21 Aug, 2004

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay Review

Xbox Review | In one short but sweet package, Starbreeze reinvent the movie tie-in videogame.
Few games this year will start quite as promisingly as Starbreeze's Chronicles of Riddick. Ten minutes in, as you're flanked by armed guards and the game audaciously frogmarches you towards the entrance of the Butcher Bay maximum-security prison, there's an immediate overwhelming sense of entrapment. We're already inside Riddick's head at this early stage, taking in the grim, dystopian view with sweeps of the right thumbstick. The game restricts you from glancing behind you however - there is, quite literally, no looking back at this point.

This scripted, on-rails autocade owes a great deal to Half Life of course, yet rarely has it been handled with such skill and verve since Valve's landmark title initiated the trend six years ago. As the opening sequence draws to a close and the names of the impressive cast list dissolve into the darkness of Butcher Bay's network of cell blocks to leave you to your own devices, you're almost sorry it's over. From this point on though, it's time to acquaint yourself with Butcher Bay's motley inhabitants.

A fair-sized portion of the game consists of acquiring clues and hints from fellow inmates, usually in return for favours. Butcher Bay is divided into the cliques and gangs that define prison society, meaning rivalries and grudges between inmates are commonplace - thus, beating up other prisoners is a popular request, though try to rough up any of the other inmate NPCs and (rather inconsistently) you'll be temporarily incapacitated and dumped back in your cell by the guards. As you converse with more and more of the prison populous, the missions rack up in Riddick's journal. One of the games closest to Riddick in terms of this task-based structure is Shenmue, though the same flaws that inflicted Sega's adventure rear their heads here, with the backtracking and repeated performing of tasks eventually becoming tiresome.

This isn't the only point where the game takes a dip however, with certain sections feeling distinctly ill-fitting. One of the more depressing examples of this occurs within the first two hours of play, when Riddick's descent into 'the pit', a network of undergound tunnels and corridors inhabited by the zombie-like 'dwellers', turns into little more than a brainless blast-a-thon. It's a portion of Riddick that sits awkwardly next to the subtle stealth sections that feature later, and slightly undermines what is generally an intelligent, thoughtful game.

Ultimately, Riddick's finest moments arrive when, at a relatively early point in the game, the eponymous anti-hero is blessed with 'Eyeshine', an attribute that allows him to see in the dark. Cynics may wish to point out that the ability is little more than a glorified version of the night vision seen in many other stealth titles, but it proves an interesting twist to the vanilla firstperson formula, and it's what gives Riddick it's biggest hook.

This is because light, or rather the lack of it, plays a central role in Riddick's adventure, with the cells, sewers, offices and corridors that Riddick traverses all swamped in shadow. When the game is played on the higher difficulty settings (playing on the easiest standard allows the player to simply blast their way through most of the game, rendering it pointless as a stealth experience), it's these patches of blackness that will preserve life, and shooting out lights and triggering frantic confusion amongst the prison staff proves an electrifying, empowering thrill, particularly when your prey falls into your lap: PALGN recalls more than a few instances of luring unsuspecting guards into pitch black corridors to within inches of Riddick, whereupon a swift neck break was administered.

Eyeshine comes at a cost however. Riddick's gift may allow him to see in the dark, but light can blind him, clouding the screen with a fierce white glare and turning attempts to aim into haphazard games of chance. Although Riddick's unique ability can be toggled on and off with a simple click of the right joystick, the torches carried by guards are suddenly almost every bit as lethal as the shotguns they wield, making evasion even more vital. The genuine panic brought about by being caught in the light from a guard's torch and the ensuing gunfire is further heightened by the desperation to make a quick escape as you fumble around the environment, more or less blinded by the light around you.

It should be said that the AI of the guards occasionally assists the player. Though by no means poor, Butcher Bay's employees are hardly the sharpest knives in the drawer either. PALGN experienced their dim-wittedness first-hand at times, with guards remaining seated on benches as a firefight broke out around them, or standing stock still after the other guard they were conversing with was taken down by a bullet to the head. Thankfully such examples are more unusual than usual, and there's even the odd sign of intelligence present, with guards exploring areas where sources of light have been mischievously destroyed, and often hunting in pairs. They're handy fighters as well, which brings us to Riddick's other novel trait.

If Namco's recently released Breakdown highlighted all of the problems that can crop up when trying to incorporate fist-fighting into a firstperson perspective, Riddick proves it can be done effectively, and introduces a fist-fighting dynamic that feels sufficiently weighty, intuitive and largely convincing. Indeed, getting 'hands-on' is encouraged repeatedly through the game, and throwing fists or snapping necks is often a more satisfying solution to matters than using the game's weapons, which too often display a lack of imagination. The instantaneous control system helps considerably when it comes to swinging punches, with the Xbox's triggers used to punch and block, and the right thumbstick used to aim punches or the odd elbow in your opponent's direction. It's a system that may lack depth, but it never stops being enjoyable.

Likewise, the visuals never stop surprising PALGN. Much has been written about Riddick's visuals, and also about Starbreeze's much-vaunted 'Normal Mapping' technology, which allows low-poly models to be covered in textures of exquisite detail. Every column inch proves justified in this case: the character model of Vin Diesel (who plays Riddick in the film and also here) is unerringly close to the real thing, enemies are animated convincingly, cut-scenes are positively filmic in their quality, the frame-rate never hiccups, and the depth and richness of the textures that cloak the game-world from start to finish are a wonder to behold. Light, such a core component of the Riddick experience, is depicted beautifully, bouncing off surfaces and ridges at perfect angles without exception - every light source seems to reflect just how it should, and no object or individual (including Riddick himself, who casts a sharp, exquisite shadow) escapes the glare.

If there was a single criticism that could be levelled at how the game looks it would be that, just occasionally, the visuals proved a little too sharp for their own good, with PALGN's television struggling to keep up in cut-scenes with the resolution. It's hardly a fair criticism though, and we urge you to believe everything else you may have read to date: Chronicles of Riddick is a visual tour de force and quite comfortably the best-looking console game out there. The bar has been raised and then some, Bungie.

All of which makes the game's length something of a letdown - PALGN can guarantee the ending won't disappoint, but it arrives far too quickly. Despite this however, Riddick is one of the finest examples to date of how games backed by a movie licence can draw from their native medium to produce an experience that is intelligent, absorbing and original, rather than blandly imitating the movie itself. And maybe for the first time since Halo, here is a game that manages to successfully weave new features into the first-person shooter that have yet to be seen in the genre. Look past the flaws and the brief lifespan, and escaping will never have been so much fun.
The Score
Behind the imperfections lies a game that is original, utterly beautiful and, in an age where every movie-licenced videogame seems determined to stick to the same equation, thoroughly refreshing. 8
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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9 years ago
Nice review once again. icon_smile.gif

All I've heard about this game is that it is good, from the many reviews available, forum opinions and even friends of mine who have hired the game so I definately think that I'll be picking this title up for my Xbox (to come) within the near future. Looks absolutely awesome.

I'm also thinking it's time I checked out the movies too...
9 years ago
Aah, thanks Fido, I shall definately check out this game.

And would somebody please stop them damn guests! icon_wall.gif
9 years ago
this game has awesome graphics and a great review written by christophe a+ effort.!
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