Chronicles of Riddick
23rd Nov 2004 | 16:10
Four years ago, on a planet where someone had nicked all the light bulbs, a gravel-voiced Vin Diesel made his first appearance as anti-hero Richard B Riddick in the movie Pitch Black. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is a prequel to those events - a single-player first person breakout game mixing a bit of thinking, a bit of sneaking about and a lot of spectacularly sordid violence.
It certainly took the Xbox by storm in August, coming from leftfield to really capture FPS fans' hearts and minds and at a stroke establishing Starbreeze Studios as a premier league developer. Inevitably a PC version was bound to follow and as well as all the pulsating, skull crushing brutality of the original, it brings a number of 'Director's Cut' extras to the party. Riddick PC is due for release in just over a month's time and this latest preview code (for which we had to trade many packets of smokes with the screws) is showing every sign of capturing and expanding on the squalid intensity of the Xbox original.
For those of you not in the know, arch anti-hero Riddick has just earned a one-way ticket to Butcher Bay, one of the most notorious max-security prisons in the known galaxy. The game starts with a flashback sequence (which doubles as a tutorial) to explain why he's deserved this fate and then sets you the task of busting him out. In the course of escaping from Butcher Bay you get to find out how Riddick obtained his strength and ability to see in the dark. You also get to learn a lot of new obscenities.
It's a real toilet of a world. From the moment Riddick is unceremoniously dumped into his faeces-smeared cell you know someone is going to be in for an unpleasant ride. In fact, the chap making all the strangled screams in the cell across the hall is probably already there.
The language alone would make a King's Cross hooker blush, and the décor is a delightful mess of Urban-oppressive and Neo-urinal. In terms of capturing a truly unpleasant, futuristic max security cesspit, developer Starbreeze has hit the nail on the head with a bloody great hammer. They've not missed a trick with the visuals - right down to the obscene graffiti - or the characters. If you like your entertainment wholesome and uplifting, you can stop reading right now. But then why were you reading this in the first place?
Who's your daddy?
Initial problems involve trying to bust out of the lower security section by gathering information - either bribing or beating it out of other cons. Not surprisingly, they are a universally frightened, unpleasant, drugged or psychotic bunch. You need to work out who runs with which gang, and which of the screws are as bent as a square boomerang.
This is going to be a key point about the game - you can't just bash everything. Many characters have essential information so they need to be kept alive and sweet. Similarly, carrying a weapon in certain areas will bring down too much heat even for the hulking, muscle-bound Riddick to handle.
The game alternates periods of full-on confrontation with passages of problem-solving and stealth as you seek out information or essential components for your escape. You really will need to master the art of when to fight and when to think. Some people may find this difficult...
...But not that difficult. Butcher Bay has a lot of style and grubby good looks, but lacks any great invention on the problem-solving front. Some of the puzzles are so old they've got bits of animal fluff from Noah's Ark stuck to them. Come on guys, finding stuff in hidden vent shafts, clambering up crates and turning fly wheels ... Jeez. Likewise there is nothing more irritating than the inevitability of having to cross to the far side of three levels to beat a security code out of the last guard and then trot all the way back to again. You just knew he and it would be on the far side of the map. This is not a way to introduce longevity to a game.
Still, it's a minor quibble, possibly due to Riddick's console legacy and there are certainly plenty of other ways to get your kicks, not least of which is the intriguing unarmed combat system. Butcher Bay treats hand to hand combat about as tastefully as a sponsored seal-clubbing party. Nipping up behind someone and snapping their neck, wrestling a gun up under a guard's chin or just pummeling away with hooks and jabs is the meat and drink of the game - and that's certainly no bad thing if you're as warped as we are. The developers have obviously put a lot of time and effort into this aspect of the game and although it's not utterly convincing, it is certainly satisfying and amusing in a sick and twisted way.
Later in the game you'll pick up everything from shivs (the cons' improvised knives), to clubs, pistols and even assault rifles with which to carve up enemies both human and er ..not so. But you'll still keep coming back to situations where only Riddick's fists can talk fast enough, and where you need to make good use of Riddick's Purple Bendy Vision TM, his see-in-the dark eyes.
Be warned though, the latter are not recommended if you have a hangover or are on medication which rules us out most of the time.
In general, movie licenses don't have the best of reputations amongst gamers. With a few notable exceptions, they're often easily dismissed as merchandised tat, knocked out in double quick time to capitalize on a brief period of popularity before the next five-minute Hollywood wonder.
However fortunately The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay looks like being one of those welcome exceptions which bucks the trend. Although it's not ground-breaking on the PC as it was on the Xbox and does have the odd minor flaw, it should certainly become a slick and classy addition to the genre. You don't have to be a fan of Vin Diesel or Pitch Black, and it's certainly not to be relegated to the 'not bad for a movie licence' bin.
For starters, there are any number of genuinely tense and frightening sequences. The levels are large, interesting and superbly lit, shadowed and rendered with a ton of detail. The same goes for the character models. Given a decent video card, the Starbreeze graphics engine does the business both in action and in the atmospheric cut scenes. The only minor complaint here concerns the third-person actions for climbing crates and so forth, which are unnecessary at best and spectacularly irritating if you happen to want to climb up a ladder in the middle of a huge firefight.
The most common criticism of the Xbox version was that it was too short and didn't quite provide enough bang for your buck, so to that end the developers have introduced two new areas as part of the 'Directors Cut' package, with a level design that is pretty much roam at will. While this is all good, our judgment is that this may not be quite enough to satisfy more discriminating PC players' palettes.
Still, better short and sweet, than long and lonely - to paraphrase one of Riddick's unfortunate cellmates.