot-out feels just right. For good measure, there are some impressive, new enemies featured in this sequence, so, much like the commentary mode, it's not to be missed by fans. Meanwhile, those who don't have the original version of the game as a frame of reference will count this as just one of the game's many memorable parts.
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 and of the recent 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 it is said that no one has busted out of Butcher Bay before. The game is actually a prequel to Pitch Black, which takes place before the most recent movie. As such, no previous experience is expected or required, though Pitch Black fans will appreciate 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, 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, though it does make you double back through some previously explored territory on occasion. 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 like concept art and movie stills?
If the actual game itself has any shortcomings, they're minor and worth acknowledging just to temper all the praise. The Chronicles of Riddick, despite its overall spectacular appearance, lacks a bit of visual polish. For instance, there are some barely noticeable seams in some of the character models during several of the dialogue sequences. Also, when you're taking cover from enemy fire, you can see bullet tracers that seem to jut through the wall at times. These are issues that were present in the Xbox version and are still here on the PC. Furthermore, you'll need a high-end system to enjoy the visuals in all their glory. Even then, you'll probably see the frame rate dip during some of the more intense shoot-outs. 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. Incidentally, the PC version of the game includes conventional quicksave and quick-load features. But these are mostly just there to make first-person shooter traditionalists feel better, since the game's transparent checkpoint system means you never have to worry about manually saving or loading your progress unless you want to.