When I first watched Pitch Black in 2000, I loved the vicious alien sci-fi flick despite its strict adherence to a well-traversed Alien formula. Who knew the quiet debut of Vin Diesel as the next super bad-ass would kick off an entire universe around its indifferent murderous anti-hero? I certainly didn't. What's more, I never expected Vivendi Universal Games to make a knockout first-person shooter starring the now notorious anti-hero. Which is exactly why The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay has summer sleeper hit written all over it.
A first-person shooter that blends equal parts blasting, hand-to-hand combat, stealth attacks, and even some platforming into the mix, Riddick takes noticeable risks in a crowded genre and succeeds. From its movie-inspired presentation to its minimalist HUD and the deadpan delivery of Diesel's likeable killer, Riddick is saturated with a sleek kill-or-be-killed atmosphere that pervades all. The combat is sharp, the AI smart and relentless, and the level design deft.
Almost everything about the game works well, but after completing the 10-hour adventure, I was left wanting more. The amount of time wasn't the issue, really, because 10-11 hours -- without having explored the entirety of the game, with its many vent shafts and multiple courses -- gives me the chance to play it again. The fact is there is no multiplayer option, which, on a system that's now defined as THE online console, is a decision that doesn't bode well. With such a smart design, it's a shame. While the lack of a multiplayer option is sorely missed (and VU Games should have known better), the meaty single-player missions are wildly varied and surprising, exhilarating and entertaining, culminating into a must-have first-person shooter Xbox experience.
The first bright spot in Riddick's visual delivery is its superb movie-style presentation. Starbreeze's ability to capture a movie-like essence is consistent throughout the entire game in straight dialog or presented in cutscenes. If you've read my previews, then you know I already like the intro scene, which reminds me a little of Valve's Half-Life, but really has a mood and delivery all its own.
The game is steeped in atmosphere from the moment Riddick walks into the dank, dingy maximum security prison. It's dark, not only metaphorically, but actually physically dark. There are many, many parts where you're in complete pitch darkness and a heavy stench hangs in the air. Yes, the videogame air if you want to get technical, but it's there. The walls are covered with graffiti, the cells are minimalist, with a toilet, a bed and a sink, and in general, the more you progress, the harsher and uglier the prison becomes.
Everything about the game is maximized visually, creating a sense of really being there… in the real, um, triple max security prison in space -- okay, I'm a geek. But the point is the contrast of such great visuals and a minimized HUD. Your health is not hung like some kind of ornamental instrument in the corner; it's done viasimple bars that disappear when you're not fighting. The weapon selection is pulled up with Y, scrolled with Y and selected with the right trigger. And pretty much everything you need to do, whether it's fighting, jumping, climbing, etc., is done with one button.
There are a few frustrating points, especially with some of the more obscure story sectors, which clearly tie into and are meant to be explained in the movie, but their presence isn't overwhelming. While the sparse presentation is to be rewarded, its downside cannot be ignored. Finding out what to do next -- progressing through the game -- can also be puzzling and frustrating. I won't complain much on this part because I hate overly obvious games that spell out everything, but Riddick's level design is often complex and hive-like, with many, many parts, shafts, and secrets that can easily be missed. Sometimes the levels are too obscure for their own good.
Riddick covers a span of more than 30 levels, split into checkpoints. During the game you travel from the outer Maximum Security Prison into the Double Max and then the Triple Max prison cells, including a Cryogenic cell. But there are surprises (and you should skip the next paragraph if you don't want spoilers), including a sometimes frustrating, complex and ultimately challenging mine sector. And a killer alien section that, after the long hours of going purely stealth in the mines, equips you with a hefty shotgun, and lets you loose to ruthlessly slaughter the freaky critters hidden in the depths.
What I especially like about Riddick is its myriad parts and its smart, evolutionary structure. The first level really introduces you to prison life and your character's abilities. When you first arrive you literally have nothing, so the first part of the game opens up the prison culture, its trade system, and the ins and outs of empowering yourself. You learn the RPG elements of speaking with inmates, accepting missions from them, gaining information and eventually acquiring small hand weapons. The first part of the game feels like an adventure with RPG elements, and it's handled well.
You're quickly introduced to the fighting system. Since the guards' weapons are controlled by a DNA-encoded system, picking one up sizzles your nervous system. So you have to work with what you've got. To earn respect and gain information, you fight the top inmates and guards in first-person, hand-to-hand fights. The combat system is simple and easy to learn, but it's deeper than you might expect. Left trigger is block, right trigger is punch, and combos, which become your best friend, are executed by pressing right on the thumbstick and right trigger simultaneously, or left D-Pad while hitting the right thumbstick. Picking up brass knuckles, shivs, and clubs increases your skill in a fight. By beginning with nothing, absolutely nothing, and fighting your way up in the empty, dismal, inhuman setting provides players with a real sense of empowerment.
The fighting isn't complex by any means -- this isn't a fighting game -- but it's deep enough and simple enough to work well. And for a first person shooter, it does a solid job. The biggest complaint I have is where the EyeShine and duck buttons are located. By pressing down on the right analog you turn on EyeShine, and by pressing down on the left analog, you duck. With the exception of one fight, I struggled with a frenetic display of ducking and EyeShining, which surely made me look like a Russian step dancer performing on a bed of molten lava. Sheesh. There must have been some better solution than this, guys.
Still, the game wins you over. Blending several genres used to be an absurd thing to do. Games were either great at one thing, or bad at multiple things. Riddick is impressive in that as you depart from the RPG elements of the second max prison, you descend into the mines, and therefore into a myriad of stealth and explorative objectives. You're equipped with only a stun gun, which only temporarily stuns enemies, making combat challenging and based entirely on skill. It's a complex section of the game, it's very open in design, and for those who really dig exploration, stealth, and collection, this is for you. On the flip side, strict first-person shooter fans are probably going to pull their hair out in the mines.
While the weapon set is rather small, Riddick makes up for it in moves, including fighting and stealth types. From the get-go, Riddick is empowered with the ability to hear another person's heartbeat, so he can crouch in the shadows (indicated by a blue sheen) and sneak up on an enemy to break their neck. Naturally, Riddick is adept at killing, using a dropdown stealth kill, two kinds of neck breaks (slow and quiet or quick and loud), and counters. The counters are dangerous but incredibly satisfying, as you catch and force a guard's gun into his chin and then pull the trigger.
Later on when Riddick acquires EyeShine he can see in the dark, which becomes very handy in every situation except a bright one. EyeShine only becomes a nuisance when Riddick tries to climb crates and the pitch black areas are not lit up when he's climbing. Otherwise, it's an excellent addition to the game, giving it another level of depth. The camera is smart here, switching to a third-person angle and showing Riddick from several other angles. Though initially disorienting, for a single-player game, this solves the age-old problem of climbing ladders, and it makes things easy when climbing crates and slipping into vent shafts. We wonder how this would be been implemented in a multiplayer game, but tragically, sniff sniff, we'll never know.
The RPG elements eventually stagger and dry up later in the game, as it becomes difficult, but not impossible, to backtrack from the mines to the Double Max Prison. The difficulty in completing the side quests is that the mines are dark and the mission objectives minimized, so players can easily get confused about where to go and how to achieve the goals. Despite what we thought, you can accomplish all the side-quests, but Hilary, Chris, and myself, having finished the game, initially thought the game was flawed in design. This is the biggest complaint about the no-frills mission structure and deft level design: It's often so subtle and so unexplained, you can easily pass by missions, clues, items, and passages that are crucial for the completist. For instance, once you progress far enough into the game (the alien bit), if you never figure out how to return to the Double Max Prison, those side missions are erased.
While there are small problems with that aspect of the level design, Starbreeze's levels designs are otherwise excellent. There are almost always multiple paths, and the vent system is complex and vast. Some sections are more straightforward, such as the combat levels, while others are all about exploring, such as the mines and second prison. Then later on, the final part of the game, Riddick becomes a balls-out shooter, complete with mini-gun action and even the ability to mount a mech and shred enemies like paper dolls.
What ties everything together however, is Riddick's desire to escape, and Starbreeze here shows its ability to keep its eyes on the prize. The game, though predominantly action-based, is driven by a story, and it keeps you hooked throughout its 32 checkpoints and satisfying ending (there is only one ending). The only minor complaint I have with its story is that Shirah (played by Kristen Lehman) and Riddick's mysterious Furyan powers are never explained. These bits of trickery tie into the movie, so apparently, you'll learn about those when you watch it.
From an artistic standpoint, Riddick is a stark, harsh looking game, brilliantly displayed with an array of special effects, bumpy textures, and an overall smooth framerate. The prisons are minimally textured with grays, whites and metallic colors, and wrapped with scratched, corroded textures. The prisons are filled with harsh graffiti and cold dark surfaces, while the prisoners each show impressive distinctions, filled out with their own personalities.
Technically, it's a superb game. Using a processing-heavy technique called "Normal Mapping," Starbreeze (like Id with Doom 3 and Valve with Half-Life 2) is able to light all the static and moving objects in the world as if they were true 3D objects with subtle curves and organic shapes instead of rigid triangles and edges. The result makes characters look less like blocky polygon assemblages and more like smooth, curved realistic people. It's impressive and eye-catching. While textures and environments actually aren't all that detailed, the lighting technique makes them look fantastic.
The overt use of darkness is both a plus and a minus. First, it's hard to capture good screenshots when everything is black. In all seriousness, the fish-eye lens effect used to display Riddick's EyeShine is cool, and it proves to aesthetically work. With so much darkness, however, the game becomes very oppressive, very brooding. It creates a dark, evil tone that's hard to shake. That's the point, of course, but if you're hoping for some kind of happiness and sunshine, forget it, bub. On the flip side, the cutscenes showing Riddick climbing up crates and the like are so dark in the later levels and EyeShine doesn't work, that it's distracting, even obtrusive.
For the most part, Riddick provides two kinds of musical themes, a futuristic military set of tunes, if you can call them that, and a dramatic movie-style score that sounds like a full orchestra is working on it. There is one sticking point for me musically, one of the themes sounds just like the one in Metal Gear Solid. It seems a little cheap, actually, even though it's effective. What's going on here?
With regard to vocal talent, Riddick is loaded. After Vin Diesel's superbly emotionless delivery of each and every line (which is a good thing here), you'll hear Cole Hauser as Johns, Kirsten Lahman as Shirah, Willis Burks II as Pope Joe, and Ron Perlman as Jagger Vance. The Ron Perlman bit is kind of a trick, really, because he hardly even shows up in the game, so while he really is in the game, he speaks for all of 1 minute. It's believably voice acted, and the dialog is well written, too, giving players good reason to stop and listen to other conversations.
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