Review / The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Xbox 360)

I came into The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena cold turkey. I hadn’t played the first game, Escape From Butcher Bay, nor had I seen the three films (Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick and Dark Fury) that spawned Riddick in a number of years. I knew Riddick was awesome, but I had forgotten how awesome. I knew Riddick’s game was good, but I didn’t know how good. I knew I was going to like Assault on Dark Athena, but I didn’t know how much. Thus, this review is a bit different from the rest out there as my playthrough of both games was more like a playthrough of one game — a new experience throughout.

I’m hoping there are a few other people who were in the same boat as me because it is the entire experience of Athena that makes it such an interesting game, not just the addition of the new game. We’ve all heard about how great Butcher Bay was, but for those who hadn’t played it does it stand the test of time, and if so does Athena add anything more to the game or just feel like some really long tacked on content? The guys at Starbreeze pretty much made history by making one of the few licensed games to not suck, but for those of us who missed history in the making is this a chance for it to repeat itself?

Jumping right into the middle of it, there may never have been a modern game that has aged so well, and it isn’t just the graphical update that Butcher Bay got. In an industry where genres evolve on an almost constant basis Riddick’s gameplay, despite being five years old, still feels unique and fresh. Riddick’s battle system is based around shooting, but more so on hand-to-hand combat. In fact for the first 3/4 of the game (and when I say the game I mean both Athena and Butcher Bay) hand-to-hand is a much more preferable method than gunning people down. Most of Riddick’s action takes place with you crouched in the shadows using your eye shine (basically Riddick’s version of night vision) to gain an upper-hand either with stealth kills or at least being able to throw the first punch.

Unlike other games where melees and punching are a last, and awkward, resort, in Chronicles it is a joy. Walking up to someone and punching them in the face works insanely well as does countering melee attacks, and it is mind boggling that no one else has developed upon this system in the past five years to any real extent. Why did we have to wait for a revamp of a five-year-old game to be introduced (or re-introduced) to the joy of first-person fist fighting? Well, it’s here and it’s awesome. Nothing is more satisfying than crouching in the shadows and ramming a shiv into a guys throat before you turn around and counter a melee from an attacker with a stab to the eye.

Unfortunately, as the game progresses Starbreeze seemed to think that stealth and fist fights are too much of an old trick and that they need to bring something more out. I suppose we should have expected this as the devs discussed putting a bit more action into the game, but as someone experiencing the whole thing together for the first time I desperately wanted the stealth gameplay to come back in the last quarter of the game instead of the shooter that the game turned into. That’s not to say that it was a bad shooter by any means. It’s actually very well designed with some particularly clever enemies thrown in. The addition of being able to pick up enemies and use their guns in Athena is very cool, especially since you can only take slow steps backwards when you’re holding them. However, a decent shooter pales to the fun you’ve been having with stealth and fists in the first parts of the game so it’s a little annoying that you actually have to try to make it a stealth shooter for half of Athena and that by the end you really have no choice but to run and gun.

It seems as if Starbreeze got a little bored with what they were doing and wanted to change it up, which is all well and good, but they entirely abandon the game’s previous efforts leaving you with none of the greatness that had come before. Once the player picks up what is the equivalent of a sticky grenade gun the levels become far more about clearing a path out than clearing a path through. It’s a fundamental shift in the game’s philosophy and it’s strange that it even happens.

Thankfully, the game has a whole lot more going for it, and, as was stated above, it isn’t bad ‘running and gunning’ by a long shot. One of the things that really stands out is the character of Riddick himself. He’s just a fantastic anti-hero and Vin Diesel (not to mention the rest of the cast) do an amazing job bringing him to life. You’ll actually start to think and act like Riddick because his character is so infused into every aspect of the game. For instance, at one point in the game a rival challenges you to a fist fight and won’t show up until you put your gun away. I did so, and he popped out of hiding. In almost any other game I would have most likely done the honorable thing and fought him mano-a-mano, but Riddick was in my head. WWRD? He’d just whip out his gun suddenly and pop the guy in the head, then walk away with a drole one-liner. So I did that. Bam, fight over. Some might argue that that is just poor game design, but giving the player the option to do that is great storytelling and only proves how well the game weaves its tale. Though, now that I think about it, I bet I missed an Achievement there.

Graphically the game looks nice, though the shadowing that was so amazing on the Xbox kind of shows its age in Butcher Bay. In some parts characters had random shadows cast on their faces that made no sense at all and while it never ruined the game you can tell it was last gen. Once Athena starts though the heavy shadow issues end. I wouldn’t call this the prettiest game ever, but it does enough to get by and Riddick looks badass the entire time so the main goal is accomplished there.

The disc contains multiplayer but it is pretty much a wash all around. I jumped on a few times and had fun, but unless you’ve got a group of friends together it’s pretty much just generic shooting at strangers on competently designed levels. The real problem is that the claustrophobic atmosphere of the game is totally lost in multiplayer since crawling around in air vents wouldnt’ work out so well. However, the Pitch Black mode, in which one player is Riddick and can see in the dark and the others must struggle to kill him is a blast when you can find a game of it running. It’s upsetting that we may never see it again in a game with better multiplayer since the idea is so context sensitive to the universe of Riddick.

What Starbreeze has done with The Chronicles of Riddick is nothing short of impressive. They’ve managed to tailor gameplay around a character instead of character around gameplay. There is always crap surrounding games about being immersive, but Riddick actually does that and it’s with a franchise character. Totally impressive, and luckily the game is a blast to play too. So if you missed it the first time now is your chance to pick it up and then you’ll join me in praying for yet another iteration.

+ Two games for the price of one
+ Amazing first-person hand-to-hand combat
+ Immersive to an unparalleled extent
+ Riddick is a bad ass
+ The game’s gameplay and action is still fresh and creative

– Shadowing is a bit dated
– Multiplayer is lacking
– Last quarter of the game abandons the style of the first three quarters