"Pitch Black," released in 2000, was a fairly average sci-fi/horror movie with a fairly unique premise. It was set on a world filled with nocturnal flying piranha monsters that feared the light and preyed on those in darkness. The most memorable character from this lot was Richard B. Riddick, a deadly convict with a unique "Eyeshine" that allowed him to see in the dark. This was the role that launched Vin Diesel's career after "smaller" but well-received roles in movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Iron Giant."
As Diesel's career reached its zenith, a decision was made to revisit the Riddick character in an attempt to launch a new sci-fi franchise called, unsurprisingly, "The Chronicles of Riddick." As part of this attempt, a whole series of products were launched, including an animated movie, a series of novels, and yes, a video game. Most people expected a tie-in game from a fairly small developer to be on the usual level of quality for movie-licensed games. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay shocked everyone by being an excellent game. It was easily one of the better FPS titles on the Xbox, and even to this day stands out as perhaps the best movie tie-in title ever. Unfortunately, the game was never made backward compatible on the Xbox 360 … until Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.
Assault on Dark Athena is actually two games in one package. The first of these is a visually updated port of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The game is basically unchanged, except for the addition of a robot driving segment that only existed in the PC iteration. The second of these is Assault on Dark Athena, which is a full-fledged sequel to the first title, using the same engine and the taking place shortly afterward. Newcomers to the franchise will most certainly want to start with Butcher Bay, and even those who played the original Xbox title will probably want to start from the beginning to get a feel for the plot. Unfortunately, Butcher Bay is also inarguably the far superior game in this collection.
Originally released in 2004 as part of the advertising blitz for the "Chronicles of Riddick" movie, Butcher Bay is set not too long before the events of "Pitch Black." Johns, one of the characters from the movie and a mercenary for hire (Mercs), has captured Riddick and brought him to Butcher Bay, a "triple-max" security prison set on a desert planet. As one would assume, Riddick has to find a way to escape from an inescapable prison. The plot is simple but works quite well, with a varied cast of memorable characters and fairly exceptional pacing. It feels like a movie, which really benefits it. Perhaps the only problem is that there are quite a few sequences designed to tie in to the "Furian" plot revealed in "Chronicles of Riddick," so it remains unsatisfying and unresolved to those who've never seen the movie. Fortunately, there are only a handful of these, and they don't detract very much from the overall game. Don't expect anything too deep, though, since this is the same franchise that brought us words like "Underverse" and "Necromongers."
Combat in Riddick is divided into two types: melee and ranged. Melee combat is pretty simple but extremely fun. Pulling or holding the right trigger will punch or slash with your weapon. Depending on the direction you are pressing while doing this, you may launch a series of different attacks, and you can even combo these attacks together with careful button presses. It sounds extremely simplistic, and it is, but it works exceptionally well. You can also counter some attacks by pulling the right trigger as the enemy swings at you, allowing you to perform a special counterattack that usually leaves the enemy dead; you can even do this to enemies armed with guns, forcing themselves to shoot themselves in the face.
This is more important than it sounds because guns are not quite as easy to get in Butcher Bay as one would expect. The guards' common assault rifles are DNA-coded, which means they'll give a lethal shock to anyone who isn't registered to pick them up. Getting a gun is a pretty challenging task, and you'll usually only have one for brief periods of time, so you'll be forced to rely on your melee weapons. Gunplay is fairly simple point-and-shoot interface, with the right trigger firing and left trigger targeting. One neat feature is that Riddick will "aim" his gun around objects, so if you're standing behind a box, he'll lift the gun up and over the box, allowing you to fire from cover. Gunplay feels more awkward than melee, but it works fairly well once you've got the hang of it.
Riddick is a creature of the dark, so most of your time in the game is going to be spent looking for shadows to hide in. Fortunately, stealth is exceptionally easy to learn and a lot of fun to use. Pressing the X button puts Riddick into stealth mode, which causes him to crouch and walk slower, but it also comes with the benefit of moving silently. If you're in stealth mode when in the shadows, you can hide from enemies. As long as an enemy can't see you, the screen takes on a blue tinge, giving you an easy visual cue to know when you're safe and when you're not.
When Riddick gains his Eyeshine ability, he can remove his goggles to activate the ability to see perfectly in pitch darkness. As you can imagine, fighting in darkness already puts your enemies at a disadvantage, but doing so when Riddick can see them makes him an unstoppable killing machine. As long as enemies don't know where Riddick is, he can sneak up behind them and snap their necks with a button tap, and then he can drag their bodies into the darkness so as to not alert other foes. You'll end up doing most of your fighting in the dark. Even guns are more useful when used from the shadows, as a single bullet from the assault rifle to an enemy's head can usually kill in one shot, but lining up this shot is a lot harder when they're hiding and firing at you instead of standing around, oblivious to your presence.
For the most part, enemies are an interesting mix of intimidating and stupid. When they can't see you, the enemies couldn't be less of a threat. They tend not to pay attention to seemingly obvious things, and the AI will often run around wildly or not notice a friend falling to the ground and writhing in pain. Once you're in their sights, though, they're fairly nasty killing machines, with incredibly high accuracy, powerful weapons and the tendency to get behind you or hide in places where it's hard to notice them until their super-accurate bullets ram into your face. The basic solution to this is not to engage anything armed with a gun in a straight fight. Melee fights are a bit simple, but enemies tend to play quite defensively and force the player to find a hole in their defenses to exploit.
Where Butcher Bay really shines is the way it gives you new things to do, never spending too long on any one part of the game. One segment has you doing favors to get weapons and information, which is then followed by a shooting segment where you have to blast feral monsters and escape a pitch-black tomb before your light runs out of power, followed by disguising yourself as a guard and trying to assassinate the head guard. While not everything that Butcher Bay throws at you is fun, a vast majority of them are, and things change so often that you'll never be stuck with something unpleasant for too long.
The level design is strongly built around using the skills you've learned elsewhere, and as you progress in the game, you'll rarely feel like you've been thrust into a situation you're not prepared for. It's also worth noting that the game isn't built entirely around combat. There are entire gameplay segments you can bypass by talking to people and doing favors in exchange for favors of your own, but in a surprisingly smart move, this is just one option, as you can also use brute force to get through many of the segments. Doing so tends to turn you off from side-quests, which in turn give you cigarette packages, which unlock special bonus artwork.
By modern standards, Butcher Bay is a pretty unforgiving game. Riddick's health is measured in "cubes," located in the upper-left corner of the screen. If he takes damage, a cube is drained, and if a cube is completely drained, he loses it. Riddick's health only regenerates to "fix" a damaged cube, and a lost cube is lost until you can find a NanoMed machine. This may not sound so bad, but NanoMed machines are few and far between, and each machine can only restore four "cubes" of health unless you use a fairly rare item to refill the charge. You can increase your total health bar by finding special machines located throughout the game, but these machines are rare and very well-hidden. It's important to note that your health remains at the same level it was at when you reached a checkpoint, so if you act foolishly and take a lot of damage, you'll have to go through an area when you only have a couple of cubes of health. On top of this, enemies do pretty darn substantial damage and have excellent accuracy, so being out in the open for more than a few seconds can easily get you killed. The only way to stay alive against heavily armed foes is to use stealth, even in the segments where you're heavily armed. This all adds up to a fairly difficult game, where a single wrong action can mean your death.
On top of this, Butcher Bay does not hold your hand. It really expects you to figure out most things on your own, and while there are in-universe hints about where to go and what to do, you have to recognize them to take advantage of them, and some of them are a bit subtle. All of this adds up to a game that's more difficult than most, and it's a lot less forgiving of mistakes. It is rarely unfair but it occasionally may feel that way, especially if you miss a hint that could have led you on a much easier path or given you a greater advantage against certain foes. You can and probably will die while playing this game, and sometimes quite often, so it is going to be up to the individual gamer to figure out if this sounds fun or frustrating.
The second of Chronicles of Riddick's games is Assault on Dark Athena, the new "sequel" to Escape from Butcher Bay. The story opens with Riddick and Johns having escaped from Butcher Bay, only to run smack-dab into a mercenary ship called Dark Athena. Johns is promptly captured, and Riddick has to find a way to escape. Unlike Escape from Butcher Bay, however, Dark Athena doesn't offer anything really compelling. There are no interesting characters, a fairly unsatisfying narrative, and the plot borders on incoherence. Johns vanishes midway through the game without ever speaking a word, and the only character worth noting is Lynn, a little girl who is so similar to Newt from Aliens that I had to double-check that this wasn't being billed as a crossover.
On the surface, Dark Athena plays pretty much identically to Butcher Bay. The controls and basic gameplay are identical, and there are no real changes worth noting from the last game. Early on, Riddick gets a pair of "Ulaks," or curved blades that provide him with a constant melee weapon, but the number of times when you'll use them can probably be counted on one hand. Otherwise, any skills you've brought over from Butcher Bay will function exactly the same here, and it really feels more like an expansion pack than a new game.
Like Butcher Bay, Dark Athena is begins rather strongly stealth-based. Unlike Butcher Bay, however, the stealth in Dark Athena is tedious and boring, rather than exciting. It basically amounts to sneaking up behind an enemy, killing him, and then using his infinite ammo Drone Gun to kill every other enemy who comes nearby. The enemies in Dark Athena are less intelligent than the guards at Butcher Bay, and the guns don't have DNA code locks, so as soon as you find a weapon that's not attached to a Drone, you can steal and use it. Once you get the tranquilizer gun, which has infinite ammo, any remaining challenge vanishes, since you can shoot out lights and instantly defeat every single enemy you encounter with a single shot. The stealth game then degenerates into a game of sneaking through shadows until you see enemies, zapping them, and then continuing. There is a segment in Butcher Bay like this, but it was far shorter and the game gave you other things to do, while Dark Athena is focused entirely on gunplay.
About midway through the game, you lose the tranquilizer gun and promptly get it replaced by a sticky grenade launcher called the Sonic Compressor Assault Rifle, or S.C.A.R., which kills any enemy in one hit and has infinite ammo. At this point, the game takes place almost exclusively on a sunlit planet, so even the fun stealth elements vanish and are replaced by boring gunplay. You blow up every enemy you encounter, and that is all you do until the end of the game. Gone is the stealth, gone is the excitement, and gone is the fun. It escapes me why the developers decided to take a game where the main character's special attribute was seeing in the dark and using blades and made it into a game about shooting things in broad daylight.
There are some unique and interesting areas in Dark Athena, but they are extremely few and far between, and instead of feeling like you're going from task to task, Dark Athena feels like these interesting areas are just extremely brief breaks from the tedious corridor shooting. One of the most interesting moments is a scene where you have to climb through a pitch-black maze of boxes while a spotlight shines up and down, forcing you to hide. Sadly, this lasts less than five minutes, and a good portion of that is spent hiding silently behind boxes and waiting for the spotlight to pass. Particularly notable is that Riddick doesn't have anyone to talk to anymore. There are a handful of conversations in the entire game, but most of them take place with captured prisoners aboard the Dark Athena, so talking to them offers no linearity whatsoever. You're generally forced to ask every question to advance the plot, and it could have been done just as well, if not better, with non-interactive cut scenes. It may play the same, but the devil is in the details, and Dark Athena just isn't as good a game as Butcher Bay.
When compared to Butcher Bay, Dark Athena isn't as hard. The game absolutely throws guns at you. Most enemies have Drone Guns, which are permanently attached and have infinite ammo, so you can use them as weapons for as long as you're willing to drag around a corpse. The second part of the game gives you the aforementioned S.C.A.R. However, Dark Athena can be unfair. The hardest segments are not difficult because you can't figure out the trick, but because they're poorly designed, punishing gamers for not knowing in advance when something is going to occur or where distant enemies are located. Fortunately, this doesn't occur too often, and there are only a couple of glaring segments where I felt the game fell into this trap. One of those happened because an enemy's bullets had clipping issues that would cause them to randomly pass through a solid box if his gun clipped one end of it.
In addition to Assault on Dark Athena, this collection also includes multiplayer. By and large, the multiplayer is basically ignorable, including the same few gameplay modes seen in every FPS under the sun, and mostly cliché and generic weapons. The only mode that really stands out is Pitch Black, named after the original Riddick movie. In this mode, everyone except for one player controls Mercs, armed with flashlight-equipped guns and forced to fight in total darkness, while one player controls Riddick, who is armed only with Ulaks but can see in the dark. The Mercs try to kill Riddick, who in turn tries to kill as many of them as he can before they take him down. Whoever kills Riddick becomes Riddick, and the game continues like that. It's a neat and unique idea that takes advantage of the game's strongest features, and while it isn't going to last too long, it certainly provides a reason to try the title online.
Escape from Butcher Bay was a great-looking Xbox title. Unfortunately, Assault on Dark Athena doesn't really improve much on that appearance. The character models are fairly nice, and there are some strong visual cleanups, but the overall game feels sort of dated. It's not really possible for the game to escape the fact that it is basically a cleaned-up Xbox title, and there are a lot of visual quirks that really make it feel "off." It isn't ugly, but it certainly shows its age, even with the makeover. There are also some nasty visual errors, like the occasional vanishing texture, which are rare but very noticeable. The voice acting is generally solid, although almost all of the actors chew the scenery a bit too much. It works for gravelly voiced Diesel and his brief quips, but when other characters begin ridiculously overacting, it throws things into the realm of the absurd.
Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is half excellent game, half mediocre game. Unfortunately, the excellent half is the same game that was released years ago, just with a small new segment taken from the PC port. Assault on Dark Athena falls flat, using the same engine but missing everything that made Escape from Butcher Bay fun and memorable. It's difficult to recommend this title to anyone who played the original or has access to a working Xbox, since GameStop sells the original Escape From Butcher Bay for $4.99. The sad truth is that the original game is excellent, but a slightly updated port of an Xbox game just isn't worth $60, and the sequel doesn't do anything to alleviate that. However, for gamers who only have an Xbox 360, this is the only way to play the game, and Assault on Dark Athena is still a great title, and one worth picking up if you're willing to spend the money and don't mind some lackluster additions.
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