The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay Updated Hands-On

Butcher Bay is bathed in blood thanks to our violent run through the first few hours of this Vin Diesel-powered shooter.

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The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
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It may be no great surprise to you that Vin Diesel has a really awesome video game voice. We know this because we just spent a few hours with The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, an Xbox-exclusive first-person action game based on Diesel's upcoming film The Chronicles of Riddick (itself a sequel to the 2000 action flick Pitch Black). This new game is actually a prequel to Pitch Black and it explores the mysterious origin of Riddick, the series' hostile protagonist. Diesel lends his deep, gravelly snarl, along with his likeness and attitude, to Escape From Butcher Bay. We are duly impressed thus far with the game's cinematic flair and Hollywood-style production values. But honestly, after a few hours with the game we're even more impressed with the gameplay that underpins the flash. If our sudden interest in this game seems excessive, you might just want to take a look at our new screenshots and movies and see what has us excited for yourself.

As Riddick, you'll snap a lot of necks and blow off a lot of heads before the game is over.
As Riddick, you'll snap a lot of necks and blow off a lot of heads before the game is over.

After just a few hours, we can say with confidence that The Chronicles of Riddick is not your typical movie-licensed video game. Most games of this type halfheartedly follow the plot of their movie; usually the game just lets you play through generic action sequences while pretending to live out your favorite scenes. Riddick doesn't even address its big-screen namesake, though--it has an entirely original storyline that's notably coauthored by Flint Dille of the Transformers and GI Joe TV series. It also stars not only Diesel but Cole Hauser, who played Johns in Pitch Black, and other actors like Ron Perlman and rapper Xzibit, who aren't even in either of the movies. Riddick seems to leverage its Hollywood connections to create a filmlike experience that's just as valid a storytelling vehicle as any movie. For a publisher to devote such extensive resources to a movie game is surprising on its own; that the game is also as good as it appears to be is downright shocking.

You'll play Escape From Butcher Bay in the first-person perspective, but calling the game just another first-person shooter would be selling it short. The playable introductory sequence occured in what appeared to be a flashback, and it introduced us to the game's impressive hand-to-hand and stealth mechanics. Like in Namco's recent game, Breakdown, you can pull off a number of different punch moves, like left and right hooks and an uppercut, by using the right trigger and left analog stick in combination. Enemies can block your punches (just as you can block theirs), so melee fighting in Riddick is largely about knowing when to dodge and when to move in for the attack. The fistfights have a really hard-hitting quality to them--the camera will jerk around realistically while you're beating the tar out of a foe.

But really, who wants to mix it up with an armed guard when you can catch him unawares and kill him silently? You can sneak up behind a guard, grab him, and then snap his neck (again with a violent jerk of the camera) to dispose of him without raising alarms. Like in many stealth games, you'll then have to drag the body into the shadows to avoid alerting any roving patrols. Should you be discovered while unarmed, you can even perform a grisly disarm move that forces an enemy to upend his weapon and, essentially, shoot himself in the face. (This is the kind of thing you really need to see to appreciate.)

In addition to the shooting, Riddick's stealth and hand-to-hand fighting are uncommonly good for a first-person game.
In addition to the shooting, Riddick's stealth and hand-to-hand fighting are uncommonly good for a first-person game.

The stealth elements in the game work surprisingly well, given that stealth is typically hard to pull off from a first-person perspective. When you duck down, your field of view will increase dramatically, and you'll be able to hide behind cover or in the shadows to render yourself effectively invisible to enemies. Unlike in many other stealth games, which use a head's-up display indicator to show your stealth level, Riddick uses a refreshingly innovative method of indicating how well-hidden you are. When you're sufficiently hidden the entire screen will be tinted blue, which is in stark contrast to the predominantly orange and brown backgrounds we've seen so far in the game. While this technique may sound simple, its impact is substantial--you can keep track of your stealth level without looking down at a HUD and removing your attention from the positions of your enemies.

After this introductory level, in which you'll snap several necks and even get to fire a shotgun, you're forced to begin the main storyline in chains. The opening sequence depicts Riddick's delivery to the Butcher Bay prison, and for the first couple of hours you'll be essentially unarmed and embroiled in the brutal reality of interstellar prison life. The gameplay is primarily focused on fighting, and we observed some basic adventure-game elements as Riddick was forced to involve himself in a jailhouse turf war and fight the reigning boss of Butcher Bay's prisoners in order to gain the help of some knowledgeable inmates. You'll have to go back and forth between foul-mouthed characters who are talking smack and making deals in order to get what you need to eventually escape from Butcher Bay.

The game looks fantastic, thanks to a graphics engine that uses a lot of the same tricks as those found in Doom 3.
The game looks fantastic, thanks to a graphics engine that uses a lot of the same tricks as those found in Doom 3.

On the graphical front, we were taken aback when we first fired the game up. We try to limit the hyperbole around here, but The Chronicles of Riddick is quite frankly one of the best-looking games we've seen on the Xbox, and, indeed, on any platform. The game's graphics are qualitatively similar to those in the upcoming Doom 3 from both technological and aesthetic standpoints. You'll find a lot of the same whiz-bang graphical features that id's upcoming juggernaut is known for--things like extensive bump-mapping and real-time lighting and shadowing--used to excellent effect in The Chronicles of Riddick (it is also without the attendant frame rate hit you might expect). As is often the case with such graphical techniques, it really needs to be seen in motion to fully appreciate the quality. The game's art design also happens to look similar to Doom 3's, in that most of the dirtied, futuristic environments made use of a similar blue-green and orange color scheme. There's even an impressive real-time flashlight available that will help you get through darkened areas in a pinch, although any nearby guards searching through the darkness will not respond kindly if they see you waving it around.

There's certainly a lot more to say about The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay; if you haven't figured it out yet, we're pretty darn excited to see the final game. Our preview build had some rough spots--it's a little hard to stealth-grab enemies, for instance, and there are some quirks in the animation and rag-doll physics. If developer Starbreeze can polish up the few remaining issues, The Chronicles of Riddick could be one of the most impressive Xbox games we've seen to date. The game is due to hit shelves in just a week, so look for much more soon.

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