Forget hiring and killing prostitutes in back alleys, building up a Scarface empire and riding roughshod over the moral fabric of society in a stolen police car. With its latest game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Swedish developer Starbreeze shuns pop criminality in favour of something infinitely darker - the tale of a man who kills for pleasure, driven by a single goal (woven into the game's mouthful of a title), and a man who's mind is a void we're meant to fill. "We really wanted to communicate the feeling that you are playing Riddick," the game's producer Lars Johansson tells us at one point, as we snap a guard's neck and watch our fellow inmates die in a stream of leaden retribution meant for us. Already we're getting inside his head. And butting people with it.
Eye of the Tigon
In a certain sense, our interaction with Butcher Bay parallels our interaction with Black Mesa - former stomping grounds of Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. Riddick has dialogue, whereas Freeman did not, but the impenetrable darkness behind his shark-like eyes and actor Vin Diesel's intense yet ambiguous performance numbs any sense of personality, rendering him putty for the gamer to shape. "I would say it's a new kind of hybrid," offers Johansson, as we segue from sneaking and snapping into running and gunning. It's certainly a new kind of experience. Although we've played games as murderers, crime lords and human scum plenty of times before, we're used to doing so from a distance, as if peering through a window. Thrown into the body of Richard Riddick, we're given no choice but to bruise faces, slice throats, snap necks and kill - for pleasure - all in the name of escaping a prison sentence that we almost certainly earned.
Putting us behind the eyes of this man was no accident. Publisher Vivendi expressed concern initially when Starbreeze suggested a first-person viewpoint, but despite developing full body animation - put to wonderful use in token cutaways and in-game cut-scenes - the developer eventually decided we were better off in the shoes of a killer. "We have a debug mode where you can move out the camera to third-person and it looks really, really good," says lead programmer and designer Jens Andersson. "But it's a first-person game so we keep it in first-person." After playing Riddick for any great length of time, you can understand the developer's decision. Playing from Riddick's perspective adds greater urgency and intimacy to proceedings, and the dialogue and understated cut-scenes never divert attention away from your struggle to escape Butcher Bay. In a sense, it feels like the obvious choice for the character. Less obvious perhaps was the choice of game styles.
We put it to Andersson that the decision to make use of stealth, shooting, hand-to-hand fighting and even adventure elements is a hook not unlike Grand Theft Auto's - battling against shorter and shorter attention spans by interweaving various diverse gameplay elements. "Yeah, I guess," he ponders. "But in a more linear fashion. For every new zone in the game there's a new sort of gameplay mechanic. Like in Metal Gear Solid 2 for example. You sort of have the same setting everywhere, but there's always some new thing you're going to have to explore for every new room you come to. One of the things we wanted to do with Riddick was prompt all these kinds of new impressions, and do that with a very cinematic style and very ambitious gameplay."
The blend of styles is certainly ambitious, but it's also extremely fluid and intuitive. Hand-to-hand combat uses a mixture of analogue sticks and triggers - and combos and instant-kill counter-moves become second nature before your first adversary hits the deck - whilst the ease of stealthing around makes you wonder why Sam Fisher has such difficulty. FPS fans won't be disappointed either, as the game touches upon everything from Serious Sam and Quake as Riddick scours tunnels with a flashlight and gibs aliens, to the likes of Halo and Half-Life during encounters with scripted armed response guards. "The AI in the game is partly scripted and partly scene point based," according to Johansson. "If you come in with a gun then [they] either maybe hide and attack from where they are, or go and search for you. It's very visual AI," he adds. "It looks like the AI is behaving like a human being."
Human beings are certainly predictable. Shove a first-person shooter in front of them, for instance, and unless it looks better than the last one, they probably won't care. Fortunately for everyone involved, Starbreeze should have no worries in that department, because when Riddick arrives in Europe on August 13th it will pack a few tricks that even Id and Valve Software are still labouring over, like 'normal mapping' - a process that allows the developer to plaster the walls of Butcher Bay with 2D textures that look three-dimensional, and react to light and shadow in the same way as 3D objects. Still, it's clear that the developer appreciates that technology can only take you so far, and although Andersson admits Doom 3's visuals were an influence, he just as readily lists games like Medal of Honour and SSX3, which have taken the core gameplay in their respective genres and developed it. "We wanted to take the first-person genre and really build upon it," he says. "For some reason, first-person shooters in general haven't evolved very much in the later years."
Perhaps first-person shooters, often developed by very close-knit and vocal teams, have got too caught up in the pursuit of better technology? "That was why Half-Life was so important," says Andersson. Asked whether games like Riddick - and Half-Life 2, which Andersson and his colleagues plainly revere - stand any chance of changing things, or whether developers will give up afterward and slip back into the routine of grinding out increasingly dazzling visual technology, the designer considers this and offers a diplomatic response. "I think it will split up a bit," he says. "Half-Life 2 will probably set a new standard with interaction in the true first-person sense, but without a story-driven cinematic feeling to it, while games like Riddick will go for varied gameplay."
Butcher Bay modeller Pelle Tingström is less optimistic about developers managing to avoid obsessing over technology. "I think Id probably always will," he says, mock-serious. "I mean, Doom 3 may rock." But something has to change? "[FPS] has to evolve, otherwise it will die," he says simply. The thing is, "you still need to have an engine like Doom 3 or Unreal 3 to make anyone notice it." Riddick unquestionably does have an engine like Doom 3, though perhaps not Unreal 3, and we've certainly noticed it - but it's also a very physical world, which seems to be a pre-requisite in these Havok-ridden days post-Max Payne 2. "The ragdoll is pretty good," says Andersson, as we happily recall dragging limp bodies into the shadows and tossing them from a height in our demo session earlier on. "All the kinds of different physics we have in the game help create an immersive world. We also have interactive music, err, facial animation, lip-synching... More features, Pelle! Spit them out!" "The self-shadowing is very important," says Tingström, obliging with a grin.
"Yeah I think the real high tech feature is of course the lighting - with the per-pixel lighting and stencil shadowing," says Andersson, finding himself again. "The thing I think I'm most proud of is doing the first-person game with a full body and full body animation." The animation is certainly something to be proud of, and adds further believability to the story sequences. In one memorable sequence early on, Riddick is forced to relinquish his newfound shiv to the cell block's local 'rooster', Rust. Rust leans in, and grabs at it expectantly as he turns away, only to realise Riddick has twisted it out of his reach at the last moment. He turns and glares at his burgeoning adversary and angrily wrenches it out of his hand at the second attempt. It's the sort of subtle, deadpan physical comedy that enlivens an action film at its edges and it's something that Starbreeze has managed to deliver without fumbling polygons.
Another challenge was respecting the conventions of the genre without sacrificing the sense of realism. "To see your body and your shadow and still have the feel of first-person was something that was really, really tricky because... you move like 35 kilometres an hour in Quake 1, and people expect that from the controller, and to try to convert that into something more visually realistic, while not scaring away the players..." Was hard? "I think we succeeded pretty well there. It's really cool to see your shadow and see your feet."
If I could turn back time
It's at this point that we're forced to peer down at our own feet, as we broach the delicate subject of criticism directed at the game - and specifically a couple of design decisions in particular - which has already surfaced in a clutch of reviews posted online since the game's release in the USA last week. Unusually, we find ourselves in a position to actually level some unanswered questions at the developers face to face. Why, for example, did Starbreeze opt to make the game just ten hours long? "We thought it was a good number," says Andersson. "I've read a bit of negative feedback on doing a ten-hour game, which is kind of surprising I think, for an action game. There are a lot of games that are equally long..." After reassuring him that we're not passing judgement ourselves, we ask for a few examples. "Prince of Persia or Max Payne," Andersson offers, before Tingström jumps in. "We are a pretty small team so we realised we had to focus," he says. "And this was also when we were playing ICO, and it's my favourite game, and I think I played that in seven or nine hours."
Andersson takes up the cause of shorter games. "I guess it depends on what kind of gamer you are," he adds. "We are doing this for more mature gamers that have less time to spend on games I guess. But the main thing is we'd rather do a really immersive and good ten-hour game. We could have been the same size team, same size of everything, and done a twenty-hour game. We could have done it, but it wouldn't be as good."
This desire for quality over quantity also led to the decision not to include multiplayer. Did Starbreeze ever plan to include a multiplayer mode? "No. Same reason," says Andersson. For the uninitiated, multiplayer is something of a sore point at Starbreeze - a couple of the US reviews have seized on the lack of deathmatch options as a serious failing. "Personally I don't think it's right," says Tingström. "If there's no multiplayer you shouldn't judge it, but I can understand that." "Yeah I can understand the people that want multiplayer in the game," Andersson says. "What I'm a bit sceptical about is basing the review on things that are not in the game. There are a lot of games that don't have multiplayer and... Just because it's a first-person perspective..." It comes down to what's expected versus what you're actually attempting to do? "Yeah. And even though [one US review in question] said 'It's a great game, too bad it hasn't [got] multiplayer'. And... Okay..." He trails off, with a look of bemused consternation on his face. "Who am I to judge?"
Fortunately, for the most part the people whose job it is to judge have largely come down on the developer's side. Having settled on a particular structure and length, and not allowed their 'bleeding edge' technology to dominate proceedings at the expense of different forms of interaction and a sense of immersion, the game appears to be largely successful. There were, as there are with any major creative success, elements of good fortune - most notably at finding such harmony with rights-holder Universal and Vin Diesel's Tigon Studios - but although the process, explored in more depth earlier this week, is probably a bit too unusual to guarantee a greater quality of film licences in the future, it has at least brought us one cinematic companion piece of enviable quality.