You don't often hear fairytales in the world of games development, but the story of the making of the original Chronicles of Riddick game, Escape from Butcher Bay, comes close. Little-known developer stumbles across edgy, independent film licence Pitch Black; secures rights for itself direct with star's production company; starts making excellent, off-the-wall Xbox stealth game before it even hears about a big-budget movie sequel; not-that-arguably does the character much better justice than the movie studio; is showered in plaudits, fan-love and game sales.
Four years on and Sweden's Starbreeze has another fairytale to tell, only this time, instead of spinning a yarn of rags-to-riches, it's turning the tables on misfortune. Starbreeze's next-gen remake-and-a-half of Riddick was discarded by Activision when it bought publisher Sierra's parent company, Vivendi Games. Disaster became triumph when the game was picked up by Atari, granting the developer a luxurious extra six months to extend and polish a game it had practically finished, and a release date long removed from the ruthless Christmas hullaballoo.
It's every developer's dream, a story echoed (along with most of the first fairytale, as it happens) by new stablemates Terminal Reality, makers of Ghostbusters. So it was an unusually relaxed and confident Starbreeze that showed us a "pretty much done" Assault on Dark Athena at last week's Atari Live showcase.
They were confident with reason. Graphically at least, Assault on Dark Athena is a standout; lacking the effects clout of a Dead Space, perhaps, but as moody and defined and muscular on this generation as the original Riddick was on the last. It's a world of faces and shadow, fluid animation and sudden bursts of violence, and despite its generic viewpoint and setting, it still somehow manages to look different to the competition. Starbreeze is obviously more at home on this generation than it was when it made The Darkness - and, perhaps, more at home with the subject matter too.
The original plan to just extend Butcher Bay in a Developer's Cut has now flowered into another whole full-length campaign - the titular Assault - making this game a remake and a sequel in one. The events immediately follow those of Butcher Bay, so the first game will flow directly into the second. Vin Diesel naturally returns to voice his character, and Lance Henriksen and Battlestar Galactica's Michelle Forbes join the cast.
Riddick finds himself aboard Dark Athena, a mercenary ship that captures and strips smaller ships for profit. Starbreeze isn't talking plot details, but it goes without saying that the murderous catlike fugitive proceeds to take the pirate operation apart, doing a lot of sneaking, killing, punching, and chewing on terse lines of gravel-voiced and gritty dialogue. His motivations are the usual mixture of self-interest and reluctant philanthropy; a Newt-like girl-child stowed away on Dark Athena plays the foil to the killer's softer side (and serves up exposition and gameplay hints).
Starbreeze is sticking to the original's mixture of stealth, melee combat and gunplay. Butcher Bay's brilliant inversion of the usual stealth dynamics - making the player feel supernaturally powerful, rather than pained and cautious, when hidden - doesn't need any reinventing. The marginally clumsy fisticuffs do, however, and here we're promised a good coat of polish, with the addition of some deadly new fist weapons - we're shown a set of evil-looking bladed knuckle-dusters. Any mechanical changes and improvements are being retro-fitted to the remake of Butcher Bay, too.
The less linear, mission-hub structure of Butcher Bay's prison yard section will also return for at least some of the new campaign. (We're guessing the "Bazaar" level mentioned on the menu screen has something to do with this). The other location titles we see - Cargo Bay, Main Docks, Refinery - don't do much to suggest that Assault on Dark Athena will deviate from the uniformly grimy industrial sci-fi on display. But after Butcher Bay, we'd be fools to think Starbreeze wasn't capable of a sudden, dramatic, stylistic mood-swing or two.
In terms of new combat mechanics, the major introduction is Drones. These creepy, semi-human automatons either operate on their own AI, or are remote-controlled by Riddick's mercenary opponents. But they're also easy to turn to your advantage. After killing one, you can pick it up and use it as a human shield while wielding its gun arm, fooling the system into thinking one of its own is shooting up the shop - a sort of simultaneous stealth and run-and-gun tactic. At later stages you'll even be able to assume remote control of drones, and use them as disposable cannon-fodder.
Starbreeze says it's putting "a lot of effort" into a very fully-realised multiplayer game to go alongside the twin campaign, but it's not prepared to discuss specifics yet. That, frankly, is a second level of luxury; more new single-player Riddick, and better old single-player Riddick, is what the fans want, and it's what they're getting. With further movies in development hell and Starbreeze in its relative development heaven, the Swedes find themselves the sole custodians of this sci-fi cult for now. It's in safe hands.