Game Description: Chronicles of Riddick acts as a prequel to "Pitch Black" and "The Chronicles Of Riddick". The enigmatic antihero named Riddick escaped from one of the universe's most violent prisons, Butcher Bay. This game presents the story of how he escaped triple-max security.
I consider myself pretty in-tune to the gaming world, so it was with some surprise that Starbreeze AB's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay managed to fly completely under my radar until word of mouth hit the internet. Licensed games are notoriously bad, with the notable exception of Rare's Goldeneye in 1997. Usually competence is the most gamers can hope for. But Escape from Butcher Bay is far more than competent—it's innovative and brilliantly executed. It's exceedingly rare that a single game can both build on established concepts and integrate its own innovations to create a wholly unique experience while exuding sheer perfection in execution, but Escape from Butcher Bay is just such a game.
Although the game's release coincides with the film Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel to the underrated 2000 film Pitch Black, it is actually a prequel to both of the films. The game's plot is exceptionally well done, and there are numerous arbitrary plot developments that are clearly meant to reference the films. Moreover, we are given virtually no background on the protagonist, but simply propelled through a brisk setup and launched into the center of the action. Nonetheless, the plot works well in a functional capacity, driving events in the game and developing key characters. A bounty hunter has captured Riddick and is taking him to Butcher Bay, a notorious triple-max prison stuck on a desolate desert planet. Escape is impossible, Riddick is told—no one ever has, no one ever will. But Riddick is no ordinary convict, and things turn ugly quickly as he bargains, cons, sneaks and kills his way out of the massive, complex prison.
Escape from Butcher Bay may best be described as a first-person shooter, and an excellent one at that, but it is so much more. The brilliance of the game lies in its seamless transitions through numerous types of gameplay that are always intertwined in the narrative and never feel forced or contrived. The shooting is first rate, with superb aiming and speed, excellent artificial intelligence, a challenging and interesting variety of enemies, and fantastic open-ended level design. But Riddick spends large portions of the game sparsely armed, and must rely on wits and stealth to progress. Riddick can enter into a "stealth mode in which he can move silently and remain unseen in the shadows," and quietly dispatch unsuspecting guards with gruesome efficiency with a quick neck break or knife-slice to the throat. Guards are keen on their surroundings and will notice their fallen comrades, but Riddick can drag bodies to dark corners where they'll be hidden from view.
When confronted while unarmed, which happens often, Riddick has a few options. The game features a wonderfully intuitive hand to hand combat system. He can block and throw four basic punches, and with careful timing the blocks and punches may be combined to create speedy counters and deadly combinations. If an enemy is armed, a well timed button-press will cue Riddick to grab the weapon and turn it against his enemy for a deft and violent kill.
Riddick faces an extensive variety of challenges, from armored guards to lumbering mechs with devastating firepower, so escaping Butcher Bay will require Riddick to put all of his skills to use. Most gratifying though is that players can often make use of Riddick's many skills at their own discretion. In one play through in a level, for example, I went run-and-gun through the level drawing attention to myself and getting into heated shootouts. On repeated play, I decided to shoot out the lights (nearly all of which are destructible) and would use a highly accurate pistol to snipe blinded enemies with a mortal headshot, or capitalize on their confusion to lure them into an ambush.
In addition to the action, significant portions of the game take on a role-playing quality, in which Riddick forges quid pro quo friendships with other inmates, learns the workings of the vast corridors of Butcher Bay and confronts other inmates in hand-to-hand combat. The variety of gameplay is coordinated artfully with scripted sequences that develop characters and flesh out the plot. Numerous side quests are optionally available, and because they are tied into the overall progression of the game (often requiring only a modest diversion from the core objectives) I found them enjoyable and unobtrusive.
Escape from Butcher Bay is also a technical masterpiece. For the graphics, Starbreeze utilized "normal mapping"—the same method being used for the forthcoming Doom III—in which high resolution renders are painted over simple polygon models. The results are crisp, highly detailed environments and characters and a fast, fluid framerate. Animation is spectacular—the best I have seen since Metal Gear Solid 2, and looks remarkably natural. Lighting and shadow are spectacular as well, surpassing the lauded visuals of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Thief: Deadly Shadows. The graphics lend a convincing and brooding atmosphere that compliments the diversity of the gameplay and brings Butcher Bay to life.
For the audio, Starbreeze recruited exceptional voice talent from top to bottom. Vin Diesel voices Riddick, and numerous other Hollywood actors make appearances including Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Michael Rooker and Xzibit. But although the lead characters are voiced with superb professionalism, more impressive is that all of the characters in the game, from the menacing prison guards to the impressively varied slate of Riddick's fellow inmates, are voiced professionally and convincingly. Sound effects are impressive as well; everything from the ambient sounds in the prison to the crisp boom of gunfire is first-rate. A sparse but well done musical score adds nicely to the atmosphere.
Escape from Butcher Bay is also relatively short. While some may find that this detracts from their satisfaction with the game, I found the length to be utterly perfect. The game is paced briskly, transitioning from one sequence to the next with impressive fluidity, such that the game only left me wanting to play it again rather than leaving me unsatisfied with its resolution. And with the numerous sidequests and the variations of the game mechanics, I found repeated play to be every bit as thrilling as the first time through.
It's rare that a game of such impeccable design and ingenious execution is seen. It's paced wonderfully through an interesting story; features well-developed, appealing characters; and blends numerous gameplay types into one flawlessly executed adventure. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is the biggest surprise of this generation of gaming, and it has raised the bar on game design in every respect.
I hate to be the one to rain on Mike's parade—OK, actually I don't mind at all—but calling this game "the biggest surprise of this generation of gaming" and a "flawlessly executed adventure" is a little excessive. And before I go any further, let's get one thing straight: for the last time, the movie Pitch Black is overrated—vastly overrated. Please make a note of this.
At E3 this year, during my tour of the Universal-Vivendi booth, I was introduced to one of the producers of the The Chronicles of Riddick. I'm embarrassed to admit that I barely listened to the guy. I didn't even bother making any notes during our conversation, because in my obviously prejudiced opinion, any game based on a semi-obscure science fiction movie starring Vin Diesel frankly wasn't worth noting.
But everything that Mike notes as great in the The Chronicles of Riddick—the graphics, the dialogue delivery, the level design, and so forth—is indeed great. The game does show evidence of a surprising amount of craft, which is shocking, considering this is supposed to be nothing more than a throwaway movie tie-in. I honestly don't think I've ever quite expected so little from a game and gotten so much in return. Yet, that doesn't mean there aren't a few chinks in the armor worth poking at…
I wouldn't use the words "wonderfully intuitive" to describe the game's first-person hand-to-hand combat system. During my scraps with inmates and guards, my strategy was usually this: 1. pull right trigger as fast as I possibly could, and 2. keep pulling until my opponent was KOed. This approach got me through 95-percent of my fist fights. I've also heard gamers say—not you, Mike—that the first-person fisticuffs in the game is remarkably better than it was in Namco's Breakdown. It's not. I've played both games, so trust me when I tell you that, yes, it is indeed better, but only marginally so.
Another sore point: whenever I peppered guards with gun fire, instead of cowering or staggering or reacting in any way, many of them simply stood their ground, as if enjoying a pleasant summer breeze instead of a hail of hot lead. Indeed, unless I hit them with direct headshots, there seemed to be a subtle disconnect between my bullets and their bodies, which only makes the portions of the game where I actually did have a gun (and there aren't many) feel chaotic and messy, and therefore less gratifying. While sniping from a distance with the pistol is certainly much more rewarding, I wouldn't call the shooting segments of the game "first-rate," not by a longshot. Nor is the artificial intelligence of the guards anything remarkable. Sure, the guards sought cover and flanked me like well-trained Marines, but on more than one occasion, I watched as a knuckle-headed guard inadvertently walked into the line of fire of another guard, getting himself killed in the process. During fire fights, if I had the space to maneuver, I figured out that if I simply circled my enemies, I could often trick them into shooting one another.
And those reversal moves, those moments when I was able to turn the tables on a guard and force-feed him his own gun—supposedly executed by a "well-time button press," as Mike says—are still something of a mystery to me. Sure, I managed to pull them off, but it almost always felt like luck more than skill. "Well-timed," I guess, means "keep pushing the button until it works." Toss in intrusive, laggy load screens—the loading graphic is nice to look at, but after my tenth hour of gameplay, I was fairly sick of it—and some seriously pixellated cut scenes, cut scenes that for some reason look far worse than the actual in-game graphics—and no, the words "flawlessly executed adventure" and "sheer perfection" don't come to mind for me.
I concede that the final third of the game, after all the hours spent backtracking and petty errand-running, did pay off. The pace picks up considerably during the last levels, and a plot twist-no point in revealing it here—had me sitting on the edge of my couch in broad daylight and practically jumping out of my skin at anything that moved in the shadows. There's even a tasty little denouement at the end of the game, a brief, final level that feels sort of tacked on at first, but in my opinion is a fine way to close the show.
It's fairly obvious by now that I have no love for Vin Diesel or his wife-beater-wearing Riddick character. In fact, the content of The Chronicles of Riddick is probably the game's single biggest handicap and most unforgiveable flaw. No, the game isn't a "masterpiece," not by a longshot, but the simple fact that I kept playing it all the way through to the end, despite the unappealing content, stands as a testament to the game's above-average quality.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Intense Violence, Strong Language
Parents should take note: Escape from Butcher Bay is in no way appropriate for children. It is extremely graphic and violent, filled with vulgarity and profanity, and deals with a theme that is better left to be appreciated by adults.
Multiplayer fans: Sorry everyone, this is a strictly single-player experience. Xbox owners, particularly fans of Halo and other first-person shooters, should not overlook this under-hyped gem. In this scribe's humble opinion, it is the premier action game on the Xbox, surpassing the console's flagship shooter.
Fans of Deus Ex may enjoy the similarities in the role-playing elements. Though not featuring branching paths as Deus Ex does, it shares many of the key elements of the game.
Fans of the Riddick films should clearly see this prequel, and likewise those who play the game may find themselves wanting to see the films to understand some of the plot developments.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will unfortunately miss out on tons of audio cues, although there are options for subtitles during cutscenes and character interaction.