When presented with the choice of two games, 2004's Escape from Butcher Bay and 2009's Assault on Dark Athena, only one thing ran through our mind: how has it been five years since Riddick dazzled on the Xbox? At the time Starbreeze's first-person action game was a technical marvel, doing things with the Xbox that didn't seem possible. It also proved to be a highly entertaining game that managed to mix stealth, gun-play and melee combat more successfully than any game in recent memory. Bringing it and a full-length follow-up to next-gen platforms and PC in the shape of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena seemed like a very good idea, and we haven't been disappointed.
The two games act as prequels to the surprisingly good movie Pitch Black, once again starring Hollywood hard man Vin Diesel as Riddick. As the titles of the games suggest, Escape from Butcher Bay sees you trying to get out of the high security prison, whereas Assault on Dark Athena picks up where that left off and tasks you with getting off a - you guessed it - high security space ship. The two games share many gameplay similarities, but Dark Athena probably has a slight edge in terms of action, if not in overall quality.
The on screen HUD is minimal with only a health bar (which uses a recharge mechanism similar to that seen in almost every FPS released since Halo) appearing on screen. Lose a block of health completely and you'll only get this back at health stations, but get to cover while that block is still visible and it'll replenish while you're stood still. It's a neat system that mixes the modern approach with a more old-school health pack system.
Riddick has a very well implemented hand-to-hand combat system that the entire game is built around - Dark Athena isn't quite so reliant on fists, but the option to go in for up close and personal kills is still there and by far the most satisfying option. Punches are thrown and blocks are made with ease, making hand-to-hand combat more than just a gimmick plastered on the back of the box. Good timing can result in some impressive combos and you can pull off some wonderfully brutal disarm manoeuvres - Riddick isn't against brutally stabbing someone in the armpit if you time a counter well enough.
Using weapons is equally as satisfying and the controls can be tweaked extensively so they're to your liking. By default targeting zones are forgiving to the player, with a hefty auto aim assist in place, but seeing as gun-play isn't the focus of the game this works rather well. While the enemy AI isn't quite as impressive as it was in 2004 (even with some improvements) they put up a good fight on all but the easiest difficulty setting. Dark Athena introduces a stun gun fairly early on, which freezes enemies on the spot just long enough for you to go in and stab a knife through their skull, but given the more frequent enemy heavy situations it was ultimately a wise decision.
Anyone familiar with the Film Pitch Black will know that Riddick has the ability to see in the dark and that ability plays a major part in the game, even though you don't start Escape from Butcher Bay with it - seeing as Dark Athena follows on from Butcher Bay your Eye Shine ability is available from the start there. After an extremely unnerving section, battling dwellers in some underground tunnels, you learn how Riddick got his special ability and it wasn't by eating a lot of carrots. Switching into this night vision mode makes Riddick's eyes extremely sensitive, meaning it's nearly impossible to see anything if there is more than ambient lighting in the area. This vision mode looks extremely cool too, but must be used in the right situations so you don't hamper your vision unnecessarily.
Both games are built around Riddick being a highly trained killer, able to skulk around in the shadows, so tight stealth mechanics were a must. Thankfully the system developed for Butcher Bay returns and seems as fresh now as it was back then. Crouching will put you in stealth mode, with the screen turning blue and distorting slightly when you're hidden from view. Riddick loves to sneak up on people and break their necks, stab them with a hairpin or slice them up with two razor sharp blades, but killing a guard in the patrol path of another isn't a wise move. The dead body will alert him and the alarm will be raised, creating a very difficult situation for Riddick that will more often than not end in death or an unwanted fire-fight. Riddick can drag bodies around and place them in dark corners of rooms or in unused passageways in order to remain undetected, and this mechanic comes into play frequently during Dark Athena's many light puzzle sections.
Ghost Drones make for a new enemy for Riddick to face while skulking around the dimly lit corridors of the Dark Athena. While the remote controlled soldiers are pretty easy prey, they also double as mobile cover (albeit cover that can only move backwards) and weapons. By grabbing a downed drone you're able to use its weapon to take down any surrounding enemies and to break glass (a barrier that frequently blocks your path to new areas). Riddick can also take control of these drones during the Dark Athena campaign, complete with a slightly overhauled HUD.
What both games have in spades is a sense that you're not just playing through another FPS. Escape from Butcher Bay in particular often feels like an action-heavy RPG, with numerous side-missions needing to be completed in order to progress through the main story. Even five years after its original release there's very little that comes close to offering the same experience, which has perhaps got even better with age.
Starbreeze really knows how to create characters, as it showed most recently with The Darkness, and both these games feature the same high quality acting. While the lip-syncing in Butcher Bay isn't as impressive as that in Dark Athena, the prison is entirely believable and the characters good enough to be placed straight in a movie. One sequence in Dark Athena rides high above all the others though, with a series of conversations that demonstrates just how far behind a lot of other game developers are.
Back in 2004 part of Escape from Butcher Bay's appeal stemmed from its astonishing visuals, and it's fair to say that the two games don't have nearly the same impact today. If you've played the original Xbox and PC versions you'll likely think little has changed, but going back reveals that the graphics have been given a definite boost. Lighting is much improved thanks to more natural colours, character models are more detailed, everything is in HD (the original Xbox game suffered from a rather soft image) and the frame rate holds steady for the most part. Dark Athena does seem to have benefited from being developed from scratch on the new engine rather than being ported over, but Butcher Bay certainly isn't a slouch compared to today's biggest titles.
It's hard to criticise a game so lovingly created as this, but there are a few little blemishes and the odd major bug. During our time playing through the two games we encountered minor problems, like Riddick performing finishing moves on thin air (after an enemy had already fallen to the ground), an objective that couldn't be completed without a checkpoint restart (a drone with a gun we needed died and fell through a window, and we couldn't follow) and the odd object that needed to be climbed but the game wouldn't allow. More worryingly, at one point the game auto-saved as Riddick was falling to his death, meaning we had to exit the game completely and load an older checkpoint in order to get out of an endless loop of death.
Other problems will vary in severity from person to person, but we're not great fans of the repeatedly used large drone in Dark Athena (bullet sponge doesn't really do it justice), and one on-rails elevator section was so blood boilingly difficult that, after the entire office had a stab at it, we had to shamefully lower the difficulty in order to proceed. As we said, these issues will likely be more troublesome for some than others, and many of the bugs may well be freakish one-time occurrences, but they blight an otherwise extremely polished game.
Having listened to fans who demanded multiplayer, Starbreeze has delivered but we're not sure if it's enough to tempt away CoD, Halo and Killzone players. Team and standard Deathmatch modes are on offer, but more exciting are those which make the most of Riddick. Pitch Black, for example, casts one player as Riddick, complete with his Eye Shine night vision, while the others try to take him out. It's easier said than done in the dark, where Riddick has a very big advantage. To make things even more interesting, the weapons with the best torches are the weakest, so there's a heavy dose of strategy here that is missing in the standard game modes. Our time with multiplayer has been extremely limited, with enjoyment varying wildly from game to game. With a strong user-base a few of the more original game modes might prove to be worth repeated visits, but we can't see many people choosing this over the already popular multiplayer shooters.
With two great games that will take somewhere in the region of 15-20 hours to complete, superb presentation and a sense that you're playing something different to the norm, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena comes highly recommended. If it weren't for a few unfortunate bugs and the odd strange design decision that score below this paragraph might even have been a notch higher.