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.