The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena
Thanks to the tireless work of the industry-wide PR machine, we seldom feel left out of the loop. When your product is built on iterations and unique features it pays to keep your public informed, but The Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena is an exception. It began life as a next-gen remake of the highly praised Xbox-exclusive Escape From Butcher Bay, with an extra level thrown in for anyone who smelled a cash-in.
Critics and fans hungry for a full sequel certainly did, and the decision was taken to expand the project to meet the evident demand. Until the Activision-Blizzard merger, that is, when Assault On Dark Athena became one of eight games to be cut adrift, and fans’ hopes were dashed against the rocks once more.
Enter Atari, and the opportunity to finally see just what Starbreeze has been working on. The good news is that this is something quite different to the cynical remake initially proposed; the great news is that it’s far more than you could reasonably have expected. Starbreeze has included a turbo-charged makeover of Escape From Butcher Bay, but that extra level has mutated into the sequel people were baying for; picking up where the original left off, and containing a reported ten-hours of sweaty, claustrophobic savagery.
For the vast number of people who haven’t played the excellent Butcher Bay, this could be the best value package since The Orange Box. One of the great achievements of the Xbox original was bringing a sense of power to the stealth gameplay. As Riddick, you are the hunter, and that feeling is evident from the start, stalking the corridors of an unfamiliar ship with only your fists and a hairpin for protection. The first hour throws up some puzzles to establish Riddick’s ability to climb over obstructions, see in the dark, and use the shadows and stealth mode to gain the upper hand on enemies.
The hairpin doubles up as a shiv, but if you can sneak up on a Drone without being noticed, a quick tap of the trigger will perform an execution move – warm memories for the initiated, an exhilarating introduction for everyone else.
Atari has suggested that Assault On Dark Athena’s gameplay will lean further towards ballistic gunplay than its predecessor. This was corroborated, to a certain extent, by the fact that within just a few hours of play we had already reached a point where uncoded weapons – most guns in Riddick’s universe are linked with the owner’s DNA – were appearing with notable frequency. It may be that Starbreeze is relying on the revamped Butcher Bay to provide the more measured gameplay, leaving Dark Athena free to join the grand tradition of videogame sequels that give in to a higher body count.
It was certainly difficult to evade the red Drones simply by using stealth and Riddick’s heightened vision, and his new ability to lift crumpled bodies and fire their weapons provided a useful contingency plan whenever our concentration lapsed. Bullets are limited, but we made it through a large room packed with Drones by hopping from body to body – taking out the enemies within our field of vision before moving on to the next.
Regardless of how grand Starbreeze’s vision becomes – there are rumours of Mech suits later in the game – Dark Athena still requires a significant amount of melee combat. When we finally encountered some of the ship’s unsavoury residents, we were particularly impressed with their refusal to follow Riddick outside of their living quarters, forcing us to confront several of them face-to-face.
Melee combat is difficult to execute, but Starbreeze has designed a system where timing is crucial and you can really feel the impact of any successful strikes. Perfectly blocking a right hook then slicing away at your enemy’s momentarily exposed chest is every bit as satisfying as a headshot, and all the more visceral for the surgical detail in the resulting wounds.
On this evidence, Assault On Dark Athena should sidestep the fears that have sprung up in the void between its announcement and Atari saving the day. The fact that the vast majority of the game takes place on the same ship might limit the scope of the design, but Starbreeze has greatly sharpened its skills with cinematic style and atmosphere since Butcher Bay, and that could be the secret weapon in Dark Athena’s arsenal.
Vin Diesel’s brooding, treacle-thick voiceover is enough to conjure up an air of menace on its own; if Starbreeze can marry the dramatic invention of The Darkness with sophisticated gameplay, the studio may have just established a new high point.