The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Whatever preconceptions you may have of cold-blooded killers, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Richard B. Riddick. Having just escaped the clutches of the eponymous Butcher Bay, our burly baritone-voiced fugitive finds himself holed up in yet another hellhole far into the depths of space. “I haven’t escaped,” snarls Riddick, “just traded one hell for another.” Of course, we needn’t remind ourselves of how much a delightful diversion 2004’s Escape from Butcher Bay was from the typical first-person title. Going against the grain of a ‘normal’ movie-game tie-in, Starbreeze Studios’ impressive genre-hybrid was a clear result of the developer’s passion for the source material, crafting an ambitious title that wowed both gamers and critics alike upon release.
By way of its story, Assault on Dark Athena follows a similar structure to that of its predecessor, lumping the one-man army aboard the titular vessel Dark Athena after unexpectedly finding his escape pod hauled into the ship’s bowels. The Dark Athena, it turns out, is little more than an intergalactic slave ship, capturing unsuspecting folk from across the galaxy and turning them into zombie-like drones under the order of the terrifically-acted femme-fatale, Captain Revas. Unkeen on the idea of being incarcerated once again, Riddick sets about his departure, tearing apart the ship piece by piece along the way.
It’s all just a big excuse to sneak around the shadows and kill people, of course, but pulled off in spectacular fashion. Crux to Butcher Bay’s acclaim was Starbreeze’s glorious realisation of the intimidating max-security prison, and similarly, there are few game worlds that convey the sense of atmosphere captured by the Dark Athena. BioShock’s Rapture and Dead Space’s Ishimura perhaps, but here the mood is turned on its head: that you are the intrepid hunter, rather than the hunted.
See, Riddick has a trick up his sleeve in the form of his trademark EyeShine, an optical augmentation that allows him to see in the dark. And given the Dark Athena crew’s aversion to turning on the lights, it gives the expressionless killer a considerable advantage when it comes to dealing out death. Of course, Starbreeze’s excellent execution of Riddick’s first-person stealth and gruesomely visceral melee combat has always been the series’ forte, and that certainly hasn’t changed for Dark Athena. Indeed, the satisfaction earned from clearing a room with nothing but your wits and a pair of razor-sharp ulaks is up there with the best gaming has to offer. Put simply: when Dark Athena is good, it’s nothing short of spellbinding.
It’s surprising, then, that Starbreeze seem eager to move away from its most prized assets at the earliest opportunity. The patient approach to combat quickly gives way to mindless gunplay as bullets become rife and enemy numbers amplified, something which wouldn’t have been so much of a complaint had the NPC AI not been so inconsistent, nor the shooting so poor. The environment, as well, lends itself perfectly to exploration – something that Butcher Bay took advantage of by way of side-missions – but which Starbreeze never seem prepared to make use of in Dark Athena, instead forcing the player down a one-track path governed by locked doors and impassable areas. It’s all a bit puzzling, really. Chucking the best bits of your original in favour of focussing on the game’s poorer elements seems a fairly backward way to go about designing any follow-up, let alone one whose weakest point — the shooting — struggles to keep up with even the most mediocre titles in the genre.
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