Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay

Review

posted 6/22/2004 by Charlie Sinhaseni
other articles by Charlie Sinhaseni
In most cases, licensed video games are rushed to retail in order to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the major motion picture on which it is based on. This is one of those rare cases where the complete opposite is actually true about the video game and motion picture role sequencing. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is actually far superior to the motion picture that was just released last Friday, and if the marketing folks are smart, they’ll use Vivendi’s video game as a marketing tool to bring more suckers into the theatres.

Based on a character from the cult action movie Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick follows the story of a bad-ass named Riddick and his escape from the galaxy’s most notorious prison. You play the game from the first person perspective and wield a number of firearms, but simply calling the game a first person shooter would be an insult. So many adventure and stealth-game elements have been tossed into the fray that you often forget about the perspective and become immersed in the world.

You’ll travel to a wide array of towns and prisons, all of which act as your mission hubs. For each one you’re confined to the area where you’ll have to carry out a couple of missions in order to gain access to the next area. In the beginning you begin at the lower-tier prison where you run the yards and carry out hits to get in the good graces of some of the inmates. Later on you’ll move into a man’s apartment and complete some of his missions in an underground setting called “The Pit.” As an interesting twist the game includes a quasi-adventure game element where you’ll have to travel around and talk to other characters. It’s here where you’ll discover new missions, learn more about your surroundings and shed light upon the intentions of other characters. Riddick was designed to be linear but there are a number of side-missions and alternate routes that you can choose to partake in. In one are you’ll have to get yourself into an interrogation room that’s hidden from the view of cameras. To get there you could continue to win in a shootfighting contest or try to pass the guards with some drugs in your pockets. There’s nothing surprisingly deep here like you would find in a Knights of the Old Republic but it’s definitely unexpected from this genre of gaming.

In total there are three distinct types of gameplay to be found in Riddick. First is the traditional first person shooter element where you wander through an area and shoot everything that moves, second is a stealth element which requires you to use your wits to dispose of the foes and third is the aforementioned adventuring element where you’re required to interact with NPCs. For a shooter the game has a number of surprising elements thrown into the mix. You’ll have access to a pistol, a shotgun, an assault rifle, some melee weapons and your bare hands. Keeping in tune with the movie, all of the weapons are DNA coded to match their owners. Anyone who tries to pick up a firearm that doesn’t’ belong to them will receive a hearty shock to ward them off. This is nice because it adds an artificial balance to the game and makes most of the weapons a premium instead of a given.

What the game lacks in arsenal it makes up for in sheer intense combat. To help alleviate the pain caused by the small arsenal, the developers incorporated the best hand-to-hand combat system to ever appear in a first person shooter. It’s not saying much but just wait until you get your hands on it to see how far ahead it really is of the competition. It’s not Fight Night 2004 but it’s a huge evolutionary step ahead of the single-animation punch that we’ve become accustomed to. If you’ve seen the movies you’ve noticed Riddick’s trademark glowing eyes. These allow him to see in the dark so that he can sneak up upon unsuspecting foes and dispose of them in silence. That feature is represented well here with the use of some neat lighting techniques and a fish eye lens effect. By suppressing the right thumbstick you’ll be able to activate a feature which essentially reverses the lighting scheme in the scene and allows you to see in the dark. As a nice touch, the developers decided to balance this by causing Riddick to be blinded by actual light sources. This means that you can’t simply leave the feature on throughout the course of the game, otherwise you’ll be blinded.

Mixing and matching the three types of gameplay could be a plus or a minus depending on what type of gamer you are. If you’re the kind who wants a straight-up first person shooter without the plot elements you might be turned off by this. Riddick delivers on the action, that’s for certain, but these adventure-esque sequences bring all of the killing and maiming to a screeching halt. For some it just might be too much to bear, especially seeing as how you actually end up spending upwards of an hour doing random tasks without getting a hold of a firearm. In our opinion this adds in the variety that action gaming had been desperately craving. The stealth element becomes amazingly unique thanks to Riddick’s ability to see in the dark. You can lure an enemy into a pitch black corridor and pounce on him from the darkness. The addition of neat and easy to use stealth kills makes this facet all the more enjoyable.

In an interesting move the game utilizes an interface devoid of numbers and crosshairs. You aim with the weapon’s laser sight and the health bars appear only briefly during combat. Ammo is shown on the weapon’s digital display and the ammo clips are shown only when you’re reloading. To activate items the game utilizes a Deus Ex-like labeling system where a label appears over items that can be used. Though I like the clean look it comes at a price, the inventory system is amazingly clunky and becomes a hassle in the frantic situations. With the use of a button, you can cycle through the inventory but only in one direction. So let’s say you’re fighting some baddies and your assault rifle runs out of ammo. In your haste you accidentally scroll over the shotgun which causes you to waste a few more precious seconds to scroll through your inventory until it falls upon it again. It would have been better had the inventory been mapped to the up and down functions on the direction pad. That way you’ll at least be able to go backwards in the event that you pass over whatever it was that you were looking for.

It’s obvious that the guys at Starbreeze are talented artists but it’s really difficult to get that impression from Riddick at times. There are times when you’ll be absolutely blown away by the technology and attention paid to detail here. Some of the new lighting technology which causes light sources to be distributed along surfaces realistically is in place here. It makes the texture on the walls, pipes and tiles look much more convincing, kind of in the same way as Far Cry on the PC. Weapon flashes are pretty impressive and the way that bullet holes appear to be red hot and then fizzle down shows some great attention to detail on the part of the artists. Appropriately, the character models are just gorgeous as all of the clothes and armor are beautifully bump mapped. Rounding out the good is the fact that Riddick is fully modeled and looks great in the 3rd person cutaways that are activated whenever you perform an action or enter a conversation. Because of this, all of the animations in this game are superb as well. Most times the animation in a shooter is its weakest element because the pace is so frantic that most players don’t have the time to notice them. Actually what you tend to get is a set of stock animations that the designers use for every single character in the game. Here you’ll witness a wide variety of animations that you wouldn’t expect to see. Things such as inmates praying, guys stepping over benches in order to sit down and enjoy a meal, inmates perched sideways on dining benches. It’s all very amazing just how great the game looks when everything falls into place.

Then there’s the bad, for some strange reason the game utilizes this amazingly nauseating blur effect. It’s not the kind that appeared in Need For Speed Underground where everything is coated in sort of a surreal look, it’s more of a blur effect that comes with a display at a low resolution. Objects look great when you get close but look absolutely muddled and indistinguishable from a distance. Everything beyond five feet looks as if it were rendered at 640x480 (in PC terms at least) while everything up close looks to be in 800x600. There’s also an amazing amount of problems with the aliasing and texture flickering. Stand still for a bit and you begin to notice the absurd amount of “jaggies” in the game. Take a closer look and you begin to notice all of the texture flickering that goes on. There seems to be a problem with the default gamma settings as well. Everything looks far too dark and when a light source does appear it has a sort of surrealistic washed out halo surround it, the kind of look you get when the brightness is turned up too high. Contrasting the amazing bump mapping of the metallic and tiled surfaces is the mundane textures for the brick walls and floors. It’s not unusual to see a flat stone wall with a beautifully rendered metallic plate sitting in the middle of it. Usually this is the time when you realize just how far apart those entities reside on the graphical ends of the spectrum.

Almost every Xbox game features Dolby Digital 5.1 support in some way or another but developers rarely utilize the capabilities to the fullest potential. Starbreeze does a rather admirable job of providing gamers with an immersive atmosphere. Early on in the prison you’ll hear screams, conversations and noises echoing from all sides of the prison. In gunfights you’ll hear gunfire emanate from the front and ricochet behind you as it hits fixtures and objects. Vivendi and Starbreeze even managed to secure a pretty high-profile voice actors to fill its cast. In addition to Vin Diesel, the game features the voices of Xzhibit and Ron Perlman (aka Hellboy). All of the lines are delivered quite nicely as we never got the sense that the dialogue was rushed or disjointed. Vin himself delivers his usual tour de force performance of grunts groans and the all-exciting “ughs!” Overall we’re pretty impressed with the aural portions of the game.

Pitch Black fans will be happy to know that the game is packed to the nines with unlockables and extras. These goodies come in the forms of packs of cigarettes which each contain an extra bonus item about the game or the universe. This includes nifty things like artwork and other unique features that will get the fanboys riled up. It's nothing amazing but it's a great way to toss a bone to all of the Pitch Black geeks out there.

This is one of those rare instances where the game is actually better than the source material of which it was based upon. Chronicles of Riddick literally came out of nowhere to mesmerize us with its polished gameplay, immersive plot and unique gameplay elements. If you’re looking to pick up an excellent action game then look no further than Riddick. It’s not just one of the best games to come out this year; it’s one of the best Xbox games ever made.




A-
Without a doubt, one of the year’s best titles. If you own an Xbox, you simply must own The Chronicles of Riddick. Forget about the movie, put that eight bucks towards this surprise hit.