I’m going to start this review with a little story: A few years ago, at an event for a game, I observed Vin Diesel stroll into the place with his entourage and, after playing that night’s featured title, proclaim that he had just founded a game studio. My fellow journalists and I scoffed at that statement. What did Vin or his “studio” know about games, particularly making good games that wouldn’t be some cheesy movie knockoff? Well, now that question has been overwhelmingly answered, prompting both an apology on my part and a statement of thanks. Not only does Tigon Studios (Vin’s company) and the actor know what they’re doing, their partnership with Starbreeze Studios and Vivendi Universal’s created one of the better action titles of the year and easily one of, if not the best, Hollywood tie-in games to date with The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay.
Players step into the muscle bound fury of (no, not The Hulk) Richard B. Riddick in what’s set up as a prequel to 2000’s Pitch Black and this summer’s Chronicles of Riddick. For those of you who haven’t seen the movies or can’t infer from Diesel’s imposing physical stature, Riddick is one of the galaxy’s most infamous convicts. Guilty of numerous crimes, including mass murder, he often tops the most wanted lists in solar systems. As a result, every bounty hunter in the universe is gunning for him to collect the massive bounty on his head. Recently captured, Riddick starts the game by arriving at Butcher Bay in Johns’ custody (Pitch Black fans will remember this “law enforcer” rather vividly). Not one to go quietly into incarceration, Riddick immediately starts trying to figure out a way to break out of the triple-max security center, which has built up a reputation like an intergalactic Alcatraz: no one ever escapes.
You don’t get a reputation like Riddick’s without being able to handle yourself, and Butcher Bay makes this point almost abundantly clear within the first 30 seconds of play, where you fight to survive or die quickly and painfully. For his massive size, Riddick is incredibly agile, and able to cover large distances very quickly. This makes him an excellent hand-to-hand combatant, and the mix of speed and power often results in devastating combos and punches for unlucky opponents. Thanks to his speed, he can also perform a number of lethal counters, often turning an opponent’s attack against them. He won’t have to merely rely on his fists though; After all, one of the things the movies focused on was his skill with a knife. Riddick can also equip shivs, screwdrivers or other handheld blades for additional damage.
Solely using your fists won’t get you out of the detention block, however. You’ll have to use stealth to avoid patrols, cameras and other hazards. Thankfully, there are a number of shadows that Riddick can crouch down and hide in, rendering him practically invisible to anyone and giving him the element of surprise (indicated by a cool blue hue that tints the screen). Not only can this dark advantage be used to escape potential threats or infiltrate unauthorized areas, it can also be used to perform stealth kills, such as pushing unsuspecting guards off ledges or snapping their necks.
This actually brings up a major point of gameplay, which is that Butcher Bay manages to incorporate both fast paced, in your face brawling action with much more deliberate stealth elements and doesn’t compromise for either one of them. The best part about the game is that once it’s shown you the basics of gameplay shortly after Riddick’s arrival, creating your own murderous style is up to you. There are two blatantly different examples that I can think of to illustrate this point. The first one is using the darkness to its full advantage, and the second is acquiring weapons.
Like I said earlier, Riddick is rather adept at stealth kills, and striking from the shadows is an easy way to eliminate guards and quietly dispose of bodies. However, while he can hide in the dim light, he can’t exactly see in the early stages of the game, which forces him to use flashlights. The largest drawback is that turning on a light broadcasts his position to the guards, who come running to track you down. Later in the game, Riddick receives one of his signature features, the impressive yet eerie Eyeshine (which provides the answer to Jack’s question, “How do you get eyes like that,” from the first movie), which allows him to be able to see in the dark at will. In fact, once he has this ability, breaking lights to create larger pools of darkness to disappear into becomes an even better guerilla tactic.
For those who like more direct courses of action, getting your hands on a shiv or another weapon will probably be the first thing you want to do. After all, you’re a new inmate to Butcher Bay, and as such, all of your previous equipment has been stripped from you. But just because you have an incredibly sharp screwdriver doesn’t mean you can slice and dice a guard, grab their gun and start blasting away. As a precautionary measure (probably to keep the inmates from performing their rendition of Attica In Space), every firearm in Butcher Bay has been DNA-encoded to a central database. Anyone touching a gun that hasn’t been included in that database, like inmates, automatically gets electrocuted. Can you say main priority? I knew you could, and as soon as you find this ability, you can laugh with glee as the guards fall in horror from your bullets.
Aside from finding ways to protect Riddick, you’ll also discover and interact with a thriving multi-tiered prison culture. There are a number of inmates and even a guard or two who will give you tasks or missions to complete. Here, the game takes on an RPG-lite aspect, as you can accept or deny errands as you wish. Some of these are the standard Fed-Ex fetch and deliver duties, but there are the occasional ordered assassinations of prisoners who’ve crossed the wrong people. In return for your services, you’ll receive items which can be traded for weapons, cigarette packs which unlock secret features or information which will lead you through the numerous levels of Butcher Bay. As you adventure deeper into the prison looking for ways to escape, you’ll journey from the max to the double max and finally the triple max detention areas, all of which have been precariously built on top of each other.
The one thing that you will notice as you skulk through the hallways of Butcher Bay is how graphically striking the entire game is. Cold, metallic textures mixed with harder edged shadows and surfaces convey an incredibly bleak environment, exactly what you’d expect from an intergalactic prison, especially a multiple maximum security jail. Some areas are exceedingly sparse, like individual cells which host dirty, fly infested toilets and slabs for beds. Others are covered in graffiti and completely trashed, but regardless of the area, you get a definite sense of how dreary this place is, and how other people must have been driven to attempt an escape before; albeit without Riddick’s considerable attributes, it would have to be near impossible to even come close. Character models are incredibly well defined, particularly with the facial and physically detailed animation in the various inmates that populate the levels of Butcher Bay. This deforms just slightly, covered in the large sprays of blood that can coat the walls after one of Riddick’s attacks. When killed, the believable collapsing of each character lends credence to the idea that extreme rag-doll physics is not necessary in games.
The largest stand out within the title’s graphics has to be the outstanding lighting effects, which gives a more dynamic and realistic system of illumination to the surroundings. The pools of light and shadow heighten the level of detail previously mentioned, and even give the illusion of textural flaws which feels accurate to the eye. The extremely minimal HUD that provides game information (small white boxes for health indicators, ammo indicators only on some weapons) lets you soak in this atmosphere, which is impressive in its own right, because you don’t have needless information in your way. The blue and purple tints to the screen which indicate crouching and EyeShine modes, respectively, are filtered nicely and not obtrusive, although the EyeShine does tend to overreact to just about everything from light sources (which I’d expect; after all, it is a kind of night vision) to reflective surfaces of crates (which is exaggerated). I don’t expect a crate to blind me the same way that a light bulb would, but for some reason it does. That’s somewhat of a flaw. The other thing is that the camera, while usually not a major hassle with the majority of the action in first person, changes to third person with some actions. While most of these are fine, some of the climbing animations look somewhat odd, particularly on crates.
Sound is top notch as well, and merely builds upon the atmosphere created by the graphics. With a rising, swelling musical score on par with any action movie during combat that fades to the background in regular action, Butcher Bay relies much more heavily on the sound effects and vocal acting to support the title. Thankfully, it succeeds incredibly well, with a number of outstanding sounds. Riddick’s fists colliding with the faces of inmates and guards alike sends a solid, meat packing sound akin to the thumps heard in Fight Club or other boxing movies. Coupled with exceptional voice acting from Diesel, Hauser, Xhibit and other actors, Riddick probably has one of the best delivered scripts by its cast all year. While full of profanity and definitely a game you wouldn’t want to play around little kids, the swearing doesn’t feel out of place (it is set in a prison, after all).
The execution of all of Butcher Bay’s elements comes off with relatively few hitches to the gameplay. One of the larger complaints is the somewhat surprising brevity of the gaming experience. While there are multiple levels of difficulty, which provide a certain level of replayability, the full experience of the prison can be had in less than 15 hours. This can be somewhat disappointing, primarily because once you get accustomed to one area, you find yourself moving onto the next rather quickly. This could’ve potentially been bolstered with additional levels or downloadable content from Xbox Live, but unfortunately there’s only Live Alert support to inform you of when your friends log on and challenge you to another game. While I know some people that’ve griped that Multiplayer is missing, I actually prefer that it isn’t included in Butcher Bay for one reason: Riddick is a loner, so it only makes sense that his game is a single player experience. In both movies, he constantly growls about how other people will slow him down from accomplishing what he wants to do at that moment, and has a limited set of “friends” at any point in time anyway. To include co-op or multiplayer would degrade the immersive experience of the prison, which is so tangible that it could be a secondary character by itself. Besides, what would your deathmatch be? One person gets to play Riddick while the others are bounty hunters?
Another complaint that pops up significantly is the control scheme, which can sometimes make you perform other moves inadvertently. This particularly comes up in hand to hand combat, where you’re trying to perform combos and counters against opponents. Both movement and crouching are tied to the left thumbstick, meaning that you can accidentally try to move out of the way of a punch and wind up crouching when you didn’t mean to. This might not sound so bad, until you get your teeth kicked in by the AI, especially on the harder difficulty levels. The AI in Butcher Bay is extremely sound, performing a number of tactics, including falling back for reinforcements and flanking maneuvers. In hand to hand combat, they won’t just stand still either, and quite a few of them will block punches or duck out of the way. Getting stuck in a crouch limits Riddick’s effective punching range and damage, which can sometimes be the deciding factor in some fights.
The other complaint that arises is the fact that it’s often easy to get turned around or lost without a sense of direction, particularly in the double max section. Here, the RPG elements of the game ramp up to a fever pitch, but many of the missions and objectives are so carefully placed and hidden that its entirely too easy to pass them up. In fact, by trying to accomplish one task, you can pass up every other errand in this section accidentally with absolutely no chance to make them up. (Actually, there is one way to return, but you can walk right past it without knowing and lose the option for the rest of the game.) This is something I discovered on my second play through, which just made me want to bang my head into a wall. While you still have your journal to list the missions you’ve taken on, the descriptions are a little too vague to give you an idea of where you really need to go, which can help get you lost.
When you look at the final product, however, you have one of the most atmospheric, creative and technically impressive titles to hit any console in quite a while. An engaging plot, combined with the right balance of stealth and action makes Butcher Bay one of those classic games that any owner of the Xbox should have in their collection. If this is what Starbreeze and Tigon are serving up as their debut, I can’t wait for their follow-ups…