I jammed a shiv into a dude’s eye, wiggled it around to really, really dig it in there, and then pulled it back out before he was finally given solace, because man, I wanted him to feel all of that.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena has that. Brutality seems to be a common theme with Starbreeze’s body of work, and they spare no details to the imagination with their kinda-maybe-sequel to Escape from Butcher Bay. Two parts excellence and a third relegated to the ire of my fists, Assault on Dark Athena is a schizophrenic game that turns from superlative quality to aggravating disappointment on a dime. There’s more good than flippant rage-inducing bad in here, though, but this sudden design shift does a lot to take Riddick’s return down a few pegs.
However, if you have yet to play the seminal work that is Escape from Butcher Bay, you should really consider getting this game anyway, because it’s included on the disc. Given a nice visual revamp, it’s a must-play if you’ve never played it or haven’t touched the game since 2004.
Escape from Butcher Bay is canonically the earliest known exploit of Richard B. Riddick. It starts with Riddick being sent off to Butcher Bay, the prison for the worst and most testosterone-fueled scumbags to walk the face of the galaxy. And so, since escape is impossible, your goal is to escape. It’s here when Escape becomes more than an action-packed, face-punching, shiv-stabbing thrill ride. The game still has all that, but it’s wrapped within some great context. Butcher Bay is a prison, and you are treated like a prisoner. You’re going to make contacts, do dirty deeds, and otherwise generally simulate prison life.
The game’s atmosphere is stifling in its sheer authenticity. The grimness and grime of Butcher Bay are expertly presented. Everything looks filthy and rotten and the textures reek of a lack of janitorial maintenance. The prisoners are fueled by excellent voice work, and every single one manages to make an impact, no matter how small of a role some of them play. The atmosphere is further strengthened by the game’s logical design. There are no obvious, Death Star-esque architectural flaws in Butcher Bay. It’s a maximum security prison, no doubt about it. Everything is earned through clear foresight, conversations, clandestine neck-snapping, and the odd bout of gun-toting.
Escape is a hodgepodge of genres mixed into what is still a great game, even if its presentation isn’t as bleeding-edge as it once was. Not one aspect takes precedence over the other. You’ll shoot, crawl, explore, punch, stab, and socialize. Every element is balanced; every element is given just enough time to be thoroughly engaging before becoming stale, because Escape is truly a game that’s more than the sum of its parts. Granted, the absolutely vicious and believable brutality on display during the game’s hand-to-hand fisticuffs is always a wince-inducing sight to behold and… well, I wouldn’t mind playing a Riddick game that just consisted of elbowing guys in the face and ripping new pores into their bodies. Still, it’s just one great facet of the game stirred in with a cavalcade of others. Escape still suffers from dumb enemy AI and their ludicrously unfair ability to shoot heat-seeking bullets at you (they miss… almost never), but those issues are minute in what I consider a modern classic. Play this game.
After you’ve escaped, I can wholeheartedly recommend the first three hours of Assault on Dark Athena, the totally brand new single-player content. It starts off immediately after you’ve gotten Riddick to escape, and just when freedom has been earned, you’re tossed into another hell, the Dark Athena. Trapped, the general objective is pretty much escape, except this time you’re doing it in space.
So, for the first three hours, this is all the game’s concerned with: getting out. Again, it’s a mish-mash of genres that coalesce brilliantly. Granted, Assault segments its gameplay in a much more structured and rigid manner; there are very specific stealth levels, very specific melee sections, and very specific shoot‘em up segments, but they’re still parsed out equally and it’s all very, very awesome. Even more, the new weaponry includes the ulaks, and they will make you more of a man, no matter what gender you are. As weapons, they are some of the greatest melee weapons I have ever wielded, in reality or virtually.
And again, the atmosphere instills the game with a true sense of place. Dark Athena is a slave ship, and the sense of dread and despair surrounding something like that is superbly realized through mostly the game’s characters, which at this point in time, represent some of the best video game characters I’ve come across all year. Revas, the ship’s captain, is such a complete badass that half the reason I played the game was just to listen to her say some more words. She’s expertly voiced by Michelle Forbes, making the writing so much better than it is on paper. Revas is stern and ruthless, and the down-to-earth nature of Forbes’ performance makes Revas unforgettable.
The prisoners aboard the Dark Athena deserve just as much acclaim. The total cast of characters you can talk to has been condensed from around two dozen in Escape to around than half of that, and the game only benefits from it. The frankness and earnestness from the voice actors fuel the characters they’re portraying as and they are just so damn convincing. It’s crazy good. I can say this without hyperbole: Assault has some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in any medium. The subtle lisps, the smack of the lips, and how it all fully convinced me into thinking these were real people with serious problems – none of this can be overstated. Assault is worth playing for these characters alone. Looking at Starbreeze’s work in The Darkness, it’s not that much of a surprise, but hell if it isn’t anything but extraordinary.
Then the dime-turn at the three-hour mark. After a certain, cathartic stabbing, Assault devolves into a one-note, frustrating, and dumb shooter that lacks much of anything to keep it afloat for more than an hour. It’s shocking to see the quality of the game take such a severe dip when everything had been going along so well. Assault goes on to prove that the Riddick games always work when mixing in all the genres in equal parts. The next three hours of Assault only disappointed and incited bloody rage from the inane amount of damage the spider drones dished out, and the dearth of creativity and vision that fueled Butcher Bay and the first three hours of Assault. It is an unfortunate shame and does a lot to undermine much of Assault, because before this travesty, I thought Assault was the better game. It’s a real bummer.
As far as new content goes, the latter three hours of Assault are the only bad, because the new multi-player stuff is genuinely good. The deathmatch modes are throwaways, but the game’s Pitch Black mode deserves recognition. If you’ve played the Half-Life 2 mod Hidden: Source, the concept behind Pitch Black should be immediately familiar. One player plays as Riddick, while everyone attempts to take him down. The tension that builds from this mode can get nerve-racking, partly because of the fear of hanging your head in shame if you find a shiv in your face. Playing as Riddick is anything but a liability, and I felt like the predator that he was in the single-player mode. Pitch Black is a great multi-player component by any standard. There just needs to be more people playing.
Escape was a graphical benchmark in its time, and I thought it looked better than Doom 3, but it’s aged considerably since then. It shows even with the graphical facelift. Textures, while capturing the filth of Butcher Bay, are alarmingly low-res, and the NPCs are apparently so gruff and filled with man-rage that emoting is out of the question. Assault, on the other hand, can compete with the best. The NPCs have far more range in their ability to physically express their discomfort. Excellent motion-captured animations add a nice dimension to them, and when combined with the superlative voice-acting, it’s shocking how convincing they are. In general, both games ultimately present their depressing and dire settings incredibly well; it’s just that the new content looks significantly better.
Audio, a strongpoint in Starbreeze’s work, is stellar. It’s worth putting on some headphones just to hear the amount of sounds that mingle in and out and to get every little inflection from the NPCs. Sorry, I seriously can’t overstate how awesome the voice acting is. The music in Butcher Bay has lost its pulse-pounding combat theme in favor of something more rhythmic and that’s a change I’m not fond of, but that’s a nitpick. Both games have great soundscapes, and the few sticking points, like how guards endlessly repeat the same catchphrases over and over again, hardly put a dent on the game’s audio.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena has a lot of content to shuffle through, especially if you’ve never played Escape, so it’s totally worth getting. The dreary and convincing world Starbreeze has crafted is worth experiencing, and the unflinching violence still incites awe. As a history lesson, Escape is important, and as a design lesson, Assault teaches what not to do with a 3-hour game. Oh, and the voice acting. Totally awesome. I am not sorry for bringing this up again. As a sequel, the game stumbles a bit, but when attached with a free version of Escape, the product as a whole is much better. You know, the whole more than the sum of its parts thing.