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.
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 it 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, in addition to the commentary mode, 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 it's open-ended enough and simply good enough to warrant playing through at least one more time. There's no kind of multiplayer support 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 notion 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, and 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 any recent first-person shooter. You'll notice, though, that there's no heads-up display of any kind onscreen, 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 only appears 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. But 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 bare-fisted 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 forward, back, left, or right while attacking, and you may discover various combos by stringing together these different moves. You can also block melee attacks with the right mouse button. 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. That way it's all the more shocking when you see Riddick grappling an armed guard and suddenly forcing him to blow his own brains out.
It's 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. Of course, Riddick will still manage to 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. These are tactics that naturally encourage you to attack using stealth when they're armed and you're not. The enemies will 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 they'll 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. Fortunately, you can instantly toggle your vision mode with the touch of a key. It's also possible to switch to a crouched stance, which has the added effect of giving you a wide-angle view of the environment, as if Riddick is cautiously scanning his surroundings rather than focusing dead ahead. There's much more to keeping a low profile, though.
Crouching is 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 creep up on his foes while their backs are turned. Then he can snap their necks and shove their lifeless corpses to the ground with indignation, or he can stab his foes to death if he's packing a shiv. You can then drag the bodies 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 it 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 also it has 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, who 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 far away. 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 and shadow 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 game is not to be outdone and it 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 itself fits the theme perfectly and it's 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-style levels of intensity, pacing, and sheer spectacle like few games ever have. Yet this is a truly great-playing game, too, so the production values aren't just superficial. The Chronicles of Riddick was developed by 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. And, through this Developer's Cut version of The Chronicles of Riddick, they've proven themselves to be just as capable of making a stunning PC game, much like they already proved themselves on the Xbox.