Version tested: PlayStation 3
Vin Diesel must be breathing a sigh of relief. It looks like the fourth instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise is going to be a healthy box office hit. This is good news for the rumbling slaphead, since it means you no longer have to look back to the 2005 family comedy The Pacifier for a bona fide hit in his filmography. If you ignore that effort (and you probably should - Diesel co-stars with a comedy duck) then you'd have to rewind back to the halcyon days of 2001 and 2002 for the original Fast and the Furious, and XXX as the only other two Diesel star vehicles to break the magic hundred-million-dollar ceiling.
So Diesel is one of those actors whose celebrity is at odds with his box office appeal. The Chronicles of Riddick, in particular, was a fairly embarrassing flop, losing a lot of money for Universal and pretty much putting an end to the Riddick saga. Well, on the cinematic front at least.
As Xbox owners are no doubt aware, while Riddick floundered on the big screen he was being lavished with praise by gamers. Indeed, should Diesel's movie career ever stall, he's probably better placed than almost any other actor to become gaming's first crossover star. More than most of his contemporaries, he seems to understand that appearing in a videogame needn't be a cynical payday or contractual obligation. With shrewd input and guidance, Diesel has shown, a starring role in a game can be just as effective at maintaining the right profile as a movie or TV gig.
This is why the 2004 Riddick game, Escape from Butcher Bay, was so impressive. There was clearly passion and ambition behind it, and this fact alone made it stand out from the morass of lousy film-based games. It also looked phenomenal, delivering detailed environments and convincing character models long before the HD era had come to consoles, and it was innovative to boot, combining the traditional first-person shooter format with Thief-style stealth gameplay and an adventure game framework that harked back to Morrowind. It's also sadly at odds with the data sprockets of the Xbox 360's backwards compatibility crankshaft, and rather than allow such an acclaimed gem to slide into obscurity, developer Starbreeze - in tandem with Diesel's own Tigon studio - decided to remake Escape From Butcher Bay for the new generation of consoles.
The original game (in a slightly remixed form) is just one third of this package, however. Starbreeze also ended up creating a whole new official chapter in Riddick's life - Assault on Dark Athena - and introduced multiplayer as well, just for good measure. This three-way content split makes for an undeniably attractive bundle, even though the constituent parts all come with more than their share of gripes and grumbles attached.
Most notably, and most unfortunately, Escape From Butcher Bay is still by far the most compelling element on offer. The remake is close enough that you could be fooled into thinking it's an emulation, but that's both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it's good to know that, yes, it really was as good as you remember. On the other, it's a shame that more hasn't been done to smooth over some of the clunkier design decisions, which were more acceptable in the early days of the evolution of console first-person shooters.
Opening with Riddick delivered to the infamous Butcher Bay "slam" (future slang for hellish deep space prisons), there's a fantastic sense of place, and it's a real tonic to see a game that could so easily have been all about blasting and stabbing instead forcing you to explore and talk to people for most of the opening hours. There are even optional side-quests, and many of the story missions can be completed in whatever sequence you fancy. The simplicity of your task - escape - means that there's a constant sense of forward momentum to the story as you're drawn deeper into Butcher Bay's brutal world. It's also a tough game, and the prison setting ensures that you're always the underdog, relying on your cunning and EyeShine night vision ability to even the odds against a staff of heavily armed and trigger-happy guards.
The annoyances are minor when compared to the pleasures the game has to offer, but are thorny enough to deserve closer inspection. The game still has that weird early FPS fish-eye effect when looking up or down, for instance. Checkpoints are a tad flaky, and you're never sure whether the flashing disc icon is a checkpoint or just an autosave. Since the game only allows for one autosave at a time, and there are no manual savepoints to be found, anyone opting to sample the Dark Athena storyline before completing Butcher Bay will find they have a lot of ground to retread when they return.
Perhaps the most grievous problems are the generally poor signposting of objectives and a less than robust shooter engine - both problems that marred Starbreeze's The Darkness as well. The static map is all but useless and with no indicators to point you in the right direction it's easy to end up going round in circles or pixel-hunting around the same areas looking for some ledge, vent or pass-key needed to progress. There's also a persistent feeling that the moments where the game escalates to full-blown shooter mode are the least successful sections. The blurry blue targeting dot is crude, the recharging health system basic and whenever you're forced into a shoot-out, you're left wishing you could slip back into the shadows and break their necks one by one.
All of which makes Assault on Dark Athena even more disappointing. Ditching the adventure elements almost completely, the new storyline also seems in a hurry to get away from the stealth gameplay as well, thus losing the two most interesting aspects of the original. After an opening section in which you skulk around the titular spaceship - a mercenary vessel involved in human slavery and grisly experimentation - it rapidly becomes the sort of generic corridor shooter that Butcher Bay so purposefully avoided. There are no side-quests of note, story missions are linear, and the attempts to pad them out by making you hop from cell to cell, quizzing people in the same room, feel artificial.
Too much, as well, feels the same yet nominally different. Butcher Bay had collectable cigarette packets, Dark Athena has bounty hunter cards. Butcher Bay had a mechsuit section, so Dark Athena has a mechsuit section. Very little else has changed, and rather than remaking Butcher Bay to 2009 standards, it seems Starbreeze has instead retrofitted Dark Athena into a 2004 game engine. With titles ranging from Condemned to BioShock embellishing the template set in place by Butcher Bay, it's completely the wrong way to approach the series.
By the time Dark Athena reaches its climax in an incredibly annoying boss fight - one of those where the enemy is completely invulnerable until you get them to stand in the one spot where they can die - it's hard to avoid feelings of disillusionment. It's a decent enough shooter, if that's not damning it with faint praise, but had it been released in 2005 (and there's no reason it couldn't have been) I suspect we'd view it now in much the same way film fans view Ghostbusters II. Not especially bad, but a timid, uninspiring and forgettable follow-up to something that deserved much better.
There's multiplayer as well, of course, but that's not going to sway any purchasing decisions. Anyone who had the misfortune to try the online gameplay for The Darkness will know that this is not an area where Starbreeze has traditionally excelled, and that trend continues here.
It's a generic array of flag-capturing and death-matching across a handful of maps, but since the shooting mechanic is perhaps the weakest element of the core game, the move to fast-paced online play sits awkwardly. The only game mode of interest is Pitch Black, in which one player gets to be Riddick and everyone else has to hunt him down. Whoever kills him gets to play as the concrete-throated anti-hero in the next round. It's much the same as Sneaking Mission from Metal Gear Online or, if you're really desperate, the multiplayer in Dark Sector. Trophy and Achievement completionists may be dismayed to learn that the game requires you to win (not play) 1000 online matches if you want the perfect score. Frankly, it seems unlikely that there will even be a thousand people still playing it online in a few months.
So this is a curious package, and one that is maddeningly difficult to cram into a numerical score box. Escape from Butcher Bay is a classic, and it has aged incredibly well, all things considered. It can also still be a frustrating and occasionally clunky experience, but that shouldn't put anyone off. In a perfect world you'd be able to download it from Xbox Live for a fraction of the price of this disc.
Assault on Dark Athena certainly isn't the next-generation sequel it deserved, and compared to the cream of the current shooter crop it's an average effort. In trying to make it consistent with its five-years-old predecessor, Starbreeze has effectively crafted a game that is inescapably and fundamentally outdated. As part of this larger package, however, it's acceptable enough even if feels more like a bonus feature than headline event. The multiplayer feels as though it was included through obligation rather than inspiration, and contributes little of value.
It all adds up to just enough to be a recommended purchase, but one that comes with more caveats than fans will be comfortable with.
7 / 10