Review: Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena

Review: Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena

Formats: 360 (version tested), PC, PS3
Release: April 24
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Starbreeze

The lasting appeal of the Riddick games is often attributed to their locations: dank, grievous black holes of humanity, devourers of men for whom death is judged a luxury. But it’s not the bile that whizzes about Richard Riddick’s head that does it, but the cold calculations within. Like all the shadiest anti-heroes, he’s an instrument of justice; some would say blunt, others clinical. Put him in a place of moral mayhem and he’ll turn every screw, sniff out every rat and snuff out the agents of true evil in the universe: the abusers of power. By putting you squarely inside this man, 2004’s Escape From Butcher Bay is one of the finest, truest ‘roleplaying’ games of its time.

Assault On Dark Athena bundles it with another ten-hour campaign, an expansion pack that’s grown into something more. As the ship that broke him out of Butcher Bay prison floats through space, Riddick starts it as he does every adventure: asleep, in the dark, awaiting his next misfortune. That arrives in the shape of a rocket-propelled harpoon that tows him and Johns, his longsuffering escort, into the clutches of the Dark Athena. A rogue mercenary ship shaped a bit like a prawn, it turns its prey into zombie drones for the black market. “I haven’t escaped,” growls Riddick, “just traded one hell for another.”

It’s a great venue, if only for being the one thing Riddick can’t stomach – a violation of death itself. Getting his bearings, he instinctively focuses on the brains of the outfit: the dreadlocked Captain Revas and her ambitious lieutenant, Spinner. Revas is excellent, played with relish by Michelle Forbes who, with a similar turn in Battlestar Galactica, has carved quite the niche as a kick-ass lesbian fruitcake. As her crew’s assassin steps slowly into the light, her provocative swagger turns to urgency and rage. “Easily manipulated,” notes a satisfied Riddick.

Riddick is unique among videogame predators, perhaps less a shadow than a showman. He can drag bodies into hiding but clearly isn’t meant to, his MO being to display them in the crooked, mortified shapes they fall in. It gives both Butcher Bay and Dark Athena incredible velocity as you flash on and off the enemies’ radar, into and out of darkness, through arteries and armour. Riddick’s almost vampiric aversion to light is at the front of your mind throughout, even the soft glow of the latest Starbreeze tech slicing cruelly through his cover, blinding his marble eyes. The only thing deadlier than bullets, then, is a torch.

That’s saying something, because bullets in these games are lethal. The heart of the series’ combat is the assurance that even Riddick’s hard exterior can be popped by a machine-gun. This universal rule turns every gun-toting hunk of meat into a challenge – a foe to be bested. Everyone else, all the rapists and the thugs and the lackeys, are just practice.

The new campaign itself is a curious creature, visibly improvised from start to finish. Such is the raw talent and ingenuity of Starbreeze that it alone, you feel, could pull off such a reckless, almost lawless piece of work. If there’s a problem it’s that it feels awfully incidental to the Riddick timeline, its only significance being as an origin story for the Ulaks, the deadly curved blades of the movies. The demented classicism of movie The Chronicles Of Riddick is absent, leaving the game to switch between two distinct but unremarkable visual styles. Worse, Riddick himself has few memorable lines, if any.

But never mind; it doesn’t stop this being one corker of an action adventure. Perhaps the biggest mention goes to the ‘vo-cap’ tech behind its extraordinary performances. True, the NPC feet are rooted largely to the spot – much like those of The Darkness – and most of the interaction happens in a single cellblock in the ship’s gut, but when Lance Henriksen heaves himself into to the shoes of Dacher, an industrious captive with a shattered soul, 99 per cent of his effort ends up on screen. It’s a breakthrough that has no place in an expansion pack, and the game refuses to become one, its agility that of any triple-A title and arguably greater than most. There are big fights and little fights, bosses and grunts, twists and transformations, gimmicks and gadgets. And dull moments? Not a chance.

Misfortune may be the one thing Riddick can’t escape, but he’d surely admit it’s the thing that keeps him alive. So it goes for this, a terrific package that salvages (with due thanks to Atari) and rejuvenates one of gaming’s great protagonists. As an exercise in technical renovation it does, admittedly, slide back and forth between this generation and the last, at times akin to a movie, at others betraying its roots. A proper, more focused Riddick sequel is waiting to be made; and this, surely, is proof that it should be.