Some stars might say that they love to play games at press junkets promoting titles that their entertainment persona has been licensed for, only to be scrutinized by a few card carrying members of the gaming public who greet such pronouncements with more than a little skepticism. But Vin Diesel’s love for the medium, whether it is in rolling for that natural 20 in Dungeons and Dragons or in running his own game production company, Tigon Studios, has managed to leave a bloody trail of success behind it.
Reprising his role as galactic hardass, Riddick, in Starbreeze’s incredible Escape from Butcher Bay, Vin Diesel hasn’t shied away from exploring the narrative options that the medium has to offer when it comes to his signature role. Escape is a side-story taking place between the films, Pitch Black and the Chronicles of Riddick, as it recounts his breakout from a triple-max prison that was supposedly inescapable. The FPS was a milestone achievement for Starbreeze as it delivered a cesspool of criminal scum, wickedly brutal action, and fantastic visuals wrapped up around a solid story that would have been welcome on the silver screen or at least a direct-to-DVD release.
Assault on Dark Athena was supposed to be a small side-adventure that was nearing completion until Activision Blizzard dropped the project as part of their effort in ‘cleaning house’ after their merger. Scrappy Atari later picked it up and in the meantime, Starbreeze had kept plugging away on development, expanding the title’s grim venue beyond what it was supposed to be, becoming a full blown sequel in the process. Using the improvements from their work with Dark Athena, the game finally came out with a revamped version of Escape giving fans a double dose of Riddick’s ginsu knives if they had missed his first outing.
His newest adventure takes place right after the events on Butcher Bay following his escape into space. Unfortunately for him, he’s rudely awakened from cryosleep when the ship is grappled by the Dark Athena, a mercenary ship on the lookout for fresh bodies to add to its army of remote controlled cyborgs. Avoiding detection for the time being, the player has to guide Riddick through the Dark Athena for one very simple reason: escape. And if anyone gets in his way, well, that’s what hiding bodies in the shadows are for.
Escape was a gritty and merciless introduction to Riddick’s world which has been taken to another level within Dark Athena’s expletive filled narrative. If it isn’t what the characters do that defines their depravity, it is most certainly in what they say in making this an experience that fits right in with its Mature rating. Not everyone within Dark Athena’s menagerie of prisoners, all of whom were ‘appropriated’ at gunpoint, are crying about their situation. Most just want to kill someone, something, or are too far gone to realize just where they are as mo-capped middle fingers and crotch insults ride in atop promises of rape and murder. Space is filled with dangerous people and Dark Athena makes absolutely no bones about what they want to do with your corpse.
As a result, the characters color the corrupted atmosphere of the game as much as Vin Diesel’s gravelly monologues as he skulks through vents, darkened hallways, or through the shadows just before reaching out to snap the neck of another mercenary or drone. Players can have Riddick slice, shoot, or punch his way through each and every member of Dark Athena’s freak show with questionable allies such as Dacher (Lance Henriksen) egging him on. He’s as ruthlessly pragmatic as any of his fans might remember from the films or Escape, but players will be able to give him something of a heart whenever he has a chance to make one of the rare choices available in dialogue. He’s no saint, but he’s not above easing someone’s suffering whether it is at knife point or in transmitting the last letter that a prisoner may ever write.
Aside from the characters, the fighting system brings Riddick’s brutal methodology home in the same way that its predecessor has allowing players to wield everything from knives to the same remote controlled drones that they’ve been killing. The melee system has been considerably polished as it is now somewhat easier to control his moves and demolish the faces of whoever his fists hit, although the shooting simply feels as if it were tacked on for good measure and doesn’t come off as anything special. It makes sense, though, considering who Riddick is and several of the “boss” fights in the game will require the player to be as fast with his hands as they are with his aim. Brutal doesn’t even come close to describing how lethal he can be without any weapons.
One thing that the games have always done well is in how it tries to immerse you within the gritty universe that everyone else is trapped in with Riddick. Turning the camera down and seeing Riddick’s feet and arms, dragging up and using the corpse of a drone as a weapon, and watching his hands deftly dispatch a cocky mercenary in two moves by slipping in behind the swing of his rifle butt deliver much of that experience into the player’s hands with responsive controls. The stained bulkheads of the Dark Athena, the mix of high science and low-tech within each environment, and the general look of each level add to the same feeling, although some of the outdoor stuff…as much as it can change the dynamics of the stealthy aspects of the gameplay…don’t come off as eye catching with more than a few bland textures. But the water was definitely worth staring at.
Most areas simply require Riddick to retrieve an item or kill a certain mercenary, or even walk outside on the hull of the ship in order to get back to where he needs to go in a hurry. As with the films, the dark is where Riddick thrives and shooting out lights and sneaking in through the shadows using his unique “eyeshine” to see where he’s going and who his next victim might be is what being Riddick is all about. The game will also occasionally drop hints as to what you should do next, although in the worst cases, I was stumped wondering what I had to do when none was given.
The worst example of this was when I was blocked by a falling gate and had to find a way up into the supporting structure above to get around it only I couldn’t see how. That is, until I saw that I had to shoot two targets that could have been borrowed from a carnival dunking machine high up on a wall. It didn’t make sense, but it dropped the ladder that I needed only after running everywhere in trying to find a panel whose button I might have needed to push or a card key that I might have missed. But targets up on a wall? Who drops a ladder like that?
The sometimes omnipotent AI also just seems knows where to go if it suspects that there is something around the corner. Even without seeing you hide behind a crate within the shadows, it tends to weave itself over to where you are tarnishing the illusion that Riddick owns the dark. Many enemies will also charge straight at Riddick without taking cover, or head through a door in a stream despite the bodies lying there to warn them otherwise. Those that do take cover tend to stay where they are, making it easy to pick them off without much of the problem.
It probably won’t matter too much to Riddick fans, however, and with both Escape and Assault on Dark Athena on the same disk, the length of time that they can spend as their favorite anti-hero is worth time in the slam…unless they’ve already been through Butcher Bay’s cellblocks. But Dark Athena manages to deliver enough of an experience by itself across the eight or so hours of stealthy death dealing. With a variety of multiplayer modes and a story filled with characters as filthy as the dirt beneath your fingernails, it’s not such a bad way to spend time in the isolation ward or Live’s general population.