Buy 'RIDDICK: Escape from Butcher Bay': Xbox
A few reviews ago, I chastised a developer for trying to combine two independent styles of game into each other, saying with no reservations that you couldn't pull it off. I'd like to rescind that comment and give Starbreeze Studios their due for successfully pulling off a genre crossover with virtually no flaws.
Escape From Butcher Bay is the prequel entry to the short but popular movie series started with "Pitch Black" and continued in "The Chronicles Of Riddick." Riddick is the very definition of the anti-hero, a man with little emotion if any, who rides through the universe killing en masse while being hunted by every law enforcement entity in existence. Calling him an unpleasant person would be the understatement of the year. At the beginning of Butcher Bay, our hero (I use the term loosely) has been captured by Johns, a bounty hunter of sorts, and is being escorted towards his next 'slam' – the game's term for prison – in a monstrosity of restraints. You've heard every line about Butcher Bay before: no one ever escapes, there's nowhere to go, etc. In this case, it's all true; this slam sits on a desolate desert planet, populated by thousands of heavily armed thugs carrying DNA-keyed heavy firearms and nearly impenetrable body armor. There's nowhere to go outside of the slam, either. The only way out would be to escape into space, which simply can't be done. Don't tell that to Riddick, though, because he plans on leaving one way or another.
Butcher Bay uses a custom engine, usually something that winds up being a drawback. In this case, it works out beautifully. Character models are excellent, with high quality details, animations, and effects. Environments can be a little repetitive but are still well laid out. It's nice to see designers take time out to set up areas for different approaches – it's perfectly acceptable to sneak around and shank guards in the spine or, if you're so inclined, pull out the game's small array of firearms and spray the walls with amazing amounts of viscera. It's no Doom III, but you'll certainly shrink down the population of Butcher Bay a few notches. Even better, the voice acting is top-notch, portrayed by professional actors, including Vin Diesel himself as the title character. While some of the dialogue may seem really stilted, you have to keep in mind at all times that this is, at its core, a brainless action movie with you controlling things.
What separates Butcher Bay from every other Rambo-esque bullet frenzy is the other "modes." Just because you're heavily armed doesn't mean you'll stay that way, rest assured. Plot points throughout the game take away your weapons, leaving you either poorly armed or completely empty-handed, shifting the game back into either the adventure segments or stealth missions. Riddick, even with no guns, is far from passive – his fists are entirely lethal, thanks to a very slickly designed hand-to-hand system, and melee weapons such as shivs and clubs are available everywhere you look. Each of these small weapons has a sneaking instant kill tied to Riddick's stealth mode, and his hands do quite a thorough job of snapping necks when the need arises. You'll do a lot of scampering around in the dark, evading flashlights and spotlamps while trying to get a moment for the killing. The controls do admirably well at handling everything, though weapon selection is very awkward (why not use the mousewheel?) and the leaning controls seem sloppy.
The adventure segments are nothing to write home about, consisting primarily of "find a for b" or "do c for d" missions. They're fun, though, and a nice change of pace from high powered weapons and neck breaking, particularly since these sections are used to forward the plot. The plot flows remarkably evenly, even managing to fit in a tutorial segment cleanly but not jarringly. I wonder about a section or two, and sometimes there's a glaring jump from violence to stealth – if you're not a very good sneaker, you may have to leave Butcher Bay early to avoid frustration.
At the technical level, Butcher Bay is sound, with no noticeable glitches, no crash-to-desktop bugs, and only a handful of severe issues. A glance at the Starbreeze forums shows that this isn't the same story everywhere, though; many players cannot get past the initial start, instead getting a crash and an error message, while others have found scripting errors, including a glaring one that requires replaying nearly a half-hour of game to get past. The game defaults to using a brand new shader model, PS2.0++, if your card supports it (Radeon X-series cards and nVidia 6000-series cards), but I highly recommend turning it down to 2.0, as 2.0++ is horribly CPU dependant and will likely degrade performance to an unplayable state.
There are also a few hangovers from Butcher Bay's console roots, like limited control definition, a menu that's designed for arrow key navigation (though the mouse works, just not well), and no manual saving. Instead, everything is coordinated by "checkpoints" and a single quicksave slot. This is a hindrance and a half, if you get caught in a situation which you can't wiggle your way out of (which, admittedly, is rare). Riddick's screamingly low life meter is unpleasant to deal with as well – a few bullets put him face-down on the pavement, even after shelling out hard-to-find cash for body armor. Bonus health stations and nano-recharge panels exist, but they can be hard to come by, or locked up in special areas. It's aggravating to take a few hits early in a segment and not have enough health to carry on, instead having to repeat a section until you're clear. The guard AI is also a little too tight sometimes, never forgetting that you've been seen somewhere, even after crossing onto a new map.
Those things really don't hurt the overall game. It's a beautiful thing, Butcher Bay, done with style that you don't often see, particularly in a movie license. Yeah, you heard me – this is a good licensed game. Unless either stealth or heavy firefights turn you off, I'd recommend taking Butcher Bay for a spin, just to see the wonderful writing and environments. The gameplay is nothing to shrug off, and if you're a fan of the Riddick franchise in general, you're sure to find something to love here.
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