The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay Review

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Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games
Developer: Starbreeze


Platform: Xbox
Reviewed on Xbox

"Become Riddick and break out of the galaxy's most deadly prison in this compelling first-person action experience – The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

Set before the events of both Universal Pictures' upcoming summer release The Chronicles of Riddick, starring Vin Diesel, and the 2000 breakout hit Pitch Black, which first introduced Diesel as enigmatic antihero Riddick, the game tells the story of Riddick's dramatic escape from the previously inescapable triple-max security slam Butcher Bay, home to the most violent prisoners in the universe."

Rating:
Seth W. Rosenfeld


As this is not the first review ever posted of Vivendi Universal Games' Chronicles of Riddick, you may have heard the hype thus far: how Riddick's the best looking Xbox game ever, or how Riddick proves that movie-based games need not suck, or even that The Chronicles of Riddick saved a stalled school bus full of children lingering in front of a runaway train in North Dakota. You can believe some or all of this – there is a grain of truth in each statement (except, perhaps for the bit about the school bus). Playing the game itself, one is struck by its exceedingly competent and polished execution. Riddick is an excellent game simply because it makes most game design choices correctly.

Brilliant, But Unusual, Choices For A License-Based Game


Many games based on licenses don't have a chance from the get-go because the product's content is trapped by and confined to the material it's based on. This happens because most license holders don't understand what makes a good game and will limit what a publisher or developer can do with licensed characters and settings. Riddick succeeds because it has nothing to do with the recently released movie. Freed from having to do a scene by scene recreation of the movie, the developers have built a story that is set as a prequel to the film Pitch Black. David Twohy, the writer and director of Pitch Black and Riddick's creator, was nervous about departing from the new movie, but he approved the game's direction once it was clear that the team at VU Games and the developers at Starbreeze had a thorough understanding of his characters and universe.

Perhaps the developers' best decision was to design a game that only represents a microcosm of the Riddick universe. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, as the name indicates, is a prison escape game, so the designers needed only create a setting limited to the Butcher Bay "triple-max" penal colony and the personalities within. While the environments all reflect the futuristic, dystopian, combined-high-tech/low-tech setting common to science fiction since Alien, it doesn't feel as derivative as it should – the settings are wholly appropriate and presented as realistically and detailed as they ever have been on a gaming platform.

"Where's Vin??" – Behind The First-Person Viewpoint


As you might have heard, the game looks great. This is not an expansive romp across the universe, so there is a certain homogeneousness to the environments and characters, but the environments you do see look great. Players looking for overblown sets or alien settings such as those in the Chronicles of Riddick film will not find them here. These ill-lit and cramped confines set the stage for Riddick's unfolding as an action/stealth game.

Riddick makes a particularly interesting and risky choice for a game with heavy "stealth" elements based on a license – it takes place in first-person perspective, with no option to switch to a third-person, outside-the-character view. The basic problem is that first person makes some styles of game play more difficult – most notably jumping, hand to hand combat, and sneaking around while hitting particular "marks" within a game level. More surprising is that the only time you see The Vin is in short cut-scenes and third-person sequences such as climbing up and down ladders and while healing at medical stations. Many Hollywood-type licensors simply wouldn't buy this design choice ("Where's Vin?! I can't see Vin!! Whaddawe payin' you people for if we can't see The Vin?!"), but Diesel is a gamer himself, so it makes sense that he might have gone along with the decision, sacrificing short-term vanity on the altar of game play.

Like Metroid Prime for the Gamecube, everything Riddick does in first person works surprisingly well, and the game introduces a variety of different actions gradually as the game progresses. The game's early portions thus involve a lot of talking to inmates and fetch-quests, moving on to fist and knife fights and then progressing up the munitions ladder to more serious tools of destruction. In this way, the action builds like it would in a tightly edited film. The hand-to-hand combat presentation, a feature inspired by the classic Nintendo Punch Out series, is particularly entertaining. Basic in design and execution, the fist fighting in Riddick is at least as fun and nuanced as the other game modes, and one almost wishes the developers did more with it. The true first-person perspective makes the violence in Riddick feel all the more realistic and immediate – sneaking up on a guard for a shiv killing is way more chilling than in a game like Manhunt (that seeks these kind of thrills, but falls short because you ultimately feel like you're killing polygons, not people).

Smoking May Be Hazardous For Your Health, But Not For The Game


The brisk pace of Riddick, as well as its overall cinematic presentation, immerses players deeply in the game world. After a clever tutorial, the game starts with a roll of the credits and then draws you into a simple game narrative without bogging players down in lengthy mid-game cut sequences. A basic prison-break storyline is all that's needed to set up the game. Unlike Midway's The Suffering (that takes place after the prison setting for the game is thoroughly messed up), Riddick gives you lengthy game play sections where you interact with other prisoners and guards within lock-up, so it feels like a genuine prison movie. During these segments, one is tempted to start looking for fifty hidden eggs to eat, or soap bars to specifically not to pick up. In lieu of such items, Riddick's best bits of prison humor come in the form of hidden cigarette packs, complete with humorous package warnings, that unlock significant extra content from the production process of both the game and movie.

Though the game progresses in a linear fashion, the player usually has some choice in how to approach each level's problems. One can play Riddick stealthily or more aggressively, and rarely does the game bottleneck so that you have to adopt a particular style of play to proceed. Levels are carefully crafted so that players that take the more difficult path through an area will be rewarded with bonus pickups or an extra save point. Varied play options are the norm, and when action in Riddick is restricted, it's to serve the pace of the game.

To keep the pace and story so tight, however, the biggest sacrifice made is the game's overall length. There aren't forty hours of game play here: it takes maybe a quarter of that to play through the game the first time. But Riddick doesn't particularly need to be a longer game. The "tightly edited film" analogy works in its favor here. Some players will enjoy a second play-through, and some will put it aside. It can be argued that the game could have given players more, but Riddick has enough quality gameplay to make it a recommended Xbox purchase.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 18, 2004 8:57 PM.

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