Name: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Back in 2004, a little-known developer named Starbreeze brought us The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The game was not only an example of how to do a licensed game the right way, it was also one of the best-looking and most innovative titles of the previous console generation. With its combination of stealth action, first-person melee combat, and big-budget storytelling, it marked Starbreeze as a developer to watch, and cemented Vin Diesel as a serious force in the gaming industry. Five years later, the Starbreeze team brings us the sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, which includes a re-mastered, re-skinned version of the original. A half a decade is a long time in the gaming world, though, and the game that once represented innovation and immersiveness now feels a bit dated and uninspired.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena takes place directly after the events of Escape from Butcher Bay and shortly before Pitch Black, the first movie to feature Diesel’s iconic bad-ass, Richard B Riddick. After his escape from the alliteratively-named space prison, Riddick finds himself almost immediately captured by a mercenary ship called the Dark Athena. He must then escape the ship, utilizing all the deadly skills and abilities that got him out of Butcher Bay to contend with robotic drones and crazed mercenaries all too eager to take down one of the galaxy’s biggest bounties. Along the way, he’ll need to speak with several of the Dark Athena’s prisoners in order to gain access to new areas of the merc ship and move on with the story. These supporting characters are all voiced extremely well, and generally have interesting stories to tell. The problem is that for every well-thought-out line delivered by the ship’s residents, there is at least one line of ham-fisted, cliché-riddled tough guy nonsense uttered by Riddick.
Five years ago, Escape from Butcher Bay was probably the best looking game on consoles, period. The game’s gorgeous textures, realistic lighting, fluid animation, and crisp, highly detailed environments pushed the Xbox to its technical limits. Dark Athena represents a step forward in visuals, but fails to impress the way its predecessor did. Whereas Butcher Bay stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries, Dark Athena is just another nice looking game. Riddick, in particular, looks fantastic, but other characters are only okay looking, and feature some uneven animations that vascillate are sometimes eerily realistic, and other times off-puttingly twitchy. Environments are nice enough, but lack distinctiveness. This, along with some unclear mission descriptions, often result in unnecessary backtracking and a general sense of “Where am I supposed to go next?”
If you’ve played Escape from Butcher Bay, there’s not a whole lot new to do in the sequel. The control scheme remains the same, as do the stealth mechanics and melee combat. The screen still turns blue to tell you when you are hidden in the darkness, and the core gameplay is still focused on moving around unseen and dispatching your enemies with stealthy attacks, with occasional gunplay and hand-to-hand combat sequences breaking up the action. This time around, hordes of mindless, armed drones walk the halls, along with a few mercenaries looking to make a name for themselves via your corpse. Adding drones was a good idea, especially when you consider the brain-dead AI found in the game’s human enemies.
In addition to the new content, Dark Athena includes a re-mastered version of the Xbox original, Escape from Butcher Bay. For those who haven’t yet experienced the excellent title, this is probably the best way to do so. For players who’ve already been there, done that, the improved visuals might give you a new appreciation of the title, but there’s not enough new content for the remake to be worth the $60 price tag on its own. Dark Athena does include some interesting multiplayer modes that help flesh out the whole package. There’s a standard Deathmatch, team Deathmatch, and an arena mode which pits teams of 1 or 2 players against each other in a “winner-stays” tournament. The more interesting modes are “Butcher Bay Riot,” which splits 12 players into three teams for a game of “capture-the-flag,” and “Pitch Black,” which pits 5 mercenaries against the stealthy Riddick in a game cat-and-mouse. Pitch Black is probably the most fun of all the game types, and lends itself to some seriously tense moments.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena is a suitable sequel to one of last generations best action games, but it fails to innovate in any way. With all the exact same controls, the disc feels more like an expansion pack than a proper sequel, but the graphical upgrades and multiplayer modes ensure that it’s not a rip-off in any way. It’s not nearly the eye-opening experience that its predecessor was, but it’s still a solid stealth title with excellent presentation that’s worth checking out.