Review: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

ChroniclesOfRiddickDarkAthena360.jpg The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is one of those games that makes me wonder if I played the same game as everyone else. Escape From Butcher Bay was universally praised as an excellent first-person shooter/stealth action title when it first arrived back in 2004 for the original Xbox, and again when it was ported to PC later that same year, and yet again here in 2009 in its new HD-ified remake. But the new Dark Athena campaign? All’s I’ve heard is how it’s this huge disappointment compared to Butcher Bay. Call me crazy, but having just finished playing through both campaigns I don’t just see Dark Athena as a worthy successor to Butcher Bay, I think it’s a better game all around.

Dark Athena looks prettier, features a greater variety of weapon and enemies, and is more cinematically engaging thanks to more lifelike character and facial animations and captivating voice over performances from Vin Diesel and Michelle Forbes that fuel the intense rivalry between Riddick and Gale Revas, captain of the Dark Athena mercenary ship. Towards the end, the Dark Athena campaign does feel a bit padded and loses some steam because of it, but overall I thought it was a riveting experience.

Along with the new Dark Athena content also comes a complete suite of online multiplayer content. In large part, the multiplayer is pure vanilla with the usual assortment of play modes, weapons and maps. However, the Pitch Black mode alone makes the multiplayer addition worthwhile. In a Pitch Black match, competitors are tossed into pitch black environments with one player starting as Riddick equipped with his kick-ass Ulaks (a pair of curved blades) and eye shine ability while the remaining players are mercenaries tasked with hunting down Riddick in the dark with flashlights on their guns providing the only source of light, and whoever successfully eliminates Riddick then becomes Riddick. It’s such a suspenseful experience, truly unlike any multiplayer match type I’ve played before. I know Metal Gear Online has the mission type where everyone hunts after Snake, but the element of darkness really gives Pitch Black mode a different feel.

Of course, the debate over which game is better is entirely moot because both are superb and you get the two on the same disc for the price of one, so there’s no need to piss and moan too much about either one. And quite frankly, there isn’t much difference between the two other than the settings and the aforementioned improvements that I felt elevated Dark Athena past its predecessor ever so slightly. Both games excel in exactly the same areas, and both games are hurt a little by the same exact flaws.

On the plus side, the Riddick games masterfully blend traditional first-person shooting with cunning stealth mechanics and brutal melee combat, and while there are times when you are forced into one of those methods, in most situations you are able to decide which method works best for you.

The shooting mechanics are solid but overall pretty ho-hum for a modern FPS, but that’s to be expected with the gunplay generally taking a backseat to the close-quarters action here. That said, the controls are smooth and the peek-and-lean cover mechanics are implemented well. And in Dark Athena, the new drone enemies have their weapons bolted to their arms, so once you kill one you have to pick up their whole body as a human shield and fire their weapon that way, which adds an interesting dynamic to the shootouts.

Melee combat has been tried time and time again in FPSs with very little success, but Chronicles of Riddick shows that it can be pulled off with exceptional results. You feel the force of Riddick’s attacks as they thud into the skull or tear through the flesh of an enemy combatant, with the immersive camera work, realistic combat animations, and little details like blood building up on Riddick’s hands (and weapons) and enemies showing real-time cuts and bruises delivering an extreme level of visceral, in-your-face aggression rarely captured in FPSs.

The stealth elements are equally excellent. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen lighting used to such great effect in a video game before, both in terms of how impressive it is from a visual standpoint and how it is so well utilized as a gameplay mechanic. There are no stealth indicators or radars cluttering up the screen, you simply find a shadowy spot (or make your own shadows by knocking out sources of light), duck down, activate Riddick’s eye shine night vision, monitor enemy patrol patterns and carefully hunt your prey, with the only indicator of your visibility being an unobtrusive blue tint to the screen. And on successful hunts you’ll be treated to gruesomely satisfying stealth kills, the perfect reward for your patience.

Atmosphere is another key ingredient to the Chronicles of Riddick experience. In both games, the environments are so immersive they almost come alive as characters in the story, especially Butcher Bay. The intergalactic equivalent to Alcatraz, Butcher Bay is a harsh, depressing environment that at times is lonely and quiet as if testing the sanity of its inhabitants, abuzz with guard and inmate chatter at other times, and always threatening to do you harm.

On the negative side, Escape From Butcher Bay and Dark Athena both falter in similar ways. Enemy AI, for one, is wildly inconsistent. During shootouts, enemies often fall into predictable cover patterns, sometimes even getting stuck behind their cover spot leaving them open for the easy pick off. However, when in stealth mode enemies seem to have eyes in the back of their heads, somehow knowing exactly where you are as soon as you pop out from the shadows, even if they aren’t looking in your direction.

Frequent backtracking and fetch questing are small drawbacks as well, both tending to negatively impact the games’ pacing. I enjoyed interacting with the other characters and choosing to help/harm them if I wanted to, but I just wish the missions involved more than fetching items and fulfilling other insignificant tasks.

Because of these things, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is far from perfect. However, the strong points far outshine the weak points, making this two-for-one Riddick combo pack one of the top game experiences of the year so far and a definite buy for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 gamers alike.

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Gameplay expertly balances shooting, melee and stealth
+ Superb voice acting performances
+ Unmatched lighting effects and atmosphere
+ Pitch Black multiplayer mode is brilliant
+ Two amazing games for the price of one

Cons:
– Inconsistent enemy AI
– A bit too much backtracking and fetch questing
– Multiplayer is pretty bland as a whole

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available on PC and PS3
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Starbreeze
Release Date: 4/7/09
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-12

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!