"They say hope begins in the dark... The darkness, for me, is where I shine."
These are Riddick's first words in Assault on Dark Athena, the sequel to the Xbox 1 game, Escape from Butcher Bay. Riddick (and by extension his real-life counterpart Vin Diesel) hasn't lost any of his gravitas. Despite a five-year layoff, Riddick is pretty much the same character, performing the same actions and delivering the same heavy-handed one-liners.
Starbreeze, makers of the highly acclaimed Escape from Butcher Bay, are back as well, updating the visuals from the original, adding on a full-blown sequel as well as online multiplayer. For some, this collection will be a nostalgic look back at one of the best movie-licensed videogames ever made. For others, it's an introduction to Riddick and a rare style of gameplay, one that fuses stealth and the traditional first-person shooter.
Escape from Butcher Bay has been faithfully updated with hi-def graphics and sounds and the bonus mech sequence previously only available in the PC version. Though it's five years old, there are elements that are still strikingly fresh and original.
As a prisoner of Butcher Bay, Riddick must worry about getting shanked by fellow inmates, capped by overzealous guards and torn to pieces by the mutants that live in the tunnels below. Though from the early moments it seems this is going to be just another first-person shooter, Butcher Bay is nothing of the sort. This is a stealth game. As tough as Riddick may be, his muscle shirt doesn't provide any protection and a few gunshots are enough to end his life. The Chronicles Riddick is kind of like Splinter Cell in first-person. You can be bold and aggressive and run straight at enemies, but it's far better (and healthier) to stay in the dark and take enemies by surprise.
One of the unique things Escape from Butcher Bay does (and continues in Assault on Dark Athena) is blend today's common regenerative health system with the more traditional health pack. Riddick has multiple health boxes that make up his life bar and as he takes damage a box begins to deplete. If a box fully depletes, it disappears and remains gone until you find a med station (Riddick's version of a health pack). But if you take a hit and can get to cover before the box is empty, it can regenerate. What's startling is just how quickly those boxes go bye-bye when under heavy fire in the open.
There are also some lengthy bits in Butcher Bay where you're hardly worrying about killing folks. Riddick spends a good chunk of his time working the other prisoners for escape options. And these moments are full of funny conversations and, of course, Riddick's pithy retorts. There are some sidequests as well that will have you hanging with the prison population a bit longer than those who just want to blaze through the story.
It has been five years since the release of the first Riddick game and time hasn't been completely kind. Though Starbreeze uses the new Athena engine for Butcher Bay, some visual aspects still seem a bit archaic. The lip-synching in particular looks bad in spots in Butcher Bay, but much better in Dark Athena. And while it was easy to awe gamers with all of the shiny textures and great lighting five years ago, it's far less impressive now. In fact, with Riddick looking on par with your average shooter, it's easier to notice that the landscape is unflatteringly flat and the animations unspectacular.
Along with the good comes the bad and Escape from Butcher Bay can't escape the sins of the past -- and neither can Dark Athena. Both games are absolutely terrible at leading the player to their next quest. I'm not suggesting that there needs to be giant flashing arrows on the ground, but the quest screens rarely tells you where to head and there is so much backtracking (particularly in Butcher Bay) that it's easy to run around in circles. There is rarely the audio cue or camera pan to suggest where to head next.
There is one part in Dark Athena, in fact, where a cutscene ended and the game had me facing the wrong direction from where I needed to go. Trained by years of proper game design, I made the poor assumption that I was being aimed in the correct direction. An hour later, I'd searched every inch only to finally discover I was never supposed to go in the very direction I was pointed. It can be, at times, unbelievably frustrating to figure out where you're supposed to be headed.
All of that said, I still think Escape from Butcher Bay is an enjoyable and unique experience. It isn't quite the gem people remember, but it's a good game nonetheless. The same can't be said for Assault on Dark Athena, which comes off as little more than a poor imitation of its predecessor. And the problems go far beyond the aforementioned pathfinding issues.
Assault on Dark Athena takes place shortly after the events of Escape from Butcher Bay, with Riddick and his frienemy Johns flying through space to parts unknown. The Dark Athena is a mysterious (and massive) ship full of mercenaries all too happy to "salvage" Johns' ride. Once again Riddick is captive with a bunch of guards (this time mindless drones) and a select group of colorful prisoners. He needs to find a way to escape using all of the same methods as Escape from Butcher Bay. Instead of piloting a mech, you eventually get to command a drone warrior. Instead of a maniacal prison warden, you're facing a maniacal ship commander in Revas. Been there, done that (and done better).
The AI in Assault on Dark Athena is bad. Of course, the excuse is that the drones are mindless, only follow patrol patterns and only care about what's in their line of sight. Fine. But this is also a ship full of mercenaries and their AI seems to have two phases: fall back and take cover or run forward and confront Riddick. Aside from making for some incredibly boring and predictable sequences, the AI breaks at points. There were a few sections in Dark Athena where, with Riddick leaning out from the shadows to fire, the AI kept switching between its two phases. An enemy would rush me, then as soon as I leaned out, it ran back to cover. I stopped leaning and he immediately ran back towards me. These hilarious sprints back and forth are rare (because the majority of enemies are drones), but I had this happen a few times when facing mercenaries.
The real shame is that Escape from Butcher Bay did something new and unexpected for a movie-licensed game (and FPS), but Assault on Dark Athena does nothing new at all. It just attempts to ape what was once innovative. What's lost is the spirit of Butcher Bay. The story is bad, the enemies cliché, and the action far more shooter-oriented than Athena's stealth-heavy predecessor.
There are parts of Assault on Dark Athena that I liked a lot and that reminded me of the best elements of Escape from Butcher Bay, but most of the experience was, frankly, boring. Sure, Dark Athena doubles the single-player game clock when added on to Butcher Bay's 6-8 hours, but I'd rather have just played through Escape from Butcher Bay twice than slog through this mediocre sequel.
One of Escape from Butcher Bay's main criticisms was its lack of multiplayer. Starbreeze solved this concern with a decent online offering. Along with standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, there are a few unique modes users can give a spin across 15 different maps.
The best of these is Pitch Black, which has one person as Riddick and the rest as mercenaries sent to hunt him down. The catch is that Riddick is hanging out in the dark -- where he can use his Eye Shine to see. The mercs must rely on their weapons' flashlights. The catch is that the weakest weapons have the brightest lights, so players must sacrifice visibility for power or vice versa. Whoever is Riddick wants to kill as many mercs as possible, but if someone takes Riddick down, they assume the role of escaped convict. The only thing holding back Pitch Black is some questionable netcode. I played on Microsoft's test servers (which receive considerably less strain than public servers) and with a connection faster than the average gamer. And still I was hit with lag. I'd see Riddick in a corner and start shooting and he'd teleport around, slipping in and out of reality that's to the lag. It only takes a couple of seconds for Riddick to kill a merc, and the added advantage of lag made the entire battle unfair.
Another mode, Butcher Bay Riot, has three groups -- guards, prisoners and mercs -- trying to attain a power module and connect it to a home base. There's no respawning in this mode and there's a Counter Strike-esque purchasing system at the start of each round. It's a decent mode, but not particularly memorable. And lastly is Arena, which sets up 1v1 or 2v2 matches in an enclosed space. Winner stays in for the next challenger; loser goes to the back of the line.
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