The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay finally eliminates the stereotype that games parallel-marketed with movies are doomed to the ash bin of history. EBB begins its story by showing the player a few in-engine movies that basically tell you two things: Riddick is a classic movie tough-guy with a superpower--glow in the dark vision--who somehow gets captured for a bounty and is presently being delivered to a penal institution on a desert world known as Butcher’s Bay.
From the moment that Riddick arrives on Butcher’s Bay he is immediately plunged into a world of violence and chaos, and his only goal is escape. First, you must bare-knuckle fight your way to respect among the inmates, and then find a way to work around the DNA-imprinting weapon system. All the guards carry assault rifles that are imprinted with a DNA sample that the prison database can confirm is valid. If you pick up an assault weapon without the proper DNA, you’ll get electrocuted. Once you are appropriately equipped, you must fight your way through the cramped quarters of the Butcher’s Bay facility itself, finally earning your freedom.
The game has some nice touches, but sometimes tries to go overboard with them. Vin Diesel’s character model is well done, as is his voice acting. Somewhat out of character for this type of game, there isn’t (much) ham-handed dialog in EBB. The secondary characters are all modeled individually, and it is actually possible to know someone’s name in the cellblock by site rather than by nametag. Things that don’t work so well are flourishes like the character shadows, which spill link ink over the environment or other characters. It is difficult to fight an antagonist when he is hidden behind a giant, Riddick-shaped black cutout. The game is very dark in most cases, so such a well-defined High-Noon shadow draped all over the game is jarring and detracts from the overall atmosphere. I ended up turning off character shadows just to enjoy the game.
||One of the best touches, and one that has been commented on repeatedly in the gaming community, is the way stealth is integrated into EBB. When you are crouched, and in a location of little light, the game world desaturates into a series of blue hues, indicating that you are hidden from view. Another nice way that stealth is handled is that if you fire from a hidden position, your enemies now know where you are and your world saturates again to normal colors, indicating that the people you are fighting know of your presence. Stealth is handled well in the game, and is one of the reasons to play.
Escape from Butcher’s Bay is surprisingly intuitive. The game can be played using only the numeric keypad (if you remap) and the mouse buttons. There are no bizarre or useless key combinations or presses to be had during gameplay and getting Riddick where you want him when you want him is easy to accomplish.
When you have a weapon, combat is easy and straight-forward. Plus, the interface shows the number of clips you have for a weapon, rather than ammo. So, if you reload without expending the entire clip, you lose what you throw away. It’s a great touch that adds some realism and tactical considerations to the game.
Unfortunately, for a game that incorporates as much stealth as EBB does, the secrecy is pretty useless. There aren’t many times you’ll need, or be able, to sneak by prison guards or other enemies as you make your way through Butcher’s Bay. The AI of the combatants is also inconsistent. Sometimes the AI can be incredibly smart, using terrain and allies for cover as they work their way to your position, and sometime it can be incredibly dumb, enemies will sit idly by while the cohort standing less than three feet away gets picked off.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the game come early, where you must fight in melee fashion. Hitting buttons and pushing the mouse in certain directions causes Riddick to do different attacks. There are hidden combos that cause Riddick to unleash a fury of attacks in one click, causing almost certain death to the enemy. The combos are nice, but give an arcade-like, almost Mortal Kombat feel to the hand-to-hand combat in Riddick, causing hand-to-hand combat to devolve to a button-mashing festival as you try to land more punches than your opponents, though it’s only one little thing that detracts from an otherwise fun part of the game.
Riddick doesn’t merely walk from one location to the next. In the spirit of Splinter Cell, you must climb, shimmy, and hand-over-hand transverse the landscape to figure out where to go next. While generally well integrated, climbing and the like happen in cut-scenes that can jar the player out of action.
While Riddick by no means is a bad game, each good thing it does seems flawed in some way or done much better by a predecessor. The stealth is implemented well, but you have few truly stealthy moments during the game. The AI can be challenging, but is also inexcusably stupid at other times. Hand-to-hand combat is fun, and is integrated well into the story line, but one will put a lot of miles on the mouse clicking like a madman. The climbing and hand-hanging parts of the game have been done better elsewhere. This game is well done, and its biggest downfall is in being so reminiscent of those games that inspired it.
The textures are crisp and clean for the most part. The graphics do a good job of representing a concrete-and-steel prison world. The character models for the speaking parts are well done and varied, even if you are shooting at the same guards over and over again. The weapon models are well done.
Some of the textures, however, have a fake-looking isometric feel to them. Pipes and other wall flourishes are integrated into the textures and not bump-mapped. Unless you are looking straight-on at the wall, the perspective is somewhat skewed. This causes a break in the suspension of disbelief and takes away from the overall feeling.
Other than those small hindrances asides, the graphics, lighting and shading are nicely done. Riddick’s world is appropriately dark and foreboding.
The sound and music are the best parts of EBB. The character voices are great, the weapons sound very powerful, and the best part is the solid sound that translates directly into a feeling of pain whenever a punch lands or an enemy strikes. This makes the early game very immersive as combat actually sounds like it hurts. First runner-up to the hand-to-hand combat sound effects is the stirring score, which shifts into a thematic element reminiscent of the movie “The Rock” whenever combat ensues. It is very fitting, never overdone, and adds a boatload of atmosphere to the game. The sound effects and music are right up with the best this year.
EEB doesn’t have a multiplayer component.
Replay Value: 7
While there is no multiplayer, Riddick does come with some interesting features that deserve a look once you escape from Butcher’s Bay. The most notable is the inclusion of a designer diary, a well implemented bonus feature. As you replay EBB in commentary mode, you are presented with a wealth of information at each turn explaining exactly what went into each scene. It is a nice feature that hopefully more games will do.
The Chronicle of Riddick: Escape from Butcher’s Bay is a polished shooter that breaks the here-to-fore insipid mold of movie-inspired games. It is fun and immersive, but does feel a bit lacking. EBB does not have the addictive quality of many of its FPS brethren, but that does not mean it is not worth your playing time. Its relatively modest price tag means this game is certainly worth a look.
KEY HIGH POINTS:
--relatively cheap price tag
--levelheaded control scheme
KEY LOW POINTS
--sometimes jarring cut-scenes
--goofy opening level
--sharp cartoon-like shadows interfering with gameplay
(Reviewed on a 3GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM driving a Radeon 9800 with 256MB, and 5.1 sound delivered with a Soundblaster Extigy.)