Full Review: ?Richard B. Riddick, escaped convict, murderer. Nice to meet you.'
When it comes to movie licenses and video games, the pair tends to not mix well. There's the ET fiasco some 20 years ago that easily demonstrates this, and on the other hand, the Bond franchise has done fairly well to avoid falling into the trap, and everything else in between. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is another movie-based game, tied to the franchise of the same name (the movie comes out the 11th of June), a vehicle designed for Vin Diesel to do what he does best. However, this one has been quickly building up hype, if only because of the incredible visuals that were shown courtesy of up and coming Swedish developer Starbreeze. Of course, we all know graphics don't make a game great, but thankfully, in the case of Butcher Bay, not only are they incredible, but a great compliment to the well-presented gameplay and interesting locale of Butcher Bay. When it comes to movie-based games, Riddick is one of the best ones in a long time (aside from Knights of the Old Republic), and while it has some things that will only be considered ?flaws' by particular people, it's one of the biggest sleepers this year, be it on Xbox or any other system.
As the title might suggest, Escape From Butcher Bay is all about making an escape ? in this case, the triple-max Butcher Bay prison, the supposed ?toughest slam in the galaxy' where nobody has ever escaped. In the shoes of Richard B. Riddick, your job is to become the first, by either brute violence, or by use of effective and brutal stealth tactics. There's definitely a bit more than that, as the game slowly unveils cryptic information on Riddick's origin, history, and purpose?and even explains how he gets the trademark Eyeshine that was in Pitch Black, as this is a prequel to the movies. The story is full of interesting main characters, and with plenty of surprises and a couple faux finishes to advance the game along. There's also a great deal of sidequests that tell some backstory on Butcher Bay, but they have no bearing on the main story itself?it's just for exploration and replay value within the game. It's nothing that will be remembered in a few years (after all?this is something involving Vin Diesel), but you'll assuredly want to play through to find out the fate of the different characters and of course, see just how escaping from this brutal prison can be done.
Escape from Butcher Bay is a first person game, but it's far from a pure and simple shooter, instead it plays more like a first person action/adventure game. While you will have a few instances where you'll fall into typical FPS fare, there are a great many times where you'll have actual choices as to how to progress. Combat ranges from attacking with shivs, screwdrivers, clubs, and of course, your own bare hands, all in the first person view, in addition to the use of shotguns, handguns, assault rifles, and the like (there's also a stun-gun, which temporarily stuns an enemy, letting you go in and stomp them before they come to life). One caveat with weapons is the DNA encoding on them; you can't pick up any old gun, as you'll get a shock from it, as your DNA won't match the owner. This is especially interesting when you're sneaking around trying to avoid detection, as you can't just take a weapon from a dead guard and use it. One thing to note is that Butcher Bay is a very claustrophobic area, with very few wide-open areas, instead opting to have numerous narrow passageways and thus little room to sort yourself out in a firefight. Meaning you'll have to use those Halo skills and know when to retreat and reload, in an intense battle (and you'll have more than a few of those throughout the game).
Other than shooting, which works great (and the laser sighting for aim is great, and how it affects your stealth is even better), the other combat works pretty well. Hand-to-hand is very basic (you can do right hooks, left hooks, body blows, and uppercuts?we're not talking Fight Night 2004 here), but since you'll be using it fairly frequently, it's not too bad an idea to keep it simple. However, you can have a good time messing around with your bare hands, be it reversing a punch and doing a deathblow, or, when up against armed enemies, turn their weapon against them and fire a killing shot to them. This is tough to do, but fun as hell when you make it happen. Fighting with melee weapons functions pretty much like the bare handed combat, only more deadly, as you can kill an armed guard with one very quickly using accurate strikes, if you can get close enough to do so.
If you're working towards a more stealth approach (something that a great deal of times is a wise idea, being without equal firepower and all), the game offers a few fun things. Of course, Riddick's Eyeshine lets you see entirely in the dark (once you get it, anyway, the first third of the game you're on your own), and hide from guards that can't see you. If you have a gun?even a tranquilizer gun?you can shoot out lights to make it even better and dark. But as mentioned, if you're carrying a gun, you'll want to stow it, as they can detect you just by the laser sighting on it. Some guns even have lights, so you'll want to turn those off too. Your only fear is enemies with lights of their own, but otherwise, you can hide very well and avoid detection, leaving room to execute good-old stealth kills. There's numerous ways to silently eliminate threats. If you're unarmed, you can just sneak up and break a neck; if you use the right trigger, you'll execute a loud, more violent kill, or use the left trigger to grab, and press X to slowly choke the life out of them, much quieter. If you have a weapon, you'll just do a simple pistol-whip kill that's both silent and deadly. Just hide bodies ? guards and cameras can find dead people and thus get a bit more alarmed in their sector of the prison.
Progressing through Butcher Bay is fairly open-ended. When you're in the more stealthy periods, you can either take the dangerous route, risking your life to barely avoid guards and occasional mech, or be even sneakier by using vents, shafts, and other areas where guards tend to not look. While there's no ?visibility' meter or radar, there's a colored tint that shows on-screen when Riddick is crouched ? if it's blue tinted, you're invisible, but if it starts going away?you better start running. Anyway, the different angles to approach a section of the game allows for some replay, by doing things differently, especially since many of the games' biggest secrets are off the beaten path and require much exploration to actually figure out. This is because of the numerous RPG-esque elements. While Riddick doesn't technically ?level up', other than finding Nanomed machines that increase his life bar (seems like a form of acupuncture or something), you can accept quests from other inmates, be it killing another inmate, finding their glasses that dropped somewhere, and helping other people collect cash owed to them. Completing these quests will net you money to spend on weapons or cigarettes from fellow inmates, as well as gain cigarette packs from the quest offerers. Now Riddick doesn't smoke?the cigarettes are merely there as the method of collecting hidden extras. There's 59 packs to find, some buried in vents, others hidden in dark corridors, and some just laying around. The hunt for smokes can only be fully completed by beating the game on the hardest difficulty level, meaning you gotta earn it. Between the smokes and the quests, there's a lot of replay value, as well as reasons to explore each time you play, on different challenge levels.
Speaking of challenge, the computer AI you'll find to be smart and cunning. Rarely do guards just stand there and let you shoot, as they'll duck for cover, and some even call for backup to team up on you. When you encounter the mechs, they mercilessly hunt you, until you find out how to flank them and find their weak spots. One thing to note is there's a very modest and gentle curve to the challenge, as guards are pretty much of equal strength ? the only difference is there's more of them and they have smarter battle tactics the deeper you get into the prison. The only real time the challenge is higher than usual is when you're unarmed, especially if your stealth skills are lacking?if you get caught, and have no weapons, it's not a particularly fun time unless you can run like hell and hope there's a save point or a healing station nearby. Saving the game, by the way, is very Halo-esque, with a familiar checkpoint save system, one that you can actually choose a checkpoint from the main menu if you want to start in a different area.
Alas, while Riddick is an excellent blend of game styles and is all pulled together so stunningly, it isn't perfect. One thing is right on the box?while the game lets you connect to Xbox Live to see your friends list (aka Live Aware), there is no online multiplayer, as Escape From Butcher Bay is a pure single-player experience. So really, the Live stripe on the box is a bit misleading unless you look on the back to see what's going on. Of course it's a whole different story that there's no multiplayer whatsoever, as it is. Also, while the game offers a lot of replay, it can run a bit on the short side. It took just 3 nights to beat the game on Normal difficulty, playing 3-4 hours each night. That adds up to about 10 hours total, which actually is a decent amount of play?perhaps it just runs by really fast. Anyhow, the replay value, thanks to sidequests and other means of exploration, means it's worth running through again to find and see everything that the world of Riddick offers. Also, there are frequent, and sometimes bothersome load times, but that's something you can learn to deal with. The only place this really bothered me was the double-max section of the prison, where going from the recreation to the feed ward and whatnot means loading every time you go back and forth ? not fun when you're doing quests and missions in the region.
Still, despite that, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is a surprisingly great game that offers intense firefights, edgy stealth action, and enough quests and sidequests to make a prison like Butcher Bay a great place for a game. Even more exciting is this is a movie license done right ? sticking with the source material to craft a prequel (like Knights of the Old Republic), instead of tying into a movie (like Enter the Matrix) works really well here, and because Riddick himself is such a great character played exceptionally well by Diesel, it makes for a unique experience on the Xbox. While the somewhat short initial playtime and lack of Xbox Live play will annoy some people, everyone else will find a fun, intense, and thoroughly entertaining first person hybrid game that doesn't break or change the rules, but instead crafts the rules into the vision of Starbreeze and Vin Diesel to make one great game. There is only one lone thing to mention ? this is a very adult game, with not just blood and guts, but numerous uses of the ?F' word and a few references to prison sex scattered around. It never gets too out of hand ? very movie like ? but, you know?might want to shield prying eyes with a game that has a sign that says ?no fucking in the recreation area' in full, readable form.
Much of the hype surrounding this game has been centered around the unbelievable graphics ? some of the very best yet seen on Xbox. You've probably seen the shots showing off the outstanding lighting effects, the beautiful textures, and even the Eyeshine effect?but seeing it in motion is a whole different situation. From the hyper-realistic model of Riddick ? looking pretty much exactly like Vin Diesel ? is just the beginning. Butcher Bay is a bleak, grimy place, and the visuals really hammer that home when you encounter walls so well textured that picking out small text (much of it in words that would not be allowed within this review, as mentioned already). Lighting effects are particularly dynamic ? you shoot out lights, it slowly dims as the bulb burns out, making you completely dark?but your laser sight is very visible. When you hit the Eyeshine, there's a bit of a purple-ish tint on the screen, but it makes everything as clear as day - a great advantage against enemies who don't have the luxury. Even more interesting is the vision changes; if you crouch down into stealth mode, your peripheral vision actually widens, letting you see more of what's going on. Change back, and you'll see your vision revert back to normal. It's all very cool stuff. Other real-time texture effects like blood splattering when you kill an enemy are nice too, and really add into the atmosphere.
Really, Chronicles of Riddick is a game that has to be seen to be believed?while it lacks a lot of color, opting for dark, grimy colors, this is a prison, so it works out well. The framerate is solid at all times, and even in a wild firefight, or with constant use of the Eyeshine, it never slows down. The only thing that I could say is bothersome is the occasional overdone blur effect when the camera switches to cutscenes, but in-game, there's very little at all to complain about, especially since you really don't have a lot of time to be picky, what with a game going on. Very rarely do I get much worked up about graphics, especially a game like Riddick that has been hyped for nothing but the graphics (I tend to turn away from games that get this sort of hype?been burnt a few times too many), but Riddick is worth it as this is one beautiful, yet bleak game that actually uses the graphics to compliment the game, a la Splinter Cell. How would you know where to hide if you didn't know what was lit and what wasn't?
The audio rounds out the game, and does an overall fine job. A great set of voice actors is present, including the bad man himself, Vin Diesel to play Riddick. This is a role great for him, as he can use his gravelly, intimidating voice to roll off deadpan phrases and give Riddick personality. His supporting cast is also really good, and while the Chronicles of Riddick franchise is pretty much b-movie, this one is complimented by believable voice acting by prisoners (who will commence conversation amongst themselves, many times about Riddick), guards, and crooked wardens like Abbott, played extremely well by rapper Xzibit. It truly does have that Hollywood feel.
The music is fitting for the game ? hushed, quiet tunes when sneaking, yet when you're spotted and on the run, or engaged in combat, the music changes dynamically and becomes more noticeable. This is another tip to your visibility?if you're spotted but don't know it yet, the music will alarm you to that. There's not a whole lot of differences in the music, but a game like this really doesn't need it. Especially a game with such intense action. When the firefights hit, you'll realize, this game is loud. Very, very loud. Guns and other weapons make lots of noise in reality, so they do in Butcher Bay. And when you're in a firefight, it can be incredibly loud and intense. The wild sound of a shotgun, the silence of a tranquilizer gun, the hyper-fast unloading of an assault rifle?just really loud and well done. The stealth part means you have to keep quiet ? running will make enough noise to tip off guards, and kicking out grating or opening ventilation shafts with guards nearby will attract attention. Like the visuals, the audio becomes an essential part of the game and its structure.