When Escape from Butcher Bay hit Xboxes it was immediately labeled a must-play, a sleeper-hit and Vin Diesel-iscious. Five years later it steps out of the darkness, recast in high-def, spruced up with a second campaign, and bolstered by multiplayer. Can Riddick still represent as he assaults Dark Athena?
There are two distinct scenarios, the original Butcher Bay is Riddick's story of multiple escape attempts from one of the most notorious jail slams in the galaxy. As he works his way up to triple maximum security, he makes the acquaintance of guards and inmates, with agendas of their own. With the large cast and great voice work, the prison environment really works, even if it's a far out sci-fi one.
Dark Athena continues the story, with Riddick upgraded from prisoner to stowaway aboard a mutinous vessel of mercenaries. There are far less characters on the Athena, and the interesting ones, like a little girl named Lyne, are underused. Both campaigns have great antagonists, always on the ready to keep a good Riddick down through any means necessary. Athena also likes to crib and remix some of the elements from Butcher Bay, though it does add something unique, such as human drones and an interesting take on shore leave.
Story isn't the only place where Athena stands in the opaque shadow of Butcher Bay. The prison world creates an adventure told in the first-person, with unique takes on weapon restrictions, stealth, and even platforming. It also crams in light RPG elements like inventories, upgrades, and side quests, with enough twists and gameplay singularities to keep things interesting and rewarding. It's a secret sauce of genres, viewpoints and violence, worthy of the kudos garnered.
A half-decade later and it still holds up. It may not be as miraculous or as good-looking, but it's still a solid effort. Dark Athena comes across more like a straight-to-video release. Elements are recycled, and the big side effects and little details are cut back. There's no doubt that Athena is still a compelling six-hour play, but the years have not brought many improvements with them. The narrative structure leads to more repeated areas, a more linear approach, and less side-quests.
The guns you couldn't pick up in Butcher Bay are now fused to the drones sent to destroy you, basically turning them into turrets to be used after being dispatched. Later you acquire a full arsenal just to lose it--just like the Bay. It's a different take on the weapon issue, but ultimately, a lesser one.
Likewise, the ship's own brig acts as the hub, just like Butcher Bay's cell blocks. Riddick's eyeshine ability, effectively night vision, is available from the get-go in Athena, so the rampant darkness is never as menacing. Athena lives up to the assault in its title, with its slight tilt towards combat. Some cool gameplay change-ups are repeated, thus less effective, though there are some novelties.
Multiplayer, absent from the original, allows you access to 15 maps, with more coming via DLC. There's nothing particular wrong with it, but nothing engrossing, either. Beside standard deathmatch, there are some more inventive modes like pitch black, where one player is Riddick, who can see in the dark, and everyone else is limited to their flashlights. It's fun to mess around with, but the controls don't really lend themselves to the frenetic action.
There's nothing particularly wrong with Athena's design, other than its association with a much tighter title. If you missed out on Butcher Bay before, the package is a tremendous value, but you may want some downtime before boarding Athena.
Richard B. Riddick has an amalgam of moves. Scurrying in the shadows for a stealth neck snap, or peeking out from cover to land a headshot, he is a vessel of death. And the enemies are more than happy to oblige his bloodlust. The mutants and drones are mindless and their supposedly more intelligent counterparts aren't much better. Enemies populate rooms as props, not as adversaries, with a few canned routines, and pinpoint aim to enforce challenge. The melee thugs will just zero in on you, and while the up-close exchange of fists is exhilarating, the float-like-a-bee department desperately needs attention.
Fortunately, even with A.I. oddities, escaping and assaulting is a lot of fun, with melee combat that encourages experimentation and patience, if just to see the grisly results. Likewise, stacked boxes and dark corners help make sure each area doesn't become a combat puzzle with a single sneak-through solution. There's a lot of ways to progress, and even an all-out assault, if well-planned, can leave Riddick the victor.
Linear progression with nonlinear approaches is one of the tenants that make the chronicles such a compelling play. The variety of objectives is always being switched up, with light puzzles and exploration evening out the combat and climbing. This goes for both scenarios.
Riddick was a graphical wonder back in the day, bringing normal mapping and other niceties to the technical table. The upgrade holds its own in today's HD world, though there's some visits to the uncanny valley in the cutscenes. Sound and voice work is top notch, with Vin Diesel's vocal chords ringing with axioms equal part bravado and machismo. The game does get dark quite often, so a lot of textures are hidden, but from the pale blue hues when you're hiding, to turning on Riddick's eyeshine and staring at blinding lights, there are bits of beauty strewn about the savagery.
The Escape may handily trump the Assault, but neophyte Riddicks have a unique experience to work through. Though vets who return may begrudge Athena, it's doubtful they won't finish. It's an abridged effort, and more of a dreaded point-five than a true sequel, but with both missions it still reigns as the best first-person, melee, stealth, parkour game featuring Vin Diesel.