Life, sometimes, can be good.
Despite an almost three-hour bus ride and getting lost in Chinatown, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Atari’s Manhattan HQ to play the upcoming Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. With a bellyful of honeydew bubble tea and a big plasma screen in front of me, I got to sit down for a few hours with Riddick’s product marketing manager Justin Mingo and check out how they were bringing everyone’s favorite Furyan to current-gen consoles.
Having knocked one out of the park with the previous game, Escape from Butcher Bay, Starbreeze and Tigon had one hell of a pedigree to live up to: Butcher Bay was one of the original Xbox’s milestone titles, proving that there was a lot to love about Microsoft’s big black box, especially with lots of major tech advances that the other consoles just couldn’t touch, like stencil shadows and normal mapping (add details to shading without using more polygons). In tribute to this original content (as well as padding the new experience out to a healthy 16-20 hours playtime), Butcher Bay has been filtered through the new game engine as a peace offering to angry Xbox fanboys who wanted backwards compatibility for the classic title on their 360’s, as well as PS3 owners who never experienced the first game.
I decided to check out what Starbreeze had done to update the original Escape from Butcher Bay content. While certainly quite familiar (it’s still the same old prison colony) the new coat of paint, coupled with the improved controls, make it feel quite different indeed. Everything is drastically improved, from texturing to lighting, and while it may not have quite the same mind-blowing impact that Butcher Bay had on the original Xbox back in the day (back when Starbreeze and Tigon were busting out bleeding-edge buzzwords that are par the course nowadays) it’s still gorgeous through and through.
Satisfied with the direction of Butcher Bay, I then loaded up the Assault on Dark Athena campaign. Starting off directly after the first campaign’s conclusion, Riddick and Johns are picked up by the titular Dark Athena, a ship that’s equal parts Slave I and Unicron (and showcases the Riddick universe’s peculiar mashup originality). Therein, Riddick escapes from his pod just before the wicked Revas (voiced by TV alum Michelle Forbes) boards your ship and takes the unconscious Johns captive, but not before the always-shifty Riddick steals her hairpin which, along with your fists, makes up your starting arsenal.
From there, it’s Riddick as usual, with the player creeping around, using the trademark Eyeshine and stealth to get the drop on their enemies. Where Dark Athena sets itself apart from its predecessor is in the extreme level of polish that the game has. Animation, texturing, and modeling are all phenomenal, with loads of detail for the eyes to take in, especially during the game’s many third-person segments (such as ladder climbing or other acrobatics), which showcase Starbreeze’s usual flair for motion capture.
Where Riddick truly excels seems to be in its open-endedness, which became incredibly evident in one room filled to the brim with patrolling Drones (think zombie Borg, and you’re on the right path). “I’m not gonna tell you how I do it,” Justin teased, “until after you’re all done.”
“All done” wouldn’t come for a while, as the Drones, despite having simplistic AI routines (they seem to be Revas’ cannon fodder, although they can occasionally be commandeered by smarter “controllers,” including Riddick himself at some points), continuously punished me for not paying full attention to my surroundings. Stealth-killing a few would eventually alert the rest as they either heard the report of a gun, saw me struggling with their teammate, or spied me sneaking through a beam of light. Death came quickly time and time again, as I was relentlessly dogpiled on by the Drones.
Finally, through perseverance, and I little luck, I cleared the room, silently killing my enemies one by one, dragging their corpses into the shadows (so as not to alert their buddies), and occasionally picking up their prone corpses to use their arm-mounted guns for prompt perforation of their pals. Finally, with the room cleared, Justin had a hearty laugh as he revealed his trick:
“I shoot out the lights.”
“I hate you, Justin,” I jokingly grumbled, remembering one of Riddick’s oldest tricks: plunging your enemies into darkness, where your Eyeshine gives you a distinct advantage over your helpless foes.
It’s that sort of open-endedness that makes Riddick, ironically, shine. There are no right or wrong solutions to puzzles, just what works. It’s that sort of impromptu thinking that Riddick himself would use, so it makes perfect sense for the game to have you follow the same logic.
After only a couple of hours playing it, I can easily tell you that Riddick is going to be a must-play for gamers, especially (or perhaps in spite of) its dark sci-fi pedigree. Once again Vin Diesel and Tigon, along with developer Starbreeze, have proven that just because a game is licensed, doesn’t mean it has to suck.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena will be available April 7th for Xbox 360 and Windows.