Deep space

Riddick's sci-fi journey continues
By MITCH KRPATA  |  April 28, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena | for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Starbreeze Studios | Published by Atari
Lots of gamers, myself included, think that video games have the potential to be a narrative medium every bit the equal of books or film, but nobody is arguing we're there yet. Some games may have interesting stories, but that's usually a luxury. Most designers are more concerned with play mechanics than with characterization and story arcs, and it's hard to fault them for that. Yet with The Chronicles of Riddick, Swedish designer Starbreeze has it both ways: hardcore gameplay and brisk storytelling not only co-exist but achieve symbiosis.

Although its full title is The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, this is actually two games; the disc includes a high-definition remake of Starbreeze's 2004 Riddick game. Escape from Butcher Bay was a tie-in to the Chronicles of Riddick film that was released that year, but unlike so many cash-ins, it's not simply a cheap retelling of the movie. Rather, it's a prequel to the events of Pitch Black, the cult sci-fi classic that introduced moviegoers to Richard B. Riddick, the intergalactic criminal played by Vin Diesel. Escape from Butcher Bay, an Xbox exclusive, was well received at the time. Five years later, it's still easy to see why, and the new playable chapter is every bit its equal.

Both Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena offer an impressive fusion of setting, story, and gameplay. The title prison of the first game is a bleak affair, with imposing high walls, dank corners, and a miserable collection of inmates. The story gives Riddick breathing room to talk to prisoners both in Butcher Bay and on the mercenary ship Dark Athena, and both the dialogue and the performances are a cut above the usual standard. That's thanks partly to Diesel's contribution — he and Pitch Black director David Twohy helped with the story — but also to Starbreeze's commitment to grounding this game in a context that makes sense.

Butcher Bay seems like a real place and not simply a playground for level designers. Riddick does need to achieve standard video-game goals, like fetching items for non-playable characters, but in the context of a prison break, these are all things that make sense. There's a prison barter system to be explored, and infrastructure flaws to exploit. The ship Dark Athena is a little less inspired, mostly gleaming chrome and rooms full of crates, but it too follows a logical layout.

Starbreeze's other inspiration is the way it varies Riddick's gameplay style without deviating from his core strengths. Lots of first-person shooters try to mix up the pace by tossing in poorly conceived vehicular missions or shooting-gallery turret sequences. The Riddick games are a bit cannier than that. Most of the time, they require stealth — Riddick can hide in the shadows and take out his foes with brutal sneak attacks. But there are also sequences that require good old-fashioned running and gunning. And, in a brave choice, both games include some involving sections of hand-to-hand combat. The mechanics aren't terribly deep, but the feel is perfect. And wince-inducing.

The only area where this package comes up short is in the sometimes arbitrary nature of the difficulty. I don't just mean that the Riddick games are hard — though they are that. Rather, the nature of the challenges changes so often that you progress not by mastery of fundamentals but by crashing into obstacles over and over. Still, the emphasis here is on delivering an absorbing, story-driven experience, and on that count The Chronicles of Riddick is a rare success.

Related: Review: Chrono Trigger DS, Review: Afro Samurai, Review: Street Fighter IV, More more >
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