The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay

Read about the biggest surprise to hit gaming this year.

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It says a lot: sitting with a bunch of journalists that work in the video industry last night, not one of them even knew about The Chronicles Of Riddick, much less that it's the follow-up to Pitch Black, or that it starred Vin Diesel. Given the movie industry's crippling lack of awareness over here, what are the chances of its videogame spin-off having any luck? Suffice to say that too few journalists and magazines are getting excited about the game, and some of them are going to be feeling pretty foolish when the game comes out of nowhere and makes people's eyes pop out of their heads.

Sitting down at the pre-E3 VU Games presentation to see it for the first time, we'd heard it was going to be good. We even ran a largely ignored interview back in March about it, full of all sorts of improbable-sounding boasts that kind of washed over even us at the time. We have to work hard to filter out all the bullshit, you understand, so we tend to hear a lot of good things about every game pre-release. You learn to take it with a pinch of salt, cross your fingers and wait until the playable code arrives, then make a critical call. But sat down for half an hour in front of The Chronicles Of Riddick we knew we'd seen one of the games of the year. It really is as simple as that.

Built up over the past two years by Enclave developer Starbreeze, this is no ordinary film-licensed cop out. If the game plays as well as it looks - as those who've been lucky enough to play it through are claiming - then there's a strong chance that it could become the benchmark that other licensed properties are measured against. Do we sound excited? Good. We are.

Saying no to me is not the kind of mistake you wanna make

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"We thought [Riddick] was perfect to turn into a character in a videogame," a representative from publisher Vivendi-Universal Games tells us. "Riddick really makes no excuses for who he is - he is a convicted murderer. In the movie Pitch Black he's being taken back to prison, and we thought that's great place to start from a videogame standpoint. One of the things that we wanted to do was deliver part of that experience."

Essentially the game acts not as a rough translation of the movie, but as a prequel to Pitch Black itself, giving movie watchers a chance to find out the whole back story to the 'universe' if you will, and give us an insight into how the mass-murdering villain Richard Riddick gained his special 'eye shine' ability (allowing him to see in the dark), and exactly why he's in 'the most badass prison in the galaxy'.

Riddick himself Mr Vin Diesel is apparently something of a gamer and approached his input here the same way as he would a movie. "Vin did all the voices in three separate recording sessions, the bulk of which were 16 hours long. He approached this as if he was doing the voiceover for a film where he got the script and would sit down with the writers," we were told. And to see his digital representation in the game, clearly he's had a hand in making sure his likeness is as good as it could possibly be. Without exaggeration, the character models in the game are as lifelike as any console game has ever managed, and a massive tribute to the talent at work within.

Riddick me this

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The environment, too, has to be seen to be believed, making use of the sort of tech that leaves you wondering how VU kept it quiet all this time. "The prison environment was more than just a gamey atmosphere. It felt real and tangible for the player. One of the things that helped design was the use of Normal Mapping" - a process that "allows the Riddick engine to render, light, and shadow a flat textured surface as if it were complex 3D geometry," also used in Half-Life 2.

"We felt like that was one of those things that could set us apart: a movie licensed property wasn't an excuse not to push the envelope in terms of technology." Too right, and that's not just marketing fluff either. In practice some of the effects, in terms of the moody lighting, particle effects, texturing and bump mapping, and the way it's all been sewn together, add up to possibly the best looking game on the Xbox.

So how does Normal Mapping work then? Said the rep: "The texture is first built as a 3D object in a modelling program, and a series of maps and shaders allow the engine to render and light the texture and give the appearance that it has the same complex geometry that it was constructed with, even though now, it is actually a flat surface. The game's use of Normal Mapping means that all of the characters in the game feature a stunning level of detail. Everything from unique lighting-based on the surface texture of their clothing, to very realistic muscularity." So there you go. The per-pixel lighting is pretty spiffy, too.

Going toe to toe

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But it's not all about the eye candy - although it is alluring. The imaginatively varied gameplay is one of the game's most exciting prospects. On a basic level it's a first-person shooter, but it's also heavy on the adventure elements, along with an intriguing need for stealth and even first-person fighting for good measure.

Given that Riddick's stuck in the galaxy's most secure prison, this isn't a game that just drops you in with an instant arsenal. You have to work hard to earn your firepower. "[For the] first-person punching, we wanted to bring the Riddick take on it, which is kind of in your face - every punch has a feel like it was you can feel the impact not only as you hit someone else, but with you being hit."

Luckily you soon build up your hand-to-hand abilities "We also give the players a series of weapons, everything from shanks, shivs, scratch knuckles. You'll see the facial scars, and the impact on the NPCs as you hit them - we felt that was a really important thing that adds to the character element." And he's right, the fisticuffs make you wince with the force of the blows, and once you add the more brutal, underhand moves (neck breaks, combos) and weapons, the gore factor becomes quite painful even to watch.

One size fits all

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The adventure mode is another key factor within Riddick, but Starbreeze had to balance it carefully so as to not alienate core sections of its audience. "One of the pillars we built the game on was this idea of doing interaction in almost an adventure mode. It was important but we wanted to do it on a much smaller scale. The game is an action game - and we wanted the player to have interaction - but we didn't want to make it so that somebody who wasn't a fan of role playing games wouldn't get into it."

And the stealth side of the gameplay was another curious addition not often associated with first-person shooters. "When we started to build the stealth-based gameplay in addition to the first-person shooting, it was worth taking those core fundamental gameplay dynamics and building the pace so the players get used to it."

"The game starts off in adventure mode where you're learning the rules and the system, and the fact that you can't use the weapons that you see is sort of the opposite of what you're taught in every first-person shooter you've ever played where you're instantly given access to basic weapons. In Riddick you actually have to think 'how do I get to a place to implement my DNA into the system and pick up the rifles from there?'"

Prisoner of War

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As you progress through each of the deadly prison environment you meet a fair number of NPCs along the way, and the developer felt is was important not to just turn them into item and info dispensers. "Every NPC that you see is allowed to be able to be killed so you won't be seeing NPCs that you can't have some sort of deadly interaction with," we're told. "Gore and violence weren't something that we shied away from." Yes, we noticed that.

Even the unlockables are somewhat against the grain for a videogame. Instead of collecting various pointless artefacts, Riddick has you on the hunt for that most ancient of chokey currency: ciggies: "You'll see a pack of smokes on the table, and you can pick it up - we have various cigarettes hidden throughout the game. It's a long way from [Mario's] stars and shines! Every time you pick up a packet of cigarettes it opens some sort of unlockable, such as footage from the film, stills, concept art from the game design that we did.

Thankfully it goes further than just random pictorial tat - the developer has thrown in all manner of curiosities. "Essentially it's like the buffalo theory of development - if we created something in the course of the development process we wanted the player to be able to see that. So we also included things like our prototype that we did almost a year and a half ago - the player can unlock it a see the video and play it, as well as things like first playable; milestone steps that we do in the course of development that we felt like, as a game player, somebody would want to see the progression of the game and how it came together. It's kind of like doing a director's commentary on a DVD." We wonder if 3D Realms will consider doing the same for Duke Nukem Forever when it finally emerges from its development hell?

In a heartbeat

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Every element of the game appears to have been lavished with the same attention to detail and thought, right down to the health system and GUI. "With health, he [won't be running] over red crosses like you see in other games, so we added an adrenaline shock to the neck. On the screen, we don't have the standard graphic user interface that most players are accustomed to, it's really important; we felt we could put the players not just in Riddick's shoes, but actually in the story. When you're in stealth mode you'll see a blueish tinge and that lets the player know that he cannot be seen - rather than show a light meter on the screen." Other audio/visual clues let the player know what's going on in interesting ways - such as the way Riddick can hear NPCs via their heartbeats with his heightened senses.

Later on in the game, Starbreeze turns up the heat as you work your way into the more dangerous parts of the prison. Xenomorphs attack, and Riddick can even strap on a mech suit and turn the guns on the aggressors that were causing him so much grief earlier. Choice also plays a key role, often offering up a stealthy route and a potentially aggressive one. At one point you're even given the chance to earn cash via a pitfighting contest, and it's this element of branching choice that's a good sign that Starbreeze has thought about how the game will appeal to different types of gamers. All the while, as VU points out, it's an interesting dichotomy between high tech and low tech, with traditional projectile weapons such as shotguns and machine guns mixing it up with the sort of futuristic tech you'd expect to find in the universe's highest security prison.

Oi oi, baldy!

From what we've seen, heard and read about The Chronicles Of Riddick, it's a total mystery why this isn't being flagged up alongside the very best games of the year. The game is already in the bag, and a US release date has been confirmed for June 11th - the same date as the movie's debut. A PAL release has yet to be nailed down, but it's looking set for an August ship. Meanwhile a PS2 version is apparently also in the works, although is unlikely to make an appearance until next year. With review code proving elusive as yet, we've not had a full hands-on, but the minute we get code we'll bring you our full assessment of this immensely promising title.

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