Monday, September 21, 2009

The Dark Is Where I Shine

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena is a remake and expansion of 2004's well regarded The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. If you've seen the movies Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick you know that Vin Diesel's Richard. B Riddick is the galaxy's ultimate badass. He can see in the dark, he can take on anyone in hand to hand combat, and if he doesn't want to do that he'll simply sneak up on his enemies and break their necks. He has no remorse, no fear, and no one who can match his skills.

He is, however, as vulnerable to bullets as you or I.

Riddick excels when it tasks you with skulking around in the dark, taking out frightened enemies along the way before they know you're there. More than any other game I've played, I really felt like I was inhabiting the character and doing things just like he would in "real life." The lighting in the game is fantastic. Shadows are black as jet, lights flare when coming to a bright space, and entire spaces can be momentarily lit up by gun flashes. You always know when you're effectively hidden by the dark, even without the game artificially tinting the graphics blue to let you know that you're hidden. When sneaking up on an enemy from behind, once you're close enough to take them down Riddick's hand's raise in preparation for the kill. Initiating the kill causes Riddick to leap up and snap their neck. There are maybe one or two seconds of struggle from the victim, but it always ends with a sickening crunch and a limp body that you are able to drag into the darkness or leave as you see fit. Like any good stealth game, the tension of sneaking around and quietly dispatching foes is excellently done.

The game also features a fairly good melee combat system. Brass knuckles, shivs, scalpels, screwdrivers, and in Dark Athena, wicked looking blades called Ulaks all increase the damage you can do whilst fighting hand to hand. Different moves can be performed depending on the direction you're moving, and different animations play out depending on the weapon you're using. The impact of flesh on flesh are satisfying, and the sounds of sharp objects penetrating skin are cringe-inducing. Once you finally do enough damage to your opponent, a vicious animation plays out where Riddick painfully and permanently ends that person's life. It may be repeatedly smashing his knee into a person's face. Or it may be to shove a screwdriver through an exposed throat. Or he may just slice an opponent's neck open with the scalpel. The finishing moves are visceral and brutal.

In many parts of the game, Riddick is unable to carry firearms. When faced with an armed opponent, the best course of action is to sneak around and try to take them out from behind. The game doesn't always allow you to exercise this option though, in which case you must try to take down the enemy head on. Riddick dies quickly under sustained gun fire, so instead you must run at them headlong and start punching. The enemy will begin to melee you in an attempt to push you back, therefore giving him enough distance to start shooting. When he swings at you with his weapon, a well timed button press will cause Riddick to grab the gun in mid-swing, force it under the enemy's chin, and pull the trigger.Eventually, Riddick gains access to a tranquilizer gun which paralyzes them on the ground for several seconds. If you can get to them in time you can trigger a quick kill where Riddick will crush their skull under his heel.

It's safe to say that the non-interactive animations make up a big part of what makes the game satisfying. They are the rewards for all the skulking around, and effectively release the tension of stealth and melee combat.

The game fails pretty hard, though, when it decides to stick with gunplay exclusively. Enemies are frequently hard to see. While it's possible to shoot out the lights with the tranquilizer gun, many enemies are equipped with flashlights that can expose you from quite a long distance away. Stealth in these cases is not an option. A headshot is just as effective in this game as any other shooter, but it's nearly impossible to get a headshot on a moving target in this game. Enemies seem able to soak up a clip and a half of rounds to the chest area before going down, while Riddick can only take a few shots. I noticed in The Darkness, Starbreeze's other game, that the shooting mechanics seemed off as well, but the supernatural powers available to you in that game made up for it. For whatever reason, it seems difficult to put the aiming reticule precisely where you want it. Instead of feeling like a stealthy demon preying on victims in the dark, you feel like a big, slow, clumsy buffoon spraying bullets indiscriminately at enemies. Perhaps if I had played on PC this wouldn't have been an issue.Admittedly, I am also not the world's best shooter player. Nevertheless, shooting accurately in this game felt like a real struggle.

The Escape From Butcher Bay campaign constantly switches between stealth and gunplay, with a few mech sections thrown in to spice things up. I essentially found myself alternating between really enjoying and really hating the game, depending on what segment I was in. The first half of the Assault on Dark Athena campaign is almost exclusively stealth focused, or tuned in such a way that you can get the drop on several gun wielding enemies. There are a few exceptions, and the AI has a frustrating habit of cheating at times, but overall, the first half of Dark Athena is a stellar exercise in first person stealth culminating in a tense and exciting hand to hand boss fight. The second half is nothing but shoot shoot shoot, much of it in broad daylight, and ends with a gun battle against a fast moving mech thing that's more annoying than anything else. If you want the purest experience of what it's like to be Riddick, play the first half of Dark Athena. The second half, along with Butcher Bay, can safely be skipped.

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