Review: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Microsoft Xbox 360)

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Genre: Action
Developer: Atari, Inc.
Publisher: Starbreeze Studios
Release Date: 04/07/09


Assault on Dark Athena marks the Riddick franchise’s move to the current generation of platforms. However, it should be duly noted that this disc not only contains the latest chapter, Athena, but it also houses a graphically updated copy of first Riddick game, 2004’s critically-acclaimed Escape From Butcher Bay, as an extra bonus. Also, by “extra bonus”, I mean centerpiece.

However, since Athena is the featured material here, it is first up for dissection. Taking place after Butcher Bay, one jumps right back in the Vin Diesel saddle without even an introduction. The game loads, you’re on an alien beach, and that’s all one knows unless one is either already familiar with the Riddick “legacy”. This lack of introduction really isn’t important, though. as Riddick’s character remains shallow as ever. In fact, Riddick, as well as Athena’s ensemble of villains and secondary characters, are so two-dimensional that they border on straight-out camp. All you need to know is Riddick is dark, laconic, violent, and brooding, while the bad guys are the same except they have a penchant for profanity and one-liners.

After vacating this alien planet by way of an escape ship, the plot quickly unfolds as a paint-by-numbers sci-fi thriller. Riddick (whom, just in case you forgot or don’t know is a serial killer) here is the “hero” who needs to slip the clutches of some “evil mercenaries” who unknowingly pick him up when they keelhaul said ship while he’s in cryo-sleep. The Dark Athena, as mentioned in the title, is the mercenaries’ plundered space base, and while its rather debatable if this crew are more evil than Riddick, the task at hand is as already said – to escape their clutches. In order to accomplish this, Riddick needs to weasel information and tools out of a handful of criminals and innocents found in the Athena’s brig, while dispatching as many mercs along the way as possible.

The meat of the plot device here is that Riddick needs to get a tool or bit of information from every other occupant in the brig, which eventually brings him step-by-step closer to an escape pod and taking down the vicious and cartoonish dreadlocked leader, Gail Revas. However, this involves bribing and threatening you way towards your goal of a wrench / key code / assitance by stolen communicator, which brings me to mention the game’s dialogue. I could feasibly see that Riddick’s edgy catchphrases about being “one with the dark” would have been considered awesome a decade ago when Linkin Park was considered “hardcore”, but these days it’s plain cheesy. Riddick, and every merc, spout extreme, tough-guyisms left and right, while the remaining characters are either doddering wieners or two-dimensional victims-to-be. However, the best quip comes during one of these side missions where Riddick gets some info from one of the detainees by telling her that her daughter (whom Riddick spotted in a steam tunnel) is safe from the mercs. How does he communicate this fact? He tells her mother “the dark protects her”, after which she cries out, “Oh, thank god!” in hysterical joy. Seriously, there has to be better fanfic writers out there on the web who could have handed Diesel and company a script that would best that of Dark Athena.

While the Athena itself is composed of grim grey tunnels, glowing reactor rooms, and giant windows detailing the galaxy outside and the planets below, it’s rather a bland, repetitive affair. Thankfully, the gameplay does offer some variety as rather than being just a straightforward shooter, one also needs to circumnavigate Vin Diesel’s goggled self through climbing puzzles, as well as employ his night vision to sneak past android sentries. While there are some high points to this, like hopping aboard a motorcycle-like sim-device where one gets the chance to control one of these androids, there’s little variety to be had here. Also, while repetitive, Riddick is seriously underarmed when handing these sentries – only a couple of shots, and boom, Riddick’s toast. Normally, one can quibble that this is part of the game’s espionage angle. However, keep in mind that when encountering a climbing puzzle, the game switches to the third person where Riddick cannot return fire. Yes, this lovely combination occurs several times, and is quite frustrating.

Eventually, after easily dispatching the queen of the mercenaries Revas in an avoidable knife-fight, Riddick escapes… only to be shot down by said pirate captain. She may have a knife through her neck, but she still manages to nail Riddick’s escape craft with a missile, sending him careening down to another alien world / prison colony where Riddick (yet again) has to find a spaceship so he can leave. But wait, didn’t you already do as the title promised, escape the Dark Athena? You bet, but the game just meanders from there into self-defeating rendudancy where one doesn’t even get enough bad dialogue to laugh at to make the experience enjoyable.

Graphic-wise, Dark Athena definitely gives up a valiant effort keeping up with the current heavyweights in the first and third person shooter/adventure categories. Despite the oversupply of grey ship corridors for the first half of the game, there are moments like when Riddick is trudging along the outside hull of the Dark Athena that are wondrous in detail, such as immense energy cannon’s golden discharges and the swirling atmosphere of the planet below. However, then there’s the character models, whom when they’re not poorly synched with the dialogue, come off looking too shiny and plastic – sort of like the action-figure problem that plagued the visuals of Ninja Gaiden II.

Now, let’s get back to Escape from Butcher Bay. Though it orginally came out in 2004, one can still glean from this version why this game was hailed with such praise and why there was probably demand for a sequel. For every misstep that plagues Dark Athena, Butcher Bay does it right. If anything, Athena feels like a cheap re-hash of its progenitor in retrospect. While the plot is still rather linear, Butcher Bay plays out as a hodgepodge of prison simulator and a first-person shooter, with just a touch of survival horror to keep it interesting. We follow Riddick from his capture (Who knows what he did… and really, who cares?) to being led into a prison to carry out presumably a life sentence. From there, the opening of the game is rather entertaining. Carry out missions for other prisoners (like shankings!), collect smokes, and lay waste to a headstrong gang. In a way, it’s sort of like the best elements of Grand Theft Auto in a first-person environment.

Like Athena, it is a bit boggling that one “escapes” prison soon after, but after one gets through a brief (and ridiculously dark) interlude of sniping biozombies in the sewers, Riddick’s captured and thrown into maximum security. While this might sound boring at first, it expands upon the first portion of the game, allowing Riddick to earn status amongst the ranks through Fight Club style battles, dealing drugs, and poisoning his fellow inmates for those packs of bonus-content-offering cigarettes. Sure, the characters are ridiculous parodies even in this far-flung future – there’s the pseudo-Aryan tattoo posse, the devout and murderous Muslims, and every other stereotype the studio could muster. Still, brawling against random thugs for space credits paid off by some bowler-wearing reject from The Warriors may be stupidly easy (Land four punches and they’re dead. What a challenge!), but it’s good dumb fun.

Eventually, Riddick does escape yet again, but that seems to be theme throughout. This time, climbing through ducts while avoiding power-suited sentries is a bit more fun that with Athena…. probably because it still fits in with its uncomplicated plot line. Still, at least part one in this video game saga gets something right. Here, you feel like a killer, not a misunderstood hero who just happens to enjoy murder here and there.

Oh, it also should be mentioned there’s a multiplayer online option to play around with on this disc’s content, too. If it threw everyone in to a prison version of Sony’s Home, it would have been magnificent. Instead, it’s your standard multiplayer sandbox shooter affair… which, if it came with Butcher Bay back in 2004, would have been a great idea. Here, it’s just extra frosting on a pimped out, five year old cake.

The Scores (Assault on Dark Athena):
Story: BAD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE
Final Score: MEDIOCRE GAME.

The Scores (Escape From Butcher Bay):
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GOOD
Miscellaneous: GOOD
Final Score: GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Overall, Assault on Dark Athena should at least be commended for giving up so much content for its price tag, even though the real jewel here is a five year old award-winning game that sports a new face-lift. Though Riddick remains only a hair’s breadth away from sci-fi parody in terms of its plot and dialogue, the design work does a great job of following in the footsteps of the filthy fascist future crafted by H.R. Giger for David Lynch’s fantastic mess, Dune. It’s just a shame that Starbreeze spent the time to chuck Riddick into a decent new game engine, but couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything on par with Butcher Bay‘s “shank a guy for being a snitch in the future” ultra-fun motif.