The original Chronicles of Riddick title, Escape from Butcher Bay, was a great gem released for the original Xbox. Not only did it readily shrug off the movie-game stigma, but it also defined itself as a first-person shooter that didn't need to rely on gunplay. Dark Athena is both a remake of the original game with a brand-new engine, and also a sequel in the form of an entirely new story line and environment. Though the preview build we received has its rough edges, the gameplay stands just as strong as it ever has, and while newcomers are in for an exciting new ride, fans of the original game will appreciate the newly introduced gameplay tweaks.
The story of the game is broken up into two interconnected campaigns, Escape from Butcher Bay and Dark Athena. In the events of the original title, the player fills the role of Riddick, a mysterious criminal in the custody of a mercenary named Johns. Johns sells Riddick to Butcher Bay, a maximum security prison on a desolate planet that has never had a convict escape from its clutches. Rules are made to be broken, of course, and in the end Riddick steals a ship and leaves the planet. The events of Dark Athena come into play when a massive mercenary vessel hijacks Riddick's ship and brings it aboard. Riddick then finds himself as an unwilling stowaway surrounded by new enemies, and he must find a way to escape.
The new engine is a significant upgrade over the original, in both the graphics department as well as the fluidity of the gameplay. Graphically speaking, the original was no slouch, though obvious improvements to texture quality, geometry and lighting effects bring the original content into a more modern light. Since the original content is a remake, it does still look a bit dated in some aspects of the level design, but this has more to do with it being a faithful remake rather than a fault on Starbreeze per se. The Dark Athena campaign sees the best use of the new engine, since the environments were created and laid out with the new engine in mind. Various gameplay tweaks pepper the game, such as a much easier to use weapon selection system and the ability to set two weapons to hotkeys on the d-pad for quick access.
The build we received had both campaigns fully playable, and in our experience in completing both, the game does feel like one cohesive story line. Playing through the original again is more fun, thanks to the tighter controls and the face-lift, while the slightly shorter Dark Athena campaign shows the tweaked gameplay formula. For all its strengths, the original did feature many times when you were simply walking around and talking to people; in the expanded content, there are very few stretches where you will be hoofing it around without shanking someone.
Speaking of shanking, Dark Athena still features some of the most brutal melee combat found in the genre. Though Riddick is capable with the game's assortment of ranged weapons such as pistols, assault rifles and shotguns, he simply doesn't need them to kill a man. Rather, Riddick uses stealth to move about undetected, and much like the original, your vision turns a blue hue when you are undetectable in the shadows. Throughout both games, Riddick will have an assortment of melee weapons from shivs to clubs, and each one has its own set of brutal attacks and stealth kills. Melee combat is often a matter of timing your attacks to strike right before the enemy hits you or nimbly dancing around more powerful opponents, but either way, it is always satisfying to get into a knife fight with a guy only to parry his attack and stab him in the eye, or stab a guy in the shoulder with one Ulak blade while you eviscerate him with the other.
The gunplay sections fall somewhat flat in comparison, a problem that afflicted the original game to the same extent. Melee combat is often a game of cat and mouse, avoiding patrols while in the shadows only to strike a lone gunman and drag his body into the darkness, and in comparison, ranged combat is a somewhat bland matter of popping out and trading shots. In the second half of the events of the Dark Athena campaign, Riddick gets the SCAR rifle, which is essentially a remote mine launcher that is great for blowing out a whole room's lights at once, letting you then break out the Ulaks for an entirely one-sided knife fight. Of course, not all gunplay is bad, as you will have a blast piloting a mech while spacewalking on the hull of the Dark Athena or controlling the robotic enemy drones, but the most entertaining combat is centered around Riddick using melee attacks to dispatch his foes. Thankfully, that also happens to be the majority of the game, and very seldom do you find yourself in a situation where ranged combat is the only option.
Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena will likely have seen some coats of polish applied to it in time for the final retail release, but based on our time with the preview build, it doesn't need a whole lot of it. Though the gunplay is underwhelming, make no mistake that the majority of the gameplay in either campaign features Riddick using frightfully effective means of cutting down his foes down in melee. It remains to be seen as to what draw the multiplayer will have, but fans of the original as well as fans of the FPS genre looking for something a little bit different would do well to keep Dark Athena on their calendars as it nears its ship date.
More articles about The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena