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The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena

Rating: 8/10. A solid stealth action first person shooter.
Platform: PC

Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary review copy by the publisher's agent.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena is actually two games in one. In addition to the new game, Dark Athena, you're also treated to a copy of the original Escape from Butcher Bay from 2004.

Escape From Butcher Bay

Set before the movie Pitch Black, Butcher Bay is a simple game about a simple man. Riddick has been captured by a bounty hunter and is turned over to the Butcher Bay prison. There is some nonsense about prisons being private, for-profit businesses that purchase prisoners for bounty hunters. It falls apart under any thought, but who cares? Riddick kills a lot of people as he escapes from increasingly high security levels. It's not much of a plot, but Riddick doesn't need much. As a player you just enjoy Riddick as the dangerous lone wolf, occasionally snarling out macho one-liners between killings. While Riddick is a killer, he simply wants to be free, leaving him relatively sympathetic. At several points Riddick gets captured during a cut scene so that he can be placed in the next highest level security level. In most games I'd find this frustrating, but in Butcher Bay it just felt right. My wife who was watching found the cut scene captures frustrating. The weakest part of the story is about a third of the way into the game when Riddick acquires his ability to see in the dark from an unexplained supernatural visitation of the sort that found in the movie The Chronicles of Riddick. Fortunately it's a short scene and you're back to killing people soon enough.

In 2004 Butcher Bay was an impressive game. It looked sharp and played well. The new version in Dark Athena has had some slight graphical improvements, but on the whole is unchanged. The good news is that it has aged very well. While there are moments where the low polygon nature of the world sticks out, on the whole the graphs are good enough that you can immerse yourself in the world.

The play is unchanged from the original, and that is a good thing. Ranged combat satisfying if unexceptional for a first person shooter. Melee combat is an acquired taste. Many reviewers loved it from its visceral feel. However, when I played the game in 2004 and replaying it here, I found it too difficult. I found myself unable to anticipate attacks quickly enough to react. When I succeeded, it felt like luck, not skill. I am terrible at fighting games for much the same reason. After many repeated failures, I had to put the game into easy mode to get past the harder fights. (Happily, the game lets you change difficulty whenever you want.) While you can go without melee combat for most of the game, in a handful of situations you are forced into it.

The highlight of the game is the stealth game play. Riddick can skulk about in the shadows, sneak up on his enemies, and kill them from behind by stabbing them in a back or breaking their neck. This is very satisfying. You can also use the darkness to line up shots and sneak by enemies. Since most of the lights in the game can be shot out, once Riddick gains the ability to see in the dark there is a nearly non-stop stream of this. It's such a core part of the game that the occasional light that can't be shot out is frustrating. On the down side, every once in a while the game will decide you're not quite in the right position to do a stealth kill and you'll end up in a fight with the guard. This is relatively rare, but when it happens it can turn a carefully planned silent killing into a messy fight that draws multiple guards.

As Riddick moves through the system, he gains missions. This is a nice addition to the first person gameplay. For parts of the game Riddick's missions are straightforward: move through the sewers, get to the shuttlecraft. Here the mission listing is a handy reminder of what to do next. But for many sections Riddick will be offered multiple missions. Notably, he can help out other prisoners. Many of these missions are optional. While only a single choice is truly significant (do you advance through part of the game by being busted with drugs or engaging in a serious of money fights), the choices give you a satisfying feeling of freedom.

The game is full of nice little touches. One that I appreciated is that Riddick will shift his gun when he is near a wall to compensate. When behind a crate or other low barrier Riddick will rotate the gun to fire over it.

Riddick's ability to see in the dark, his "eye shine", is a neat effect. Lit areas bleed forward and the scene brightens . On the down side the eye shine sometimes causes blindingly bright glare from reflective surfaces, even in pitch black areas. While annoying, this is a minor nuisance.

Another annoyance is the use of red and green lights to indicate locked and open doors. As someone who is red-green color blind, I found myself frequently unable to distinguish between the two. When Riddick is skulking in the darkness the situation is worse. When sneaking a blue filter is applied to the screen, rendering the door colors nearly identical shades of light blue. My wife who is not color blind was frequently unable to identify door lights when Riddick was sneaking about.

All in all, Butcher Bay is a really good game. Maybe not enough to justify full price today, but fortunately it also comes with...

Dark Athena

While Dark Athena is quite a good game, it does stumble a bit from Butcher Bay.

Dark Athena immediately follows the events of Butcher Bay. The ship Riddick was escaping in is captured by a group of mercenaries. Riddick sneaks aboard their ship where he learns that the mercenaries have crossed the line into the illegal. They're kidnapping innocent people to turn them into flesh robots. Riddick must escape, in the process freeing prisoners of the mercenaries.

The flesh robots, or drones as they are called in game, are an interesting mechanic. Their weapons are bolted onto them, so Riddick can't grab their guns. He can, however, use the gun while it's still attached. While doing this Riddick can only slowly move backward, creating some interesting tradeoffs. The drones default to automatic mode. The don't use lights and follow simple paths. However, operators can take control of the drones remotely. They are slightly smarter and more importantly use lights to search dark places. Late in the game Riddick can break the connection, reverting a drone to it's automatic mode. This would be more interesting, except that breaking the connection causes the drone to shut down for several seconds, making finishing them off trivial. Naturally Riddick gets to make use of this capability a few times during the game.

The biggest problem is that Riddick talks way too much. Riddick works as the strong, violent, and silent type. But Riddick spends a fair amount of time talking to prisoners and other people. His conversations become longer and more involved. Since Riddick can only speak in bad-ass phrases, he starts to sound crazy and stupid.

Riddick also feels the need to talk to himself to repeat his mission goals. Butcher Bay didn't bother with this. In both games the mission list is available at a button press, so this is unnecessary and just makes Riddick look like he has a mental illness. Strong and silent, like the first game, would have worked better.

There is an up side to the having people to talk to; I have people I want to help and people I want to kill. However, this is a Riddick story, and as Riddick comments early in the game, people he helps end up dead. This is extremely true of Dark Athena. Most of the people Riddick tries to help die, unusually in random and pointless ways. The character I most wanted to help, a colonist who had been kidnapped, dies in a crudely telegraphed cut scene. The mere ability to shout "Duck" and open fire could have saved her, but the game denied me the opportunity. This is in line with the Riddick movies, but such an absolute loss of control over things I care about is frustrating. Besides, the movies sucked. This isn't a matter of Things Happen, or lack of skill, this is the game designer intentionally and hamfistedly denying me something I want. Part of why Butcher Bay succeeded is because Riddick was an amoral anti-hero concerned only with his own freedom. You were free to do what you wanted without significant repercussions. Dark Athena introduces sympathetic characters that even Riddick seems to care about, then snatches away your ability to impact their fates by offing them in cutscenes. A decidedly poor decision.

Much of Riddick's direct conversations are with prisoners captured by the mercenaries. The middle of the game centers around Riddick running fetch quests for the prisoners. Like most fetch quests, they feel repetitive and artificial.

One of Riddick's antagonists in Butcher Bay is Johns, a bounty hunter. Johns is just barely skilled enough to capture Riddick, a bit of a dreamer, and an appealing enemy. Johns shows up in Dark Athena, but he is captured while cryogenicly frozen at the start of the game. A big deal is made of Johns being imprisoned and not killed. And then we never hear from him again. Especially after having just played the included Butcher Bay, having Johns emphasized at the beginning, then silently disappearing was disappointing. I was looking forward to tangling with him again.

About three quarters of the way through the game, Riddick will seemingly achieve all of his goals, defeating in a very final and personal way a key enemy and getting into an escape pod. The game is called Dark Athena and we're finally leaving, so the game certainly feels done. Except that it's not. The enemy Riddick had been standing over gets up and shoots Riddick's craft down, completely invalidating the climactic fight. This sequence also makes the bad ass Riddick look like a fool who can't manage a task as simple as making such someone is dead. This was a a low moment in the game, during which I vilified the designer for such a poorly thought out segment. After this Riddick spends some a colony's surface while the mercenaries raid it, then a return to the Dark Athena for the real climax.

The game offers built in hints. On a few occasions just as I was beginning to get frustrated, the game popped up "Press B for a hint." Sure enough, I got a quick tip that got me going again. This was good. Unfortunately a few occasions, especially hunting for a small object in a relatively large area, no such hint was forthcoming.

A good pair of games

Escape from Butcher Bay is by itself a solid game. It looks good, plays well, and is plotted well. Dark Athena is almost as good, but suffers from some unfortunate design flaws. Fortunately the price includes both games. For fans of first person shooters with some stealth gameplay, there is much to recommend. If you are such a fan and have not played the original Butcher Bay, this is an excellent deal. If you have, it's still a good deal if you think you would enjoy replaying Butcher Bay in slightly higher quality.

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