The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Xbox 360)
I kind of feel bad for the developers at Starbreeze. The original Chronicles of Riddick game was a tough act to follow. It was smart, varied and technically advanced. It had loads of personality, thanks to Vin Diesel, a strong cast, a well-written story, funny profane dialogue and a clever use of the prison concept. It even ended with a satisfying bang, as you went from creeping around in the shadows to suiting up in a mech and blowing the daylights out of the joint.
But the problem with a game that good is that it casts a long shadow. A clunky, mediocre game like Starbreeze's The Darkness might have worked if it weren't a follow-up to The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. So it's good to see Starbreeze back in familiar territory with The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. It's good to see Vin Diesel wake up on the shore of some planet with no explanation for where he is or how he got there. It's good to just plunge him into the nearest sewer opening and hear him deliver some silly line about darkness in that monotone he seems to think sounds really tough. I imagine he fancies himself a basso profundo Clint Eastwood. I'm OK with that, because when I try to sound tough, I fancy myself a rather nasal Clint Eastwood.
So here we go, into Assault on Dark Athena, with the intriguing sense of "what the hell is going on?" balanced neatly by the faith that you're probably in good hands. And this plays out just fine for about four hours. Fans of Escape from Butcher Bay will be delighted -- most of the time, at any rate. As the cracks start to show, we just keep reminding ourselves that these guys know what they're doing and it'll all turn out right. We're wrong, of course, but we don't know that yet.
Rescape from Butcher Bay?
Although there are a lot of similarities to Butcher Bay, that's not necessarily a problem at first. The story unfolds through conversations with characters literally locked in boxes. This is the System Shock/Dead Space game, where you're never going to interact with anyone you aren't killing. It's a step back from the last Riddick, where you prowled around the prison yard chatting with the cast of characters. But that's okay. These people locked into their boxes spin out a good story. Starbreeze has done impressive work with the character models, and particularly syncing their expressive faces with the dialogue. The excellent voice actors -- this is clearly a game that showcases the "talent" in voice talent -- seal the deal. Michelle Forbes and Lance Henriksen are excellent, of course, but it's important to note that they don't stand out as a pair of professionals among a cast of cut-rate amateurs. Like in the previous Riddick, this is a solid ensemble cast with nary a weak spot. (It's unfortunate that Starbreeze feels the need to randomly cut to different angles during the conversations. This is good stuff that will hold the player's attention based on the quality of the material. Bizarrely shifting camera angles aren't necessary.)
Butcher Bay was quite literally set in a space dungeon, and now this location makes for a good-enough space dungeon: Riddick is trapped on a slave ship and he's trying to escape. It doesn't really feel like a space ship. But who's to know what a space ship is like in Riddickland? Boxy rooms, convenient air ducts and space crates? Fair enough. Let's get on with the sneaking and neck-snapping and eye-stabbing.
The story proper, after the prologue, begins with a combination of the grim and playful. I'm pretty sure the only surviving character from the last game is killed. There's evidence later that the story has changed its mind, and the whole issue is eventually swept under the rug. But starting out by killing the character is a grim way to immediately follow up on the ending of Butcher Bay. It's a bit like killing Newt and Hicks between "Aliens" and "Alien 3." The playful comes with Riddick's first interaction with the main villain, a space pirate named Revas, voiced with icy efficiency by Michelle Forbes (It's hard not to imagine Admiral Cain from "Battlestar Galactica" gone truly bad. Am I wrong to think that's really sexy?). Riddick stealth-flirts with her in his own unique way. It's a great moment.
So what follows is about four hours of solid and familiar Riddickry. It feels like a repurposed version of Butcher Bay, although much more linear and without funny packs of smokes along the way. Some of the exact same plot points are used. The new stuff seems to sit in the background. For instance, the concept of drones is clever, but it's mostly a stand-in for the first game's trick of having enemies with weapons you can't use. In Butcher Bay, the weapons were locked to a specific person's genetic code; in Dark Athena, they're cybernetically grafted to the arms of remotely-controlled zombies. But the drone gimmick only comes into play a couple of times, each in very tightly controlled and brief situations. There's also a "Newt from 'Aliens'" gimmick going, but it's left hanging for the most part.
And then you suddenly get to the conclusion. There's a mech sequence, an implausible but obvious twist, a weakly executed boss fight and a closing cinematic. And the ending is pretty bleak. In fact, I hated Riddick a little, and not that "ooh, so naughty!" way that you supposedly hated Kratos when he let some poor sailor fall into a monster's mouth, but you actually thought he was cool for doing that. I actually thought Riddick was a selfish coward. He really turned out to be the amoral hero he pretended to be. Starbreeze denied the story any cloying "Little Miss Marker" guff. So none of the real promise of a proper sequel has been realized, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You got a tightly contained story, a couple of memorable new characters, a handful of disappointing loose ends and an unconventional ending. The whole thing lasted about as long as some downloadable content for Fable II or Fallout 3.
But the joke's on you, and not just because you paid the price of a full game. Are you ready for the punch line?
The game is only about half over.
The rest of the story
The rest of Assault on Dark Athena is a long slog through B-side material that kills any goodwill the early part of the game might have built up. Not only that, but it doesn't do anything to address any of the shortcomings of the first part of the game. It doesn't even feel related. It feels like someone at Starbreeze was told to stay late and cobble together about four more hours of filler to tack onto the end of the game.
But this isn't just dull filler. It's frustrating filler. It's the worst kind of repetitive padding. It's a crawl through Snipertown, with all your weapons taken away. It's long stretches between save points, and even longer stretches between health stations. It's every cowardly game design trick in the book. Falling off ledges into insta-death water. Fighting bosses and sub-bosses with no feedback for how well you're doing or what you're supposed to do. It's turrets placed in close quarters around blind corners. It's an almost complete disavowal of stealth, stabbing and storytelling for weak gunplay down narrow corridors. It's five guys with shotguns who will repeatedly rush you. It's crossing tangled catwalks under the watchful eyes of tiny snipers in the distance. It's fighting one sub-boss, only to have another sub-boss immediately appear after you've killed the first one. It's everything you hate about shooters. And at the end, you fight the boss a second time, only now she's wearing the most ridiculous outfit this side of Magneto's hat in the X-Men movies.
By the time I got to the real ending of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, it had methodically undone everything I liked -- or at least was willing to forgive -- about the first half of the game. And it even reneged on its dark ending in favor of something downright family-friendly. Aw, Riddick, you're such a cuddly teddy bear of a mass-murdering space criminal. Come over here and let me chuck you on the shoulder, goshdarnit! Ya big goof.
I'm almost inclined to give the game a break for including a rebuilt version of Escape from Butcher Bay, which was built for the original Xbox and won't work on Xbox 360s. It doesn't look as good as Assault on Dark Athena, but it holds up well enough. In fact, as I started playing it, I realized even more how disappointing Dark Athena was. Poor Starbreeze. To peak so early. But, as it showed in Assault on Dark Athena, this isn't a developer that knows how to quit when it's ahead.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.