Nick's Gaming Blog

The Chronicles of Riddick–A Review

small sidenote: For the sake of providing you, the reader (in case for some odd reason you forgot your job at this site) a semi-steady stream of new content, I’ve broken down my review of the next-gen title, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, into two parts.  Obviously they must be considered as a cohesive unit when weighing the game as a whole, but nonetheless, I feel this is the best way to expedite my content, with myself being the sole contributor.

Partway through the remastered edition of Escape From Butcher Bay, Richard B Riddick grabs a guard while falling down a hole, and after using him to break his fall (along with the guard’s…well…everything) remarks to the player, “It ain’t the fall that’ll get you, it’s the sudden stop at the bottom.”  Sophocles, he ain’t. Richard Pryor, he certainly isn’t either.  What is surprising, however, is that Vin Diesel’s delivery of Riddick’s lines is done in such a fashion that they’re more likely to elicit a mild chuckle or a roll of the eyes in mock disgust than genuine dislike.  This, in itself, is perhaps the “litmus test” for one’s ability to enjoy Escape From Butcher Bay;  if the gamer is alright with the title’s tone blurring of the line between outright self-aware humor (breaking the 4th wall and whatnot) and dramatic seriousness, and never being really quite certain which to side with, you’ll be fine.  If one’s used to games blatantly telling you where to stand, how to feel, and what to think, as well telegraphing their next move, Riddick isn’t for you. Even now, I’m still not certain if I just finished the sci-fi equivalent of The Great Escape, or that of Indiana Jones.

See, it's funny that this image exists, because anyone that's ever gotten this close to Riddick was either naked.  Or dead.

See, it's funny that this image exists, because anyone that's ever gotten this close to Riddick was either naked. Or dead.

Issues of tone aside, let’s quickly touch on the story, if only because the Riddick universe, much like that of the Halo series, is entertaining enough on the surface, but beneath such is boring, self-indulgent, and altogether caught up in something monotonous, the likes of which can only be captured in horrid trade paperback novels and overwrought fan fiction.  With that in mind, let’s break this down to the basics.  You play as Riddick, the last of a superhuman race known as the Furyans, who happen to be better…stronger…faster…than your usual humanoid (that was a Six Million Dollar man reference for those not following).  Adding to this is the fact that Riddick is the Alpha Furyan, which as the name suggests, means that he’s the strongest, most powerful of all of them…blah…blah…blah.  All you really need to know is that, based upon my faint amount of research on Wikipedia, that Riddick was put in some scenario of slavery, decided it wasn’t for him, and broke out, and a huge bounty followed.

The game begins here, with a bounty hunter named Johns “taking you in” to the Alcatraz of the future, Butcher Bay.  And guess what?  *looking at the front of the game case* Apparently you need to escape from it.  Sadly, there is no button sequence for “slow, but consistent reformation, accompanied by a conversion to hardline evangelical religious beliefs.”  And just what does a maximum security facility do to ensure that inmates don’t engage in any “extracurricular activities” of the skull-crushing variety?  Well, they don’t.  Butcher Bay is a prison in which inmates are free to come and go between their rooms and those of fellow inmates, chow down in the mess hall, or shank whoever they please in the commons area, provided that they adhere to the sign demanding that prisoners clean up after their attempted murder.  There aren’t any curfews, solitary confinement, or mandatory pat-downs, and the only appropriate analogy is to that of a college dorm, but the RAs just so happen to sport automatic weapons.  If there was a prison for those with low self-esteem and a lack of initiative perhaps these measures would work.

Alas, this is Riddick we’re talking about.  You’ll be handed a variety of “fetch-quest-esque” missions from other inmates: killing other inmates, retrieving hit lists, finding lost packages, wiping out rival gangs/gang leaders,  poisoning people’s food…etc.  If they all start to sound like “variations on a theme” that all ultimately end with Riddick murdering people, you’re correct.  It’s more or less the equivalent of having Rambo working for UPS.  In between these fetch-quests that apparently qualify as “Primary Objectives,” you’ll generally be tasked with sneaking from the current area into the next.  This, of course, is assisted by a special ability Riddick picks up an hour or two into the game called “eye shine.”  And, as the highly unexciting and fairly straightforward name suggests, it allows you to see in the dark.  It’s an ability you will use frequently, especially considering that because most guns are genetically encoded to their respective soldier, the only thing you’ll net from their bodies is the satisfaction that there’s one less person capable of riddling your body with lead.

See, the RAs of Trowbridge would never have allowed this to happen.  Maybe they would have watched for a bit, and then intervened, but it wouldn't have gone this far.

See, the RAs of Kalamazoo College would never have allowed this to happen. Maybe they would have watched for a bit, and then intervened, but it wouldn't have gone this far.

If this is already beginning to come across as a convoluted hybrid of playing styles, well…that’s because it is.  You’ll play the majority of the game from the first-person perspective, sneaking around and, on a less subtle degree, brawling with fellow inmates and guards. Yet the first hour or so will have one thinking they’ve got a slow-paced tactical shooter on their hands, one that does not exactly promote a “run and gun” play style.  Once you’ve adapted to such, the developers will throw the “first-person brawler” micro-genre at you, a la Condemned: Criminal Origins.  Much like in Condemned, this too is a welcome change…until you begin facing vastly overpowered characters that unlike in Condemned, do not have a limited supply of ammo, and as abovementioned, won’t even lend Riddick their weapons post-mortem.  Even this is temporary, though.  After one’s had their fill of strangulating and dismembering fellow inmates, gameplay shifts in the direction of unforgiving stealth that is only hampered by inconsistent AI, and frequent confusion over whether enemies are simply too strong to confront and need to be avoided outright, or require an “attack plan.”  Simply put, you’ll never feel like you’re at home with the ever-changing gameplay.  On a positive note let it be said that the fisticuffs are easy to master, and include a decent variety of gruesome death animations, while the FPS elements will offer little to no learning curve for those accustomed to playing any mainstream shooter.  But being the “Jack of all forms of inducing mortal wounds” makes one the master of none.

Welcome to the last game of "Hide and Seek" that you'll ever play.

Welcome to the last game of "Hide and Seek" you'll ever play.

While the title includes an HD remake of Escape From Butcher Bay, the ever-present question of just why it was remade is certainly worth pondering, when one takes into consideration that the remake was officially announced not even three years after the initial title launched.  Taking into consideration that the notion of the remake must have been circulating between Starbreeze staffers for at least a decent while before the formal declaration, we’re looking at possibly a two and a half year turnaround before they decided to make the EXACT SAME GAME.  One certainly cannot fault the then-fledgling developers for banking on a franchise that was, at least for the video game tie-in, a success, but the decision is still odd.  Even more so when one mulls over the fact that the remake was meant to stand alone, initially, sans Dark Athena.  They’ve also fallen into a development problem that has yet to develop a succinct synonym for it, so allow me to elaborate.  Specifically, many times developers will end up making a game towards the tail-end of a console’s life cycle.  Understandably, these tend to produce some of the best titles, from an audio/visual standpoint.  This is all “rainbows and gumdrops” until they choose to release another title, early on in the next console’s life cycle, frequently the next installment in a franchise.  Why?  Because the “graphics gulf” (there, I coined one, okay?) is often not as wide as gamers would expect between the tail end of one cycle and the beginnings of the next, and when both are from the same franchise, it all too often invites comparison.  Is there any question that Escape From Butcher Bay was possibly the best looking game on the Xbox?  Little, if any.  Could the same be said of the remake on the Xbox 360?  I wouldn’t even put it in contention for the “top 10″ list.  Further muddling things is just what Starbreeze means when they call the game an “HD remake.”  Is this a mild overhaul?  Are we just talking higher-res textures and support for 1080p?  Normally the graphics in a game speak to this question on their own, but with this game, I’m not really certain.  This looks better than Starbreeze throwing some hi-res support our way…but it really doesn’t resemble a title made from the bottom up, like most are.

You heal yourself in this game by being stabbed in the neck.  Please, PLEASE, if/when (the latter if you live in NYC) you are being mugged, do not take this as a real scientific fact.  You will, in actuality, bleed out.

You heal yourself in this game by being stabbed in the neck. Please, PLEASE, if/when (the latter if you live in NYC) you are being mugged, do not take this as a real scientific fact. You will, in actuality, bleed out.

Graphics confusion aside, Riddick does place higher than the industry standard for graphics of this generation, though most of this pertains to Riddick alone.  His character model, animations, as well as the voice acting, are genuinely solid (though the tank top could honestly have looked a bit more like he was actually wearing it, and that it wasn’t a flat layer pasted onto his likely six-pack chest).    Characters other than Riddick manage to differentiate themselves quite well from one another (which is saying something, with almost all of them wearing one of two uniforms: guard or inmate) both visually and audibly, but there are some undeniably stiff animations to be found amongst the NPCs, as well as some truly horrendous lip syncing.  If you can’t bear to look at clamped shut mouths still delivering lines, don’t worry.  The camera doesn’t always successfully shift to the side and zoom out during conversations, so you’ll bear witness to several from Riddick’s armpit amongst other places the camera haphazardly decides to end up.  Aside from that, the 1st to 3rd person transition is smooth, and does not disorient the player.  Lighting effects, more than competent in the original, do not seem as dynamic here.  Finally, due to my ever-frequent finagling with the brightness and gamma settings, please take into consideration that I honestly have no idea what the desired brightness and lighting should be.  Every single setting I tried still looked “off.”

Here's a hint.  I'm not about to assist him in repairing that panel.

Here's a hint. I'm not about to assist him in repairing that panel.

All in all, Starbreeze’s remake/overhaul/whatever it is, Escape From Butcher Bay, should have provided a less buggy and more technically proficient title, something one would come to expect four years into a console’s life cycle, especially from such a usually gifted developer.  They also should have fixed the game’s bipolar swings in the difficulty level.  I can respect developers desire to, while providing a new coat of paint, keep the core gameplay unaltered (a la The Secret of Monkey Island). Which is an admirable aim…when the game’s difficulty isn’t running in all directions.  It remains a good, but not great, looking game with some gory and brutal “screwdriver-stabbin’” fun to be had, and an A-list voice acting ensemble.  By itself, it’s a “rent” to “hesitant buy,” but with the current price hovering around 30-40, and the potential that the Assault on Dark Athena chapter perhaps fixes some of these issues (or at the very least, offers more content without worsening the flaws of the original), Escape From Butcher Bay could well transform into more of a nostalgic tribute.  That is to say, one that functions moreso as a bonus to purchasers of Dark Athena, than a bona fide stand-alone game, subject to unbridled modern critique.

5 Comments

    So… Where’s your Demon’s Souls review?

  • I’m interested in your take on Nintendo’s financial woes?

    “Game Over for Nintendo?” – A sharp decline in Wii sales have investors very worried, but bloggers say all is not lost

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/opinions/view/opinion/Game-Over-for-Nintendo-1443

  • Adam, that’s an excellent topic to bring up, and it’s certainly one that’s been at the forefront of video game news circuits as of late. And, as you’ve linked to, found its way into mainline media as well.

    Personally, I’d say that(one of) Nintendo’s main problems is that (in recent years) they’ve always only been as good as their first-party software. Hell, the only reason the Gamecube wasn’t an all-out disaster was the undeniable quality of their first-party titles (Metroid Prime, Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Smash Brothers, Animal Crossing).

    The difference now is that while the Gamecube generation was a healthy blend of “hardcore” and “casual” titles, despite Nintendo’s frequent and futile claims otherwise, the Wii generation has taken a decidedly “casual” turn. And casual gamers do not tend to buy a lot of software to begin with, which hasn’t been helped by the fact that Wii Sports was packaged with the Wii. So, effectively, many casual gamers aren’t buying ANY software. Complicating this is the fact that the Xbox 360 and PS3 have made genuine attempts at making their consoles more affordable, causing the Wii to lose its “price edge” that it previously had.

    Those are just a couple of the reasons I’d say Nintendo (and the Wii specifically, their handheld units have ALWAYS done well) is in trouble. Other readers, feel free to add to my thoughts.

  • Vin Diesel’s voice is crazy awesome. He needs to do more voicework in games… or narrate movies, or children’s storybooks like you were saying.

    Also, the pictures look different than the others. Are you getting your own or are these ones just cropped weirdly?

  • I cropped these ones a bit weirder than normal.

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