The Game: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
Developer: Tigon Studios/Starbreeze
Publisher: Vivendi Universal/Atari
System: XBox, XBox 360/PS3 (As Assault on Dark Athena), PC
Buy It On Amazon: RIGHT HERE
The Premise: Set before the events of Pitch Black, Riddick is taken by bounty hunter Johns to the Butcher Bay supermax prison, and spends his every waking minute figuring a way to to either escape, or kill everyone trying.
Is It Any Good?: I will go to my grave firm in the opinion that this should’ve been the movie, Chronicles of Riddick should’ve been the game. Though, that means we would’ve been deprived what is hands down the best movie-to-licensed-game translation of the last two gens.
I know Chronicles of Riddick has its fans, and God bless every single one of you for existing but once the Necromongers show up, my interest goes down far enough for Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to plant a nuke. Riddick masquerading in what is essentially a foul-mouthed version of Frank Herbert’s Dune does not suit this character whatsoever. The only part that truly rises to the occasion is the sequence on Crematoria, with Riddick taken in by Toombs to a subterranean shithole prison on a planet that reaches several hundred degrees when the sun’s out. Riddick works in Pitch Black because even up to the bitter end, there’s the ongoing chance that Riddick might still change his mind, and disembowel everyone he crashed with on a whim. The threat he presents and what he’s threatened with suit a guy who’s been held prisoner for what may very well be his entire post-pubescent life. The fantastical is above his head.
Butcher Bay, however, keeps the character down to Earth, so to speak. Butcher Bay is that one awesome sequence from Chronicles of Riddick writ large without the limits of budget, a two hour time constraint, or the MPAA breathing down David Twohy’s neck. Riddick gets taken in by Johns, locked in a super-max prison run by a fancy pants Swiss dude, with Xzibit as his right hand, surrounded on all sides by scumbags and character actors of all shapes and sizes, in an ever-escalating attempt to wheel, deal, and kill his way out. The video gamey and cinematic sides collide nicely by the fact that each escape attempt finds Riddick being thrown into the next level of slam, climaxing with a stint in level three, with only three other prisoners, under cryogenic observation, Demolition Man-style.
It’s the perfect stage for this character. There’s no way in this setup to align Riddick against aliens with another crew, making him the de facto good guy as in films past. So, from beginning to end, he’s a murderer, surrounded by other murderers, and maybe a cool dozen of them among hundreds are actually on his side to varying degrees. The rest of the time, he’s alone and totally outgunned. He’s that guy from Pitch Black again, staring at the dead skeleton of the enemy, looking for the blind spots, just trying to survive what’s essentially a hard-R Escape From Alcatraz. He’s basically the character Kratos wishes he was when he’s not screaming about his latent daddy issues. And that character is being confined in a place that feels alive, lived in, and malignantly hostile like few video game settings are, even with more graphical horsepower to play with. It’s a place that almost seems like it’s actively working *with* his violent nature, not trying to suppress it, which is exactly what you want from a no-fucking-around violent sci-fi video game set in a prison.
The gameplay feeds right into it, getting the player into the mindset of a guy who’s going to have to eviscerate his way to freedom. Without the modern AAA curse of chest-high walls, or any hand-holding, Butcher Bay presents what the old timers used to call “a challenge”. To survive Butcher Bay is to pay close attention to every environment Riddick finds himself in, because you may have to navigate it in the dark later, and before Riddick gets his trademark shine job, even. You can upgrade the amount of damage Riddick takes, but only the current block of life will regenerate, and even when the bar goes across the screen, getting shot will whittle that bar down to a single pathetic nub with one bad move. Guns are effective, but not Riddick’s bread and butter.
Stealth, however, is. And for this gamer’s money, there are few experiences on a console that come close, and I don’t know why. We’ve had games with the right set up, the right fun mechanics, but none that gave you that visceral feel of earning a kill. Arkham Asylum, Crysis, Far Cry all give you the power far too easily. Butcher Bay, your kills are earned, methodical and fucking HARSH. It helps that the game took Riddick’s need for the dark to heart. The lighting effects were highly praised back in 2005, and are still holding up to the test of time, but even now, how the game actually utilizes those fancy lighting effects is still a miracle in good design. Staying out of the light in hostile territory is crucial, and once the eyeshine comes into play, killing the lights becomes your highest priority. Avoiding it when your enemies wield flashlights becomes your greatest heart-pounding fear.
When he gets his badass scythe blades later in the game, and you spend most of your time skulking in total darkness, inches in front of your enemies, before slitting their throat, leaving them in the middle of a corridor for their buddy to find, and snapping said buddy’s neck when he turns back and runs directly into you, the game turns into the amazingly brutal Alien vs Predator sequel we’ve all ever dreamed of, and has yet to be seriously rivaled. It helps due to Riddick being very very human, outside of the shine. His kills require work, and smarts, and a little bit of player evil, and at no point does the game tell you how each encounter needs to be handled. Even the segments that would technically be labeled fetch quests have an urgency and believability behind them. Aside from the relatively frequent load times, the video game-ness of it all fades in. You simply inhabit this character, and with Diesel’s own gravel pit bass streaming out of the speakers when needed, it doesn’t take long to get sucked in.
But again, it’s so easy because this is the right kind of story to tell with this character. The extraterrestrial is kept to a minimum, except for two blessedly brief yet tense sections, and I frankly LOVE that Riddick’s eyeshine just sorta happens, just because, and may David Twohy never, ever, get a bug up his ass to explain it further on film (though I do love the implication that Riddick lied his ass off about how he got it in Pitch Black, and Jack calls him on it in Chronicles). While the future setting is all well and good, Riddick’s brand of antisocial psychopath is at its best when surrounded by worse psychopaths he can bounce his personality and murderous skillset off of and never has to tell how long since he smelled beautiful. Butcher Bay‘s the best kind of spin-off, the kind that expands what we know about the universe and characters it’s based on, not apes what we’ve seen before, and it virtually stands alone in terms of being a video game that works this well in both mediums. The difficulty is well worth the effort to see Riddick at his brutal best.
Bonus Points: For the folks who will end up buying Dark Athena who never played the game in its original incarnation, you’re only missing two things, really: The original game had a framing device tying it to the ice planet we find Riddick on at the start of Chronicles the film, and the PC version had developer commentary, and was in fact the first game to ever have the feature.
You might’ve noticed I ignored the Dark Athena campaign. You should do the same.
Tigon Studios was started by Vin Diesel specifically for this game, and apparently exists only TO MAKE VIN DIESEL GAMES. So far, only other title to bear their marker is Wheelman, which would’ve actually been pretty fun, if it had been able to get its shit together when you’re not in a car. There’s also supposedly a mafia game in the works, a Hannibal game (elephants Hannibal, not cannibal Hannibal) based on that movie that I’m pretty sure Diesel’s been dreaming about making since Saving Private Ryan, and some sort of RPG based around Diesel’s ongoing D&D character, which is just SO endearingly nerdy.
If you go right from the first hallway after you disguise yourself as a guard, there’s a group of apartments apparently belonging to the band Tool, including one for producer David Bottrill. What DOESN’T Maynard do on his downtime?
Listen to Pope Joe’s evangelist radio program long enough, there’s a bunch of stuff hailing the coming of the Necromongers, for those who needed to canon this to Chronicles that bad.
Speaking of which, those of you who beat Saints Row IV? “It’s a classic.” It’s really, really not, but I lol’d anyway.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Metro 2033, Hitman: Absolution, Crysis 2