The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-06-20 PS3 FPS M (Mature) Starbreeze Studios / Atari

To hear the phrase "movie game" and the word "great" combined in the same, sarcasm free sentence is more than just a bit shocking. But 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was just that, a great game based on the Riddick films that followed our eponymous hero on his quest to escape Butcher Bay prison.

Now five years later, the game's sequel Assault on Dark Athena has hit store shelves, along with the surprising, albeit appreciated addition of a completely modernized, updated version of the Butcher Bay original.

While Assault on Dark Athena will be what draws most fans into the package, you can't really speak of the sequel without first revisiting the past. Regardless of whether you have played the Xbox original, or are just now entering Riddick's world, Escape from Butcher Bay follows Riddick to the depths of Butcher Bay maximum-security prison, after he is captured by bounty hunter and long time rival William Johns (from the films, played by Cole Hauser).

Butcher Bay is home to some of the galaxy's most vile and dangerous criminals who immediately challenge Riddick's superiority complex with a lineup of challenges and errands that must be completed before earning anyone's respect. Most of these challenges involve either retrieving items for stranded prisoners or eliminating a particular threat, whether human or mechanical.

As Riddick is trapped in prison, munitions are scarce, forcing players to engage in hand-to-hand combat whenever possible to save the very rare ammunition that may fall into their laps. As the game progresses, the gameplay is fleshed out from just a simple mission-based action title to a complex mixture of the stealth, action, and first-person-shooter genres.

First-person-shooter elements come into play when fighting the prison's many guards, who will often be waiting for escaped prisoners at the end of air vents or seemingly abandoned tunnels, with aiming at guards being player controlled, and represented by a small circular reticle on screen.

While it may be tempting to simply run-and-gun your way through every pathway possible until you find your escape, said tactic is unwise, as doing so would equate you to a sheep walking into a wolf's den, forever running out of ammo, trying to survive with a small shiv or pair of metal knuckles.

Instead, the lighting within each area of the prison must become your friend. Early on in Riddick's journey, he is given the ability to see in the dark, just as he can in the films, allowing him to hide in shadows, literally invisible to the naked eye, so long as he doesn't move. This, in theory, will allow you to pick off enemies one at a time, by simply waiting for them to walk by and grab them from behind.

All of these elements, those being stealth, action and first-person-shooting, are incorporated into the second offering of the package, Assault on Dark Athena, which sees Riddick trapped once again in enemy territory, this time on the mercenary vessel the Dark Athena, captained by Gale Revas, and her right-hand-man Spinner.

Instead of live guards, the ship is full of automated drones, which are controlled from somewhere deep within the ship. These drones are a stronger version of Butcher Bay's guards who stand in Riddick's way of helping the various prisoners aboard the ship who can offer Riddick an escape plan. But just because these drones can't literally think for themselves doesn't make them any less dangerous. In fact, it may provide Starbreeze with an excuse as to why they are the exact opposite.

While it is satisfying to snap a guard's neck or stab them in the side with a shiv from behind, you will unfortunately be given very few instances to actually do so, no matter how impressive your individual stealth and sneaking abilities may be. It's not as though the AI within the game are of a superior intelligence; rather, they seem to have been given what could be equated to super-human powers allowing them to "see" or "hear" Riddick even when they aren't facing him, and are, in theory, too far away to hear him.

This forces you to spend a considerable amount of time creeping through the shadows, shooting more at lights than at people, just to return yourself to darkness, which not only slows both games' pace to a frustrating crawl, but also adds an incredible level of difficulty that just wasn't present in original version of Butcher Bay. I hate to say that something just isn't fair in a video game, as most everything can be overcome with practice, but the AI here are skewed so greatly to the side of invulnerability that it might scare off many casual players.

But all the "improvements" to the system aren't bad, as the technical departments (both sound and graphical) are highly impressive. The game's shadows and lighting are something to behold, as is the blood spatter that covers not only the environment where enemies are slain, but also Riddick's hands, which look like something out of a horror movie after a few kills.

Vin Diesel reprises his role as the bad ass Riddick, giving many women something to swoon over, as his deep voice penetrates even the loudest of battle-filled corridors. The rest of the voice acting is also quite notable, and does a nice job of conveying both the simplest and the most complex of emotions, as well as the forever-satisfying sarcasm that runs rampant through both games.

Once again, however, the rest of the sound effects play to the AI's favor, as even one tiny step in the wrong direction will clatter on metal grates or rebound off of concrete to a decibel that they can apparently hear, sending them sprinting in your general direction where you will be easily picked off more times than not.

All of that being said, if you are willing to dedicate enough time with both titles to establish a semblance of rhythm with the AI system, you will be rewarded in both cases with very clever storylines that are of a quality very rarely seen in movie related games. It is clear a lot of thought went in to portraying Riddick in the same fashion here as in the films, with his actions never seeming out-of-character, even when it comes to his in-game encounters with Johns.

With the single-player providing such a challenge, perhaps the best part of this entire package is the new multiplayer component. Multiplayer provides the standard modes of Capture the Flag and Deathmatch, along with team-based battles and even 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 Arena battles, but the biggest draw here is the Pitch Black mode.

As the name suggests, the Pitch Black gameplay maps are enveloped in darkness. One lucky player is assigned to the role of Riddick (who, as a reminder, views darkness as we view daylight), while five mercenaries must track him down, using nothing but the flashlight on the tip of their weapons to see by.

As if other multiplayer experiences weren't stressful enough, where you never know when someone might come creeping up behind you, Pitch Black is even more so, and can be downright terrifying, especially if your current Riddick is a master of quick and silent movements, allowing him to spring up behind you with zero warning.

All in all, while the vast increase in difficulty over the Xbox original does more harm than good, the combination of both titles at one price lessens the hurt of repeated and frequent deaths, and with a robust multiplayer component eliminating the AI issue altogether (obviously), the package becomes even more alluring. It all boils down, then, to an issue of player patience, and whether they care enough about the franchise as a whole to suffer through the duo's faults, which, as you might have guessed, lands the game a spot squarely in the rental column.

Special thanks to Romeo Corsi and Atari for providing a copy of this title.