The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, just like its prequel Escape from Butcher Bay, succeeds completely due to its contrarian nature. It’s the movie game that isn’t a movie game. Whereas other titles are rushed to market to coincide with the release of their cinematic counterparts, the Riddick titles have been released regardless of proximity to the movies whose characters and name they share.
Assault on Dark Athena nestles in between Butcher Bay and Pitch Black as far as story, with Riddick and his perpetual pursuer Johns being awakened from stasis by the Dark Athena, a merc ship captained by the sadistic Revas. With Johns captured, Riddick must once again use his predatory stealth to find a way out of the Dark Athena.
Gameplay feels dead-on to the first game, with Riddick employing a well-rounded repertoire of methods to achieve his goals, primarily stealth. However, in contrast to other stealth games that rely on being non-confrontational, Riddick uses his sneaking tactics primarily as a method to get close to his prey for a silent kill. There are times when you will want to slip through a room completely undetected, and others when you’ll need to light up said room with a Drone gun (still attached to its dead owner, even), but for the most part, you’ll be acting like the cold-blooded murderer you know and love. The game can become frustrating at times, especially with Riddick’s woefully short (albeit realistic) health bar being quickly drained by your opponents, but it spends most of its time in the difficulty “sweet spot,” challenging enough to warrant the death/reload two-step, but not so challenging that you throw your hands in the air and give up.
The reason for this challenge is the remarkably sharp AI. Simpler enemies like the aforementioned Drones (a sort of remote-controlled cybernetic zombie that fills the rank and file of Revas’ troops) rely on more rudimentary routines and paths, whereas the games’ human enemies act, well…human. Sure, the AI feels no more advanced than other games, but there’s a certain undeniable way things are handled that make it feel more organic. When you shoot out a light, enemies will respond in kind, stalking cautiously through the dark or raise an alarm when they stumble across the corpse of a fallen comrade. All of their routines can work for you as well as against you, as you can set up diversions (never underestimate the power of leaving a corpse in broad daylight away from where you need to go) and exploit their reactions.
When things do come down to blows however, the game continues its trend of excellence with an intuitive close-combat interface. Similar in design to Condemned, the left trigger blocks, whereas the right trigger will swing your fist (or a melee weapon) which you can further tweak with the analog stick to tailor your blows. Even here adaptation is key as enemies don’t just fall for a volley of shots to the head, so mixing up your strategy is important. Firearms are also well-employed, with just enough recoil and scatter to keep you on your toes.
All of this game play goodness is wrapped up in rock-solid production values. Vin Diesel naturally reprises his role as the sociopathic Riddick and his dark mannerisms, dripping with sardonic one-liners and baritone threats add a definite level of intrigue to what would otherwise be a rather simple character, with Lance Henriksen, Michelle Forbes, and Cole Hauser rounding out a cast that adds immeasurably to the cinematic flair of the game. The rest of the game’s awesome presentation comes from the game’s intense attention to detail: the character models are gorgeous (insert obvious “Vin Diesel is soooo hot” reference here girls!), the environments and lighting are impressive, and the story is pure Riddick, just dark enough to take seriously, but still snappily written enough that you stay amused.
Finally, as I’m sure most of you know, developer Starbreeze “remastered” Escape from Butcher Bay for inclusion on the disc as a bonus (and a welcome one: the original Xbox BB isn’t 360-compatible), and it still holds up remarkably well. Even though it’s a pretty straightforward port, with the original games’ assets being dropped into the new engine, it still looks and plays well, although the occasional glitch, like polygon seams and looped animation, will still pop up. However, when you combine the 8-10 hours it takes to complete Butcher Bay and add it on to the 8-10 hours for Dark Athena, as well as the potential hours in the new multiplayer modes, there’s a helluva lot of game here for the money and in these economic times longevity counts. If that longevity is tied in to a game as well-executed as Riddick’s, all the better.