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The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena [PC]

It astonished me how bad Chronicles of Riddick was, considering how good Escape from Butcher Bay was. Butcher Bay was one of those extraordinarily rare occasions in which the game not only surpassed the movie it was related to, but actually turned out to be one of the best games of the year.

Assault on Dark Athena is very much Escape from Butcher Bay 1.5. For the asking price, you get not only a whole new campaign, Assault on Dark Athena, but also its predecessor, made prettier through the advances in technology since 2004. And you know what? It looks good.

Escape from Butcher Bay is, weirdly, the highlight of the package. The five-year old game is incredibly well made, striking a balance between fast-paced action and stealth gameplay. One of the unique aspects was the use of side-missions through hub areas as you progress through the game, in a manner reminiscent of Deus Ex, and this still holds up as a novel mechanic in a linear first-person game even today.

Of course, as it hasn’t been changed, past issues remain. The game is still bound to the memory issues of the original Xbox, meaning that some areas are needlessly broken up into smaller sections. The hub area around the middle of the game is split into three sections, and requires a lot of back-and-forthing, meaning you’re going to be hit with regular loading times. On today’s sentient supercomputers, these loading times aren’t as bad as they used to be, but they remain an annoyance.

But it’s the new stuff you’re interested in. Assault on Dark Athena is the pseudo-sequel that picks up where Escape from Butcher Bay left off. While flying away from the prison planet, Riddick’s escape ship is picked up by the Dark Athena, a huge craft run by a group of rather nasty pirate-mercenary types. Once again, Riddick has to escape.

The characterisations are brilliant. Riddick is perfect, as always, with plenty of excellently delivered macho-man lines, and all of the main and incidental characters have solid dialogue and superb voice acting. From Revas, the cruel and vaguely sado-masochistic captain of the ship, down to imprisoned ex-soldier Dacher, the characters are extremely well-rounded. Even the random enemies have some fantastic lines, and I was still hearing plenty of new material at the end of the adventure. One hilariously threatened to “rip [my] nipples off,” which makes me wonder if someone on the dev team is a Warren Ellis fan.

However, the gameplay doesn’t fare quite so well. Everything is present and correct – you’ve got stealth sections, melee combat bits, and pitched firefights – but they don’t feel quite as organic as in Butcher Bay. Each section seems more broken up and focused on whatever it’s attempting to do; if a section has almost no dark areas then you’re in for a shooting spree.  This was certainly true in Butcher Bay, on occasion, but you were also frequently free to decide if you wanted to sneak around a set of guards or blow them apart, and you’re rarely given this option in Dark Athena.

Gun battles are a mix. Bullets aren’t instant-hit in the Riddick universe, so leading your target is an important skill. As in Butcher Bay, most of the guns you’ll be using are stupendously inaccurate with both the assault rifle and SMG shooting far wide of wherever you aim, but this isn’t a game about sniping your targets from a distance – it’s about getting up close and personal. Slightly more irritating is that the enemies towards the end of Dark Athena will keep coming even after a full clip of ammunition. In some later sections – which are designed as shooting sections, with no real way to use stealth and shadows – it sometimes feels more like luck as to whether you pass a section or not based on how many of your shots go far wide of the mark. Considering that I only spotted one health upgrade in the entirety of Dark Athena, maxing out Riddick’s health at five bars, it’s all too easy to lose most of this in a single battle against seemingly unstoppable enemies.{PAGE TITLE=Assault on Dark Athena [PC] Continued}
So stealth is the way to go when you get the chance, and it’s just as good in Dark Athena as it ever was. Butcher Bay was one of the first hugely mainstream games to get stealth right in a first-person context, having taken a lot of cues from Thief and simplified the system, making it very obvious when you were hidden and when you weren’t, so I’m glad it’s just as impressive here. Riddick still has the ability to perform vicious stealth kills, and these are frequently the best way of dealing with enemies. Sneaking up behind an enemy with a melee weapon and tapping the attack button results in a brutal kill animation that ranges from snapping the neck to breaking their legs with a club and then caving in their skull. Enemies with guns can also be countered with a bit of swift timing – if you get close to one of them and they swing the weapon, you’ve got a half-second gap to press the attack button, leading to Riddick blocking and executing a counterkill. In terms of animation, these are some of the best in the game. Without a weapon, Riddick tends to turn their own gun on them, forcing them to shoot themselves in the head. When equipped with Ulaks (the curved blades), you can expect repeated stabs to the chest, or slashes across both arms and then across the throat, or a myriad of other genuinely horrific murders. These can occasionally be performed in melee combat, too, with a much briefer window allowing for hefty damage to be dealt.

As with the stealth, the melee battles are superb. Fistfights rely on blocking and using a combination of the directions and attack button to sneak blows past your opponent’s guard, but weapons change things up a bit, usually causing you to take some damage even from a successfully blocked blow. The animations are fantastic, and the fights are as gloriously brutal as the kills. As with the stealth, this was an area Butcher Bay innovated – games hadn’t really got the hang of first-person melee combat at that time, and I’d argue most still haven’t. These two areas that were so important to Butcher Bay are back, and they’re top notch.

Assault on Dark Athena has fewer hub areas and almost no side missions, but does feature impressive setpieces. One earlier section takes place in the Dark Athena’s gravity core, with Riddick being pulled towards the centre of the room. Killing an enemy here causes their corpse to float towards the huge core in the middle, or alternatively slam into a wall blocking that path. In terms of gameplay it doesn’t make a huge impact, but in terms of style it’s an absolute winner.

As with the Director’s Cut version of Butcher Bay, you’ve got the opportunity to pilot a mech at one point, and various other sections give you control over the enemy drones (the Dark Athena mercenaries use cybernetic implants on survivors of their raids to turn them into remote-controlled cannon fodder) which are incredibly cathartic. Considering Riddick’s lack of health, sections that give you a tremendously powerful killing machine and little fear of death provide a welcome break from the tension of the regular game.

It’s worth noting that this is the PC version of the game, and it’s heavily bound to the console versions. Despite the number keys not being used for anything else, you can only bind weapons to keys 1 and 2 – and when you’ve got a melee weapon, the tranquilliser gun, a shotgun, and an assault rifle, having to switch out to the radial menu to change weapons is frankly inexplicable. The game is also reliant on checkpoints with no manual save option visible, which hugely irritates towards the end of the game when checkpoints are few and far between. As does the game’s habit of placing a NanoMED unit – the health-regenerating bits of scenery that double as save functions – in clear sight, and then rushing you with enemies when you step towards it. This will kill you a few times and will sometimes require a long section to be repeated. Again, this is at its worst towards the end of the game when sections are long and unforgiving.

As you’ve probably noticed, the end of Dark Athena is where the game falls down. The last third smacks of padding, and as soon as the spider turrets appear, things go wrong. These little sods scuttle up walls and act as gun turrets with unerring accuracy and insane damage – with Riddick’s health bar at full, they can kill him in a second and a half of exposed fire. Sections full of these are irritating beyond belief.

And yet, despite the last third of the game, and despite Assault on Dark Athena not living up to its predecessor, I have to recommend this package. Escape from Butcher Bay still stands up today as an innovative and exceptional game, and this is the best version of it you’re likely to find. Assault on Dark Athena, while falling down towards the end and while not quite as good as Butcher Bay, is still a solid sequel. Considering that each game is as long as the other, the package is tremendous value for money.

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