Video games that try to feed off the hype of films that they are associated with are often little more than half-hearted pieces of work, usually due to problems like having to stick to tight deadlines or just apathy on the part of the designers.
Therefore, it is a big and pleasant surprise that Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay turns out to be very entertaining and, more importantly, competently designed.
As the very long name for the game would suggest, the player takes on the role of the titular character, Richard B. Riddick, who has been recently captured by one of his nemeses and sent to Butcher Bay, which has a notorious reputation for being the last place that nasty individuals, such as Riddick, ever go to. Of course, Riddick is not only a nasty character, but also a very determined one.
The prologue of the game would not tell of this immediately though; instead, the player is thrust into a scenario that fans of Riddick would notice is neither canonically nor rationally right. This is because this scenario is used as a tutorial level to teach the player the fundamentals of the game.
Speaking of which, the game uses a first-person perspective. Those who have played stealth-sneaker games like Thief would be quite familiar with the camera setup. Through the prologue, the player is introduced to the mechanism for stealthy kills – in the first few seconds in fact. Riddick can creep up on unaware enemies from behind, and the player can choose to have him perform a quick neck-snap or some strangling before a neck-snap. (The insistence on a neck-snap can be a bit amusing.)
The former way of execution is rather noisy, as the victim still has to utter a pitiful yelp that can be heard by nearby compatriots. The latter is more silent, but requires the player to mash away at buttons to overwhelm the victim, which can take time that the player may not have if enemies happen to be on criss-crossing patrols.
Riddick can hide easily in the shadows, though initially he does not have his night-vision ability. To move more silently, he can lower into a crouch and reduce the noise that he makes; the tinting of the edges of the screen is a handy visual indicator of this. However, this does not mean that enemies cannot hear him when he is crouching. How well they can hear him is influenced by the difficulty setting, which not only decides the usual damage inflicted/dealt ratios, but also the acuteness of enemies' hearing; this is a wise design decision on the part of Starbreeze.
Not all enemies are stupid enough to walk into the dark, which is a wise design for the A.I. of enemies. However, enemies that have flashlights on their persons will, and they do not bother to look over their shoulder often to check if there is anyone behind them.
Some enemies are placed into the game world such that the player cannot approach them without being seen. However, this does not mean that Riddick cannot slay such enemies if he is unarmed: if there are pieces of cover nearby that can obscure Riddick from their view until he can cut short the distance between him and them, the player can have him rushing individual enemies to get into a tussle with them. The tussle is a button-mashing affair, and a noisy one too regardless of the result, but it does give the player an alternative to just running away, hiding and waiting for enemies to make the mistake of turning their backs to Riddick.
Although there are guns in the game, the player cannot have Riddick simply picking up any gun that he sees as they happen to be initially exclusive to only the prison guards due to an element in the story. Attempting to have Riddick pick up a gun when he does not have the capability to do so will administer an electric shock onto Riddick, which saps a bit of his health. This is a very interesting game design; it essentially shoe-horns the player into utilizing stealthy solutions and crimps freedom of gameplay, but it also gives the player the opportunity to appreciate the stealth-sneaking elements of the game and the satisfaction of killing armed enemies.
Eventually, the game will introduce guns into the gameplay. There is not a lot of variety in the selection of guns, but the gunplay is otherwise competently done. There is a pistol, a shotgun with a flashlight that can be turned on or off, and an assault rifle; these are rather standard-fare weaponry in shooters, and which would be all-too-familiar to veterans of that genre. The effects of gunshots are also quite typical, e.g. headshots usually lead to immediate deaths. Riddick also has a partial form of the "walking-armory" player character design, e.g. he can carry these guns somewhere on his person without encumbering himself.
These weapons are also used to shoot out lights; this function would already be quite familiar to followers of stealth-action games. Only the pistol is the most reliable at shooting out lights too, due to the inaccuracy of the other weapons.
Then, there is the game's take on pugilism, which is perhaps one of the most surprising features in this game; it is rare indeed for a game with first-person shooter and stealth/sneaking elements to have game mechanics involving fisticuffs too.
There are enemies that Riddick has to fight in a brawl, instead of simply grabbing them and snapping their necks or outright shooting them. In these sequences, the player has to "toggle" on Riddick's fists, which appear on-screen. For the first fight in the game, the game will display prompts for the player to know which button to press to have Riddick deliver punches; there is no way to kick in this game, which can be a bit of a disappointment.
Riddick can raise his forearms to parry incoming attacks, though he cannot completely negate the damage inflicted, especially if his enemy has a weapon like an improvised knife (called "shiv" in this game, to use the street slang for home-made blades) and a baton. However, with the right control input at the right time, he can attempt to disarm his opponent and relieve him of said weapon for his own use. Riddick can only have one melee weapon at a time, however, so the player should pick wisely, if there is more than one lying around for appropriation.
The prologue will introduce the aforementioned mechanisms, but some others are only introduced later. However, before the player can encounter these, he/she is introduced to the themes and settings of the game via another prologue segment that has the player going on an on-rails experience as Riddick is escorted into the prison and shown its nasty conditions as well as the lack of scruples among its inhabitants.
If Starbreeze's intention was to have the player refusing to have any sympathy with the prisoners and the guards, then it certainly succeeded; just about everyone that Riddick will encounter is despicable in one way or another. This apprehension would come in handy for the player, as he/she would have Riddick killing quite a lot of them soon enough.
Not to be content in being locked up in a prison, Riddick gets himself busy with learning how to break out. Understandably, trying to do so in a prison world where the inhabitants prefer that everyone stays in is not easy. Consequently, he would get into a lot of trouble that gets him into deeper parts of the prison world, as well as scenarios that introduce other game mechanisms that the prologue does not.
Some time later into the game, Riddick undergoes an ordeal that grants him permanent night-vision powers (or "eye-shine", to use the term that the franchise has for this) and that has him donning his signature goggles almost all the time. The player has to toggle in between normal vision and eye-shine, which applies different visual filters.
It has to be mentioned here though that Riddick's normal vision does not differ much from the regular vision that he had before the ordeal, despite the presence of goggles over his eyes; moreover, the ordeal should have distorted his vision permanently. This was likely due to design convenience on the part of Starbreeze, though the developer does have the excuse that there is not much canonical portrayal of Riddick's sight through his goggles.
However, eye-shine mode does not exactly give the player normal visuals in dark areas. Eye-shine mode tints the screen purple, as well as distorts it around the edges. The former reduces colour contrast between enemies and the background, whereas the latter can affect the player's peripheral vision. Although this follows the canonical portrayal of Riddick's vision as shown in the movie Pitch Black, it can be perplexing when considered from the aspect of gameplay convenience. On the other hand, one can argue in favour of this game that this was meant to balance this vision mode against the incapability of enemies to see well in the dark.
The gunplay is competently designed but mostly cookie-cutter, as mentioned earlier. However, there are a couple of guns that stand out from the rest – one for being not as lethal as the others, the other for being exceptionally so.
The tranquilizer gun is a notable exception to the rest of the weapons in the game not just for being non-lethal, but also for having unlimited ammunition. Riddick can shoot and reload it for as many times as the player wants; the reason for this is described in a developer comment, though it is not convincing enough to explain away the visual oddity of unlimited reloads.
As its name suggests, it can temporarily incapacitate enemies so that they can be safely despatched via some brutal head-stomping. However, to balance against its relative silence and unlimited ammunition, reloading the tranquilizer gun is a slow matter.
Perhaps more interestingly, the tranquilizer gun's shots can also be used to destroy light sources. This fact is utilized in one segment of the game where it is the only gun available to Riddick. This segment also has the tranquilizer gun being used to exploit a loophole in the prison's security designs, which can be a bit entertaining.
The minigun is perhaps a queer weapon to find in a prison world, but its significance would be made apparent shortly after its debut. As expected of a rapid-firing heavy weapon, it can blow through most opposition fairly quickly, but it has a sealed ammo magazine that cannot be reloaded and it slows down Riddick, thus requiring the player to not only be quick at aiming and shooting but also efficient with ammo consumption. Nevertheless, the minigun can still offer a very fun time, if only because it is very different from the rest of the guns.
The prison world that Riddick is on is vast, as will be apparent as the player progresses in the story. Riddick will get himself into various parts of the prison world, each with new kinds of challenges and dangers. For example, he will get into mines under the surface-level portion of the prison world, where excavation for expansions to the prison are made and the mineral wealth of the planet is extracted. These mines have a lot of chemicals and materiel for mining, which make for both hazards to exploration and opportunities to inflict convenient harm on enemies.
These locales have a few things in common. One of these is darkness, which requires judicial use of Riddick's eye-shine and which has enemies brandishing light sources to illuminate it. The pervasive darkness would have been quite contrived, if not for the fact that most of these locales occur underground. However, the underground theme also happens to limit the aesthetical designs of the game; there are a lot of prison cells in various conditions (from the dirty ones at the surface to the sterile and clean ones at the deepest levels), offices and accommodation for the guards, metal and polycarbonate edifices to support the underground segments of the prison world and a lot of rock, but little else.
On the other hand, one other thing that the locales have in common compensates for this lack of variety in the visuals: their atmosphere of oppression. Every part of the prison world has looks and feels that do a good job of reminding the player that the inmates face death and harm at every moment. Perhaps the only exception is the last few levels, which are far cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing, but the apparent lack of any threat of bodily harm to inmates is belied by the sinister purpose of this section of the prison world, which will not be described as it constitutes a spoiler.
The last few things that they have in common are gameplay-related. There are a few health stations throughout these levels, and there are two kinds of these, one being rarer than the other. These are associated with the health system that governs Riddick's durability.
Riddick's health is a mixture of two known heath meter designs: the limited health meter as seen in old-school first-person shooters and the regenerating health seen in newer ones. This is an interesting blend, as it encourages expedient (and violent) solutions to a scenario, while deterring the player from being too reckless in the long run. This is because Riddick's health is represented by blocks, each of which will deteriorate as Riddick takes damage but will regenerate to full if it is not completely removed.
Speaking of health blocks, these only appear when there is a change in Riddick's health. This is in keeping with Starbreeze's design policy of having as little on-screen visual indicators as possible, which serves the immersion factor of the game well.
Returning to the health stations, the more common ones are wall-mounted, and are usually empty by default. To use them, the player has to locate cartridges of medicine and insert them into these machines before they can be used to restore his health (which is a rather painful process, ironically and amusingly enough). It is worth noting here that enemies do not appear to be able to use medical stations that had been reloaded; they do not appear to be even aware of the health stations either, loaded or empty.
The rarer kind of health stations are more difficult to find. These, when used (in a manner that is even more painful than the more common health stations), grant Riddick an extra health block, which is handy in the later levels of the game when the challenges are more dangerous.
The enemies in the game are usually the guards of the prison. To deal with most of them, the player has to resort to stealth to outmaneuver them and get them from behind. Moreover, the player will often have to resort to flight (as in fleeing), as Riddick is often not armed whereas his enemies are. After some attempts at fleeing, the player may notice that their A.I. scripting for pursuit are reasonably believable; guards need to have an illuminated line of sight at Riddick to follow him around and shoot at him. Dark areas, large opaque obstacles and walls hamper their pursuit, a fact of which that the player would soon learn and exploit for Riddick's benefit.
Enemies also include other prison inmates, but unlike guards, the player will often be engaging in brawls with them, which have been described earlier. These are less stealthy affairs, however, and there are few opportunities to get the drop on hostile inmates by making use of the shadows.
In addition to inmates and guards, there are other kinds of enemies that can be encountered and fought. They will not be described in detail here, as this would be a spoiler. However, it should suffice to say that they make for competently challenging boss fights and encounters that are different from those with guards and inmates, especially if the player has bothered to go around collecting and reading documents like memos and notes that happen to refer to these enemies.
Speaking of memos and notes, there are such items lying around for Riddick to collect and read, though it is not clear where he keeps these on his person (and canonically, Riddick is not one to bother with such things). These give more exposition on the backstory behind the prison world as well as some of its more prominent denizens, such as its insidious and greedy warden.
In addition to these collectibles, there are also packets of cigarettes to be found throughout the game. These serve humorous dual-roles in the presentation of the game: to depict the culture of smoking among the gruff inhabitants of the prison, and as an anti-smoking message. Each of these packets of cigarettes (called "smokes" in-game, which is another street slang) has entertainingly hideous packaging that more than suggests that smoking is bad for health.
Gameplay-wise, these packets of cigarettes unlock miscellaneous content like concept art and such; the computer version of the game also has more packets of cigarettes, and thus even more of such extra content. However, the most valuable gameplay content is not obtained by finding collectibles, but from completing the game at least once. This unlocks the commentary mode, which is one of the new additions that the computer version gets (and which justifies the subtitle of "Director's Cut").
In commentary mode, the player can listen to comments that developers have recorded for certain scenarios and moments within the game when the player comes across them as he/she moves along in the story. Most of these comments concern the reasons and intentions that the developers have for designing these scenarios and moments. Most of them are understandable.
However, there are some that need more convincing explanation. For example, the commentary for the reason behind the unlimited ammunition that the tranquilizer gun has an explanation for the gameplay considerations behind this decision, but not the lack of redesign of the animations for this gun. Riddick appears to remove its battery and replace it with another, but he does not exactly have a finite stockpile of batteries and there are no batteries for this gun that can be collected within the game world.
In addition to the commentary mode, the computer version of Escape From Butcher Bay also includes a set of new levels where Riddick gets to use one of the more prominent sci-fi hardware that is seen in the game. To describe these new levels would be too much of a spoiler, but it should suffice to say that the feeling of considerable power that said hardware provides is very, very satisfying.
As mentioned earlier, the game's level designs do a good job of projecting the intended atmosphere of the game. However, technical-wise, the game's graphics are not exactly very excellent. They are very thematically appropriate and appear to look great, but they are actually the result of illusory techniques that were cutting edge at the time.
The first indication of this is the sparseness of facial animations on characters during dialogue scenes. Riddick himself has a rather stiff face almost throughout the game, though the excuse that Riddick is generally a bad-ass can be applied. This excuse cannot be applied to the other characters though, whose faces are just as stiff yet they are not as bad-ass as Riddick.
Moreover, the visual designs for characters other than the most prominent ones are recycled. The library of head shapes, body builds, and even facial features, among other body parts that are used for the designs of models for characters, are rather small. Consequently, to the discerning player, characters in the game may appear to look a tad similar to the others. This recycling of body parts becomes even more apparent in the latter parts of the game when Riddick has his character model swapped for something else other than his black singlet and gray pants.
The polygons that are used for the models and environments in the game are actually very low in count, though their animations do hide these rather well, at least until the camera gives a close-up of them. The close-up also reveals the low-detail textures that are used for them, but like the polygons, they are disguised via the use of multiple of textures for one kind of model.
Perhaps the best disguise for the less-than-cutting-edge texturing and modelling is the lighting that is used for the game; the models and textures for them may not be pushing the limits of complexity and detail by the time of this game, but they definitely have been designed to facilitate the lighting system of Starbreeze's own proprietary engine, simply called the Starbreeze Engine.
The visual filters and distortions of Riddick's eye-shine have already been described, and these do a fantastic job of hiding the setbacks in the graphics and actually making the game look great.
However, of more impressiveness are the light sources and the shadows that are created from these. A veteran of shooter games would notice that they are similar in quality to those seen in Doom 3, but these may be even better. Textures have designs that allow the lighting and shadowing to accentuate them. As an example, the textures that portray the hair of a certain nemesis of Riddick have designs that allow the lighting to highlight the neat combing of his hair. Another, more common example is the creases in a person's clothes.
The result is a very convincing mimicry of minute 3D nook and crannies, though an observant player would notice that this is just an illusion to disguise polygons of very simple shapes.
The illusory techniques of stencil-shadowing, self-shadowing and normal mapping, among others, would have been enough to have this game considered as having great graphics all-around, if not for certain occurrences in the game that dispel the illusions in very clumsy manners. One of these is the death of characters and the subsequent conversion of their models into ragdolls.
These ragdolls have lousy collision with their surroundings, such that limbs may float above the floor and ragdolls are contorted in manners that betray how rigid their skeletons are. More importantly, these ragdolls allow the player a closer look at the models, which will betray their low polygon count and simple shapes. Dragging and shifting the ragdolls around to alter the shadows on them will also reveal some shortfalls in the lighting scripts.
The sound designs of the game have fewer illusions that spoil the magnificence of the game.
Reverberating clangs of metal against concrete and other noises remind the player that Riddick is in an enclosed prison complex, whereas echoes are used to accentuate the more cavernous levels. Other ambient noises include dripping water for the poorly maintained sanitation system of the prison cells. The combat in the game is aurally satisfying: guns do sound appropriately powerful, punches sound beefy when they land and wallops and stabs are similarly pleasing.
The music in the game is generally foreboding, adding to the themes of oppression that the game has. When the action heats up, the music turns more ominous and has a higher tempo. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the music is that it is mostly orchestral in quality; given the game's themes and the bad-ass personalities of so many characters in this game, one would have expected music like metal, which would have been typical. (That is not to say that there is no metal in this game.)
The voice-acting is perhaps the best aspect of the sound designs of the game. Vin Diesel himself voices Riddick, and so the latter sounds as authentic as he can be with respect to the canon. (It is also worth noting here that Tigon Studios has been founded to manage the trademarks that Vin Diesel has reserved for the use of his likeness and voice in video games.)
In addition, there are other celebrities that voice other prominent characters in the game and lend their likenesses to them, such as Cole Hauser that reprises his role as William Johns the bounty hunter, hip-hop artist Xzibit that is one of the senior guards, Dwight Schultz who plays the warden of the prison, and the late Willis Burk II, who played a minor character but which has a role in one of the most pivotal moments in the Chronicles of Riddick canon.
The secondary and tertiary characters are voiced by less famous talents, but they do a good job of emphasizing their personalities. There is some noticeable recycling of voices, but otherwise they serve the story and presentation of the game well.
In conclusion, Escape From Butcher Bay is a competently designed game with effectively implemented elements of stealth, shoot-outs, brawls and exploration. This surprisingly satisfactory and balanced mixture of gameplay is further complemented with many memorable moments in its story that unfortunately could not be described in this review in order to prevent spoilers, though the game's very satisfying presentation of its gritty and nasty themes is certainly notable. All these make Escape From Butcher Bay out as one of the best games to be based on a film franchise, which is a rarity.