The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, was not simply good relative to other licensed games. It is one of the best games in its genre, both upon release and to this very day. People with no interest in the genre have picked it up and had a blast. Shooter fans were stunned that something that looked so derivative on the surface could be so engaging. While it might not have been quite the miracle that Goldeneye was, it was still a blessing, and hopes were high that developer Starbreeze Studios could take their formula and strike gold again with The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.
Let this be another lesson on the importance of execution when it comes to making a good game. All of the elements that made Butcher Bay a classic are back, but arranged so that they have hardly any potency. It ends up playing more like a straight shooter, which is not only boring at this point, but completely betrays the character and setting.
To elaborate, let us remember why Butcher Bay worked. Yes, it had an excellent hand to hand combat system, and a simple but effective approach to stealth. But what made the game shine was how and when these non-shooting abilities were used. There were long scenes in which you simply walked around the prison , interacting with other inmates in order to find a way to escape. Sometimes this meant talking, while other times you were fighting. Eventually you would get out of the prison area, which meant guards, gunfights and stealthy assassinations.
All of these elements had a terrific ebb and flow. Riddick would hatch a plan, all hell would break loose, and the prison would have to find an even more effective way to secure him. Between these phases were periods of downtime or exploration. Butcher Bay never let you guess what was coming next, because you were never stuck doing one thing for too long. The game’s layout and pacing kept it interesting until the end, and it also sold us on the universe, by emphasizing Riddick’s nature as a badass. No matter what you were doing, you always felt like you were in control of the situation, or could get out of a scrape without much trouble. The game and its character synced up wonderfully.
Somehow, Assault on Dark Athena forgets these things. Or rather, it believes that dropping in a few scenes reminiscent of those from Butcher Bay is all that it takes to achieve the same effect. There are bits of stealth early on, which the extra sensitive AI have a habit of ruining. There are only a few battles that require fisticuffs, and their difficulty is jacked up from the very start (meaning newcomers who have yet to grasp the intricacies of hand to hand control scheme will be completely lost). There is only one section of the game during which you will have any lengthy conversations, and they all end up being with the same block of prisoners.
That leaves a sizable portion of the game which boils down to shooting things. Whereas Butcher Bay was very stingy with guns, Dark Athena mostly gives up a few hours in. Even when there are no firearms to acquire, you can still pick up the corpse of a common enemy type and use his weapon to unload a clip into the rest of his buddies. The problem with this trigger happy approach is twofold. First, it makes the game feel like every other shooter on the market. Second, it betrays the character. Riddick may be proficient in any type of combat, but the brute force approach isn’t his style. The game still reflects this by making him just as highly susceptible to bullets as he was in Butcher Bay, yet you are constantly being thrown into situations in which you can be shredded to pieces.
But the biggest of all screwups doesn’t occur until the last quarter of the game, during which the setting changes, and Riddick swaps out his Assault Rifle for the SCAR Gun. This weapon has infinite ammo and fires up to five charges at once, which can then be detonated to cause a small explosion. The ammo removal doesn’t make the firefights any easier, as you need to have pinpoint accuracy in order to tag and destroy enemies.
In fact, the SCAR becomes a chore to use. It fires slowly, and the game doesn’t do a good job of explaining that you can fire multiple rounds at a time, a clue which is important in order to destroy a certain boss. Worse yet, the weapon is at one point used to move crates around. That’s right folks: five years after Half Life 2, Dark Athena sees fit to make us solve physics puzzles. This whole last stretch of the game feels like an unrelenting gauntlet, as it tosses increasingly tough waves of enemies at you, all the while making you rely on a piece of shit gun (the standard weapons will show up, but with highly limited ammo quantities). Worse yet, the finale is quick and easy that there is nothing near the epic and satisfying payoff of Butcher Bay’s ending.
In short, Assault on Dark Athena is painful. By the numbers. Even when you have an easy time of it, it feels like the game is trying to punish you for something. If I had to take a guess as to what happened, I would say that Starbreeze had different priorities than I anticipated. The Dark Athena disc includes a multiplayer segment, in addition to Butcher Bay remade for the 360. One look at the achievements list shows that the team very much expects players to go through the first game, perhaps moreso than the second. Ironically, the game which is featured on the cover may have been the one piece of the package that fell by the wayside. For those of us excited for another round of great Riddick action, that is a tough pill to swallow, one that has had the unexpected side effect of making me far more skeptical of whatever else the series has in store for us.