The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
We couldn't resist using this week's PAL release as an excuse to play one of the games of the year again...
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Being greeted with The Chronicles Of Riddick for the first time back at a Vivendi press event in April created the kind of exasperation rarely seen in a sequel/me-too obsessed business where excitement can be in short supply. "Where the hell did this come from?" we all muttered as the best looking Xbox game ever played out in front of our disbelieving eyes. And then to find out the game was practically finished and being released in the US in just a few weeks time - we almost fell off our chairs. How on earth had such a top notch title just fallen from the skies like this? Did Vivendi not realise how obviously superb this was? In an era of bloated five/six-year development projects, to be told this game had been put together quietly in around two years seemed unfathomable. It put things in perspective, that's for sure.
Oddly enough, the very same week we'd reviewed a fairly mediocre game by another team at Riddick developer Starbreeze - Knights Of The Temple - and little could have prepared us for the Swedish firm's latest project. Apparently the vow of silence surrounding the game, and lack of awareness, was more down to the terms of licensing the movie than anything, and presumably the movie suits decided that advance publicity for the game wasn't fitting in with their plans. Whatever the real reason, it's great for us hacks to have actually been handed a fully formed game without feeling like the usual drip feed of information has spoiled the surprise in any way.
Pain and I have been friends for a long time
Naturally, we had a look at the US version of the game as soon as we could, and our impressions were of a highly impressive game. To tie in with the game's European release this week, we thought we'd offer a second opinion, this time of the PAL edition - if only to give us another excuse to play a game that is easily among the best the Xbox has to offer this year, if not ever.
The overall package simply reeks of quality. There's barely anything more than minor quibbles to detract from what is a relentlessly absorbing, engrossing, richly atmospheric and almost effortlessly entertaining sci-fi adventure shooter. Its variety is well judged and uncontrived, the storyline and voice acting out of the top drawer, the challenge is perfectly pitched, and graphically it is the best console game conceived to date.
As you'll have read countless times, the game isn't strictly based on The Chronicles Of Riddick movie, but as a prequel to Pitch Black. Apparently the movie, out August 27th over here, isn't up to much, but don't let that put you off. And even if Vin Diesel's Marlboro man laconic cool doesn't float your boat either, again it matters little to your chances of enjoying the game. The game, in fact, has performed so well in the US that it's eclipsed the actual movie, which must be something of a first.
Hand in glove
The reason the game succeeds is almost because Starbreeze has had the freedom to make the game work as a game first and foremost, without pulling the usual trick of simply shoehorning the main events of the movie into a game. By building the game and its story from the ground up, everything feels a whole lot more natural, and allows events to develop at their own pace, as opposed to the "and now the driving bit, and now the falling from the sky bit," of every other formulaic movie-based game.
As a game it's quite a tough one to pigeonhole. It feels like a wonderful realisation of adventure, first-person shooter and stealth, but with no specific emphasis on one element. To begin with it has a similar feel to old school point-and-click adventures, where simply talking to everyone in the vicinity grants a sense of purpose - which in itself leads to fetch quests, first-person fighting, and eventually daring stealth endeavours and the occasional need to resort to intense shoot outs.
The brilliance of the pacing within Riddick is simply that you never get bored of whatever it is you're involved in doing. The problem with most games is even the best get boring after a while if all you have to do is the same thing over and over. When you get the chance to shoot in Riddick, there's a rush, an excitement - you look forward to it. And when it's over, and it's back to a more narrative-driven section, then that feels good too, because it adds character to what could otherwise be a straight up game of escape against faceless drones. Likewise the stealth, should you wish to use avoidance tactics (because it's not always compulsory), also adds a palpable sense of tension as you creep past a slew of armed sentries, breaking their necks or leaping on them from above and dragging their limp torsos into the dark.
Anything but Normal
Where most games get bogged down in repeating the same mechanic over and over, Riddick feels as good as any of them, but bundles it up into a superbly well conceived package. On top of that you've got this immensely impressive layer of technical polish, which - through being first out of the blocks - actually managed (upon its US release at any rate) to trump the likes of Doom III with its ostensibly similar Normal Mapping techniques, which lend the game an instant 'next-gen' look. Evidently the power of the Xbox can never hope to compete with powerful PC rigs, but no one can fail to be impressed with what Starbreeze has squeezed out of the Microsoft machine, with fantastic lighting effects, extremely lifelike animation, immensely detailed and realistic character models and gorgeously detailed environments. Sure, the jaggies show through quite noticeably on occasion, but for the most part it's the kind of game even the most demanding graphics snob will be nodding their approval at. We await the inevitable PC version with great interest, although we have serious doubts about the PS2's ability to pull off a decent conversion - especially when you factor in memory hogging features like the amount of texturing and persistent state, which leaves your handiwork of downed guards right where they are - unlike many games we could mention.
The audio also deserves serious applause for being unobtrusively atmospheric, with a quality voiceover cast, including Mr Parody-of-himself Vin Diesel, who puts in a performance of calm menace befitting of the universe's most wanted criminal. The only time we raised an eyebrow was when the Gregson-Williams/MGS inspiration got to lawsuit levels of plagiarism during the stealth sequences. Honestly guys, did you think you could get away with that?
In terms of niggles, like we said, you'd have to work hard to think of any serious ones. The crouch toggle did annoy us on occasion, with fist fights interrupted by our inevitably clicking down on the left thumb stick in the heat of battle, and maybe the game is a little too forgiving at times, with very regular checkpoints and battles which are easily negotiated for the most part. But to counter that, you're likely to find Riddick a less frustrating and more enjoyable experience that you'll want to see right through to the end, rather than one that forces you to dump your joystick on the floor in a huff and never return to it the way it can happen with other titles. Some have mysteriously marked Riddick down for only being a 10/12 hour game, and having no multiplayer. To be fair, you could just as easily level both at Ico, and we don't recall too many people criticising that for making every enjoyable minute count.
The subject of Riddickule
Unless you have some kind of pathological aversion to Vin Diesel or enjoying yourself, there's a moral obligation to at least try out The Chronicles Of Riddick. For a licensed game to end up being one of the best released all year is something to celebrate, and other publishers should take note - there really is no excuse for licensed rubbish any more. Riddick deserves to mark the pivotal moment when movie games changed forever.