We've not had much out of Starbreeze Studios since the release of The Darkness back in June 2007, and that's a real shame. The Darkness may well have had its issues (like Jackie's complete inability to get around with anything other than a leaden shuffle) but it was a superb shooter, with plenty of original touches, a good storyline and one of the most astonishing game engines seen in that time period. It was the first Xbox 360 game I played that didn't look like an Xbox 360 game. It looked better, a generation beyond. In terms of lighting, post-processing effects, characters, motion blur... nothing could touch it, and even now in a market saturated with Unreal Engine 3 shooters, it has a look that is all its own.
The PlayStation 3 code on the other hand wasn't quite as decent. The same gameplay, the same geometry, but just about everything else was tangibly cut-down compared to the original. The first casualty was the resolution - down from native 720p to a teeth-clenchingly unimpressive 960x540. Anti-aliasing? Gone. Lighting effects? Pared down. Textures? Lower resolution, in many places. In short, an unimpressive port, but at least the coolness of the game remained intact and it remained an enjoyable adventure.
So here we are getting on for two years later with Starbreeze's latest effort: a retooling of its 2004 technology-defying Xbox release, The Chronicles of Riddick. The Darkness engine is back in full effect, powering an HD version of the original Escape From Butcher Bay, along with a brand new single-player campaign, Assault on Dark Athena. Online multiplayer modes are also bundled into the package.
First impressions confirm that The Darkness engine is still hugely impressive, even if it hasn't moved on that much since its HD debut back in 2007. But it was a piece of code ahead of its time, just like original Xbox version. Back in 2004, Riddick ran with a dynamic framebuffer, switching resolutions during gameplay to sustain frame-rate - four years on, WipEout HD does exactly the same to maintain its illusion of a full HD 1080p60 refresh rate.
What is clear, however, is that the 2004 vintage gameplay is Riddick's most limiting factor and that remains the case whether you're playing this game on PC, 360 or PS3. The fetch-quests, the sometimes-laborious and inconsistent platforming elements - it's here where even the best technology in the world can't cover up what feels like antique gameplay. Also irritating is the paring-down of adventure elements in Dark Athena, making it arguably inferior than its five-year-old sibling.
So what about the conversion then? Here's a video, and be sure to check out the triple-format screenshot comparison gallery.
The good news is that Starbreeze has clearly made great efforts to improve its PlayStation 3 engine since The Darkness two years ago. The pretty savage cutbacks seen in its last game have given way to a new set of compromises that are nowhere near as impactful to the image quality, and bring performance much closer to the platform parity games publishers are increasingly demanding.