It's difficult to come to grips with a release like The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, because it's made up of several disparate components of varying quality. The shining star here is the slick retooling of 2004's Escape from Butcher Bay, the illustrious Xbox action game that helped shatter expectations of what a film-based game could offer. Butcher Bay holds up beautifully, exquisitely building tension before settling into a satisfying, smoldering pace. The other single-player component offered is Dark Athena, Butcher Bay's sequel. It is a serviceable follow-up, but it's positively limp when compared to its superb predecessor, monotonously falling into a rut of predictability that the original always avoided. The final piece of this inconsistent puzzle is an interesting but uneven suite of multiplayer modes that is mild fun in spurts but too awkward to stand out. One part unforgettable and two parts merely adequate, Assault on Dark Athena is a must-play for those who missed the original and a tolerable diversion for everyone else.
When Riddick asks if you want to arm wrestle, say no.
Escape from Butcher Bay has been freshened up a bit and looks surprisingly spiffy on a high-definition display. It certainly shows its age in a number of ways: The stiff character models move awkwardly and exhibit scant expression, and low-definition textures betray the graphic engine's last-generation roots. Yet though Butcher Bay's visuals have noticeable wrinkles, the phenomenal lighting and shadowing smooth the crow's feet surprisingly well. Few games this reliant on pure atmosphere can provoke so much awe five years later--yet the dark recesses provide as much uncertain solace now as they ever did. Though you won't mistake the remade journey as a slick modern release, you also won't often be distracted by its graphical deficiencies either, which speaks volumes for both the quality of Butcher Bay and the extra layers of virtual varnish applied.
More impressively, the remade original still stands tall, partially because few games have tried to duplicate its blueprint, but also because its numerous gameplay elements are balanced so well. As gruff criminal Richard B. Riddick, your main goal is to break out of Butcher Bay, the intergalactic equivalent of Alcatraz: a menacing, unforgiving, and nearly inescapable prison. Riddick understands that such an escape requires a quiet command of multiple talents, and correspondingly, you'll use a number of different gameplay devices to guide him out. You'll start with just your fists, but eventually you'll be wielding sharp-edged melee weapons and clubs, not to mention an arsenal of assault rifles, shotguns, and other ranged powerhouses. However, whenever possible, Riddick prefers to keep to the shadows, sneaking up on his prey and delivering each foe to his maker, one gruesome stealth kill at a time.
Remarkably, each of these elements is solid on its own, yet Butcher Bay merges them so harmoniously that the game surpasses genre conventions, so much so that even now there are very few games that compare. As you progress through the game, the prison takes on a life of its own. Your fellow captives have stories to tell and missions to give, and fantastic voice acting brings each of them to life. Even the obscene graffiti scrawled on the walls and scratched on signs speak to their desolation and desperation. Whether you're conversing with inmates, sneaking in the shadows, plunging a shiv through a blueskin's neck, or stunning a foe with the tranquilizer gun before introducing him to your heel, there's always an unnerving sense of general agitation. That tension builds steadily throughout the experience, thanks to brilliant pacing that keeps even the quiet moments from feeling comfortable.
Captain Revas: Hunter, or hunted?
Assault on Dark Athena is the new story-driven content here, and it takes place after the events of Butcher Bay. It retains some of its predecessor's strengths, and even improves on a few of them. Visually, the sequel compares favorably to any current action game while still incorporating the fantastic lighting and shadows for which the original was known. The new character models are authentically expressive, and their bodies and faces animate fluidly. As Riddick, Vin Diesel's raspy bass provides a sturdy sonic foundation, and that gravitas spreads through the entire voice cast. Each performance is memorable, from ship captain Revas to a lecherous, grossly obscene prisoner, so though the plot itself isn't all that intriguing, the superb acting goes a long way toward keeping you involved. You may not hear better voice acting all year: It's that good.