You skulk in the dark, hiding in the shadow of a large crate. You continue to watch the pair of Ghost Drones, the red lights on their faces piercing the gloom as they patrol the cargo deck. The drones may be barely more than motorised corpses, human slaves blended with machinery, but they're both dangerous and creepy as hell. You wait - and then finally your moment arrives: one drone moves off on his rounds, while the other mechanically stalks in your direction.
Here's your chance. As your prey passes, you silently step behind him and grab the pipes protruding from the back of his head. You tug his head back with vicious force, pulling the pipes clean off the drone's mechanised skull. The corpse wheezes as it collapses to the floor. You drag the body into the shadows, then move on without a sound.
Dark Athena is looking to be a very special game, a dark and bloody cocktail of several conflicting elements. It's a first-person shooter, but one where you frequently kill people in brutal melee combat. The atmosphere is almost akin to a survival horror, and yet the character you play as - the iconic Riddick - is arguably far scarier than any of the enemies you face. And it's a sequel - but thanks to what seems like a ridiculously generous decision, it's also a remake (in fact, it's essentially two games on one disc).
Let's have a quick history lesson: In the year 2000 Vin Diesel starred in a film called Pitch Black, a great little sci-fi horror film that revolved around Riddick - a psychotic criminal who finds himself stranded on a planet of hungry, light-fearing aliens. In 2004 there was a poorly-received follow-up, The Chronicles of Riddick, but in that same year Starbreeze Studios released the excellent Escape From Butcher Bay - an FPS with a plot set before both movies. It was a first-person action game that mixed stealth, melee and gun-based combat alongside a few RPG-like elements. Critics hailed it as one of the best releases of the year and a game that pushed the original Xbox to the very limits of what it could do.
Unfortunately this technical complexity resulted in a few compatibility issues for the Xbox 360, so playing the game on modern consoles is impossible. Or at least, it was up until now - because Starbreeze has decided to remake the whole of the first game using the same beefed-up technology that has been used on Dark Athena. For many who played the original, this in of itself is enough reason to buy the new game. And yet when this uber-value package finally hits shop shelves later this year, it'll be Dark Athena that everyone is talking about... because this game is looking seriously good. In fact, I'm going to put my neck on the line and say that if the whole of Dark Athena can match the quality of the 90-odd minutes I've played so far, it'll be one of the best multiplatform releases of 2009.
"Uh-oh," you think. "Hype wave approaching!" I know that was a pretty bold statement I just made, but there really is a lot to praise about what we've seen and played to date. For a start, there are the graphics. Killzone 2 may be the best-looking FPS around - hell, possibly the best-looking game around - but Dark Athena certainly isn't a million miles behind. It's not as immediately epic as Killzone, nor does it boast as much of the whoa-look-at-all-the-stuff-on-screen factor, but then that's not what the game is going for. Dark Athena worships at the altar of atmosphere.
Key to this is the impressive use of light and shadow. Riddick's "eyeshine" - his surgically-enhanced ability to see in the dark - is once again a major element of the gameplay, an advantage that allows him to stalk and pick off enemies that might otherwise overwhelm him. The Dark Athena itself is a huge, dimly-lit spaceship populated by blood-thirsty mercenaries and their mechanised slaves; it's a backdrop you'll have seen in countless other games, but rarely so-well designed. From the creepy machines that heal you via mechanical tendrils to the dirt encrusted on windows looking out to space, the Dark Athena is a hugely detailed and unsettling place. It actually looks like a spaceship that's been lived in for a few decades or so, an effect that Dead Space, in my opinion, largely failed to achieve.
This level of detail carries over to combat. Halfway through my recent play-test, I noticed that both my hand and the knife I was carrying were covered in blood, an unwanted souvenir from a scrap I'd previously had with a particularly tough crew member. During that fight, my slashes carved large gashes into the stomach of the bare-chested merc - a grizzly effect that demonstrates the game's gory tone. Close combat is either conducted directly, or through stealthy takedowns. In the former category the lower shoulder buttons/triggers are used to attack and block, resulting in a wide array of different strikes depending on the weapon used and the direction in which you happen to be moving. One-hit kills are carried out by creeping behind enemies using a crouched stance that slightly distorts your perspective. Sticking to the shadows is vital for these murders: as in Butcher Bay, your view of the game will take on a slight blue tint when you're hidden in darkness, providing an unobtrusive way of indicating your status.
Once you've killed an enemy, you'll be able to drag his corpse away into the dark. In the case of Ghost Drones, you'll also be able to pick up their bodies to use as weapons. The Drones are human captives who have been turned into android slaves through a nasty surgical process. Their guns have been physically attached to their arms, so the only way you'll be able to use them is to lift the whole body off the floor. Riddick can also use dead drones as bullet-shields - a smart piece of thinking on his part, and a smart piece of design on the part of Starbreeze. Another nice touch is the way you'll swap a standard gun to the alternate hand when approaching a right-turning corner, and the way you'll automatically lift your weapon over the top of crates and other makeshift cover.
It's these kind of design choices that make Dark Athena such an involving experience. It's the fact that the faces of NPCs have been motion captured to provide perfect lip-synching and credible expressions. It's the fact that the script has been handled by the same writers who worked on Butcher Bay, and the fact that these guys actually know how to write decent dialogue.
And perhaps most of all, it's the fact that the Ghost Drones are so unnerving. They move about with a mindless and mechanical clank, but there's the vaguest element of humanity remaining in their appearance. They are a horrible creation, reminiscent of the darkest Doctor Who episode - and I know that fighting them in the murky bowels of the Dark Athena is going to be one of the highlights of my year. There's still so much for us to see from this game: the bits where you actually seize control of the Drones; a multiplayer mode that is said to include some form of Pitch Black game; and the entirety of the re-made Butcher Bay. Riddick's cinematic adventures may be resting in limbo, but his video game series is alive with an energy and spirit that has me very, very excited.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena is due for release in March on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.