Vin Diesel is not Batman. He is not the darkness, he is not the night, he is not the thing that every man fears deep in his soul. But Diesel’s sci-fi likeness, violent anti-hero Riddick, is a monstrous stalker of the shadows, much like the Dark Knight. While Batman falls on the side of good, Riddick uses his fearsome stealth abilities (not to mention his gift with blades) towards bloodier and more selfish ends.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and its sequel, Assault on Dark Athena, are first person stealth-shooters set in a dark sci-fi universe featured in the Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick films. Set before the events of the films, Escape from Butcher Bay (first released on the Xbox in 2004) finds cunning killer Riddick caught by the bounty hunter Johns and transferred to the prison, Butcher Bay. Its sequel, released last year on the PC, sees Riddick escape from prison only to be captured by mercenaries and their slave ship, the Dark Athena.
Inspired by the likes of Escape from Alcatraz, Butcher Bay was a hit in 2004. A few years and some lengthy studio/publisher drama later, Assault on Dark Athena was released. Dark Athena is both a sequel and a remake. Virtual Programming has released both these games in one $50 package for the Mac.
Both games feature Vin Diesel’s likeness and his voice. While his range as an actor is debatable, his deep and hollow voice has always lent itself to badass, hard-nosed characters. But Vin Diesel is not the only talent actor lending his voice to the games: Michelle Forbes, Ron Perlman, and Lance Heriksen also have major roles. Games rarely make good use of talented actors, but even if the writing is about as subtle as a head butt, the two Chronicles of Riddick games use their talent well.
The games follow wanted criminal and seminal anti-hero Riddick as he stabs and punches his way out of a violent high-tech prison and then later as he escapes a mercenary ship full of other undesirables. There are side characters that Riddick will encounter, but as acutely points out, “Most of the people I try to help, end up dead.” So don’t get attached.
The gameplay is a combination of stealth and shooting not seen since Thief and Starbreeze Studios deserves credit for such ambition—the games are on the whole more enjoyable than the actual Chronicles of Riddick movie. In addition to your standard first person shooter gameplay, you’ll be able to engage in hand to hand combat with a variety of melee weapons and also activate a stealth mode that will let Riddick sneak up close to his foes and initiate a series of bloody (and usually quiet) takedowns.
Shadows play an important element in the game, allowing Riddick to sneak up on his enemies or avoid them entirely. While some segments of the game can only be handled by brute force, the stealth elements provide variety and uniqueness to a sci-fi world that is frankly uninspired. By far, the most enjoyable element of the game is maneuvering Riddick onto catwalks (where it switches to third person) and then dropping down behind unsuspecting foes and creatively eviscerating them before they raise the alarm. It never gets old.
That said, while the game employs melee, stealth, and gun combat, all three areas are lacking compared to other games. First person melee combat is always wonky, and Riddick’s simple block + attack is constraining and poorly realized. Similarly, the shooting mechanic is basic (you can aim, strafe, etc) but the cover-shooting addition is glitchy and the overall cookie-cutter feel of the guns makes the areas where you have to resort to gunplay the most boring parts of either game. The cover system recognizes (some of the time) when Riddick is near a box or other piece of cover and you’ll see Riddick move the around on the screen to shoot around the obstacle. It’s a fine idea but is done better in other games and it often doesn’t work.
Finally, the enemy AI completely ruins the stealth aspect of the game at times. Riddick can only be seen when in the light, but there are sections (in Dark Athena especially) where you’ll enter a room and the enemies will know where you are regardless of whether or not you’ve made a sound or are in the light. If you ever shoot a guard, even from the shadows, they’ll immediately know where you are even if they don’t have line of sight. And finally, while the enemies in Butcher Bay are human and show human emotions, the villains in Dark Athena are mostly Borg-like drones that show no fear—dispatching them lacks any kind of emotional impact. In Dark Athena, instead of creating an atmosphere where you are feared, the developers went with a cliché enemy and removed much of what made the first game so enjoyable.
Butcher Bay is simply a better-realized game but you should first play through the Butcher Bay campaign before deciding if you should even bother with Dark Athena. Butcher Bay has more variety in its environments, a better plot, less sync issues with the dialogue, and better balances the stealth/melee/gun formula. Dark Athena is a series of long poorly lit sci-fi hallways infested with faceless enemies and a cast of forgettable and disposal characters. Butcher Bay at least has some other psychos running around with you in the poorly lit hallways.
On my 2.8GHZ Intel Core i7 iMac, both games ran well with no frame rate issues. The graphics are on par with something made three to five years ago, but they’re by no means terrible. The other game element that players should pay attention to when purchasing the game is its rating. It’s a mature game and does not pull any punches with its depiction of graphic violence and adult language. Actually, I’ve yet to play a game that drops more f-bombs—so there’s that.
Macworld’s buying advice
I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to get a screwdriver in a game than in Escape from Butcher Bay. In Riddick’s hands, even a simple screwdriver is a lethal weapon that you can use in melee attacks or bloody stealth kills. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the somewhat linear Butcher Bay as you navigate the various gangs, guards, and tunnels of the complex prison. You never achieve that moment where everyone starts panicking because they can’t find you and know you’re stalking them, but I still really enjoyed picking off the foul-mouthed boisterous guards one by one, even if I wanted them to fear me more. The Chronicles of Riddick games aren’t high art and they don’t break new ground, but they do have more refinement than your typical prison shiv. Being bad can be oh so much fun.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]