The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Back in 2004, Chronicles of Riddick Escape from Butcher Bay turned the movie to videogame transition on its head by actually being an incredibly good game based upon a crappy film. Fast-forward five years to the expansion pack come sequel and not only are we presented with an entirely new chapter, but we also get the chance to revisit Butcher Bay in a completely revamped version of the original game boasting the same rich graphical fidelity as the Dark Athena portion of the game.
Picking up immediately after the events of Butcher Bay, Chronicles of Riddick Assault on Dark Athena sees errant criminal Richard B. Riddick captured by the titular prawn-shaped ship during his cryonic sleep aboard an escape vessel. As such, the gravel toned anti-hero has to utilise his wily skills to get off the ship in much the same way as he escaped the decrepit prison cells of Butcher Bay. Hand to hand combat and stealth is once again the order of the day here with Riddick losing none of his brutally violent neck-snapping moves and blood-spurting artery laceration. Dark Athena trades one hell for another as Riddick himself notes with the gloomy vessel home to a human harvesting facility that turns people into mindless drones remotely controlled through the ship's systems. Drifting around the ship's corridors on a never ending patrol, the drones pose a constant threat, especially during the early stages where you have to get by solely on whatever melee weapons you can scavenge.
Making it out alive means using the shadows to your advantage, lurking amidst the darkness waiting to get the drop on the intelligent enemies, which inhabit every corridor and room on the vessel. The light of a torch cutting through the murk can expose your position and it only takes a few bullets to put you down, so staying out of sight is your best strategy. This is more difficult than it sounds though, especially when you're handed the best thing from the dire movies, the curved Ulak blades. Equipped with the lethal killing implements, you're capable of some truly vicious melee kills, from simple slices to the jugular all the way along the violence spectrum to eye gouges and brain puncturing head wounds. Riddick is perfectly honed killing machine and mixing up the brilliant gunplay with uncompromising close combat keeps things consistently engaging. Stealth is generally your key to survival, and using your 'eyeshine' ability to see in the dark is essential, but there are moments where balls out confrontation wins out over carefully paced sneakery. Some sections openly encourage spewing round after round of white-hot lead into the soft body armour of the bad guys, notably commandeering a mechanical bi-pedal walker and going on a rampage or dispatching an eight foot tall Alpha drone using exploding charges from your SCAR rifle.
Visually, Dark Athena carries on the fantastic pedigree set by all of Starbreeze Studio's FPS games to date, rendering the confines of the dank, inhospitable ship in pearlescent gunmetal grey, all encrusted with a layer of oily grime. Every inch of the entire experience is rich in textural detail, lending each environment a real sense of tangibility and an atmosphere of intense foreboding. A lot of the tension melts away once you get your hands on the heavy firepower later in the game though, with the SCAR rifle offering the player infinite sticky rounds that can be launched in a series of five before being detonated remotely. Upon collecting said weapon, the game throws larger enemies (such as the Alpha drone) at you to test your mettle with its capabilities while keeping things challenging. It's testament to the quality of game design that the close quarters encounters are every bit as fulfilling as the more traditional first-person gunslinging. The game's level design also manages to successfully sidestep providing too many tight, claustrophobic areas by intermittently introducing an open space to navigate, often requiring you to perform a bit of light platform jumping, ledge shimmying and ladder climbing. It's all balanced perfectly to ensure things don't get dull, so rather than groaning at the prospect of having to forego fighting more soldiers in favour of jumping about a bit, these sections actually prove to be a welcome break.
Assault on Dark Athena is a superb package offering two ten hour single-player campaigns and an excellent - if somewhat lightweight - multiplayer component. So much more than a mere expansion pack, the Dark Athena half of the game builds upon the overall narrative fantastically, outstripping the pantomime silliness of its cinematic counterpart, dispensing with the gaudy design and clunky script. Vin Diesel's performance and indeed the performances of every other NPC in the game are unparalleled, with every slight facial tic, nuanced expression and gesture flawlessly captured. All of this makes for an utterly compelling story, each character possessing their own individual personality traits, whether it's the psychotic Jaylor, the noble Dacher or the guy who's hunched over in the corner of his cell feverishly pleasuring himself, every one of the primary and secondary NPCs plays an integral part in forming the game's deeply evocative atmosphere. Uniquely for a genre where you rarely see your avatar, Riddick emerges as a fully-formed character, which you actually inhabit for the duration of the game, even though the lines he growls are few and far between.
It may not offer a vastly different experience to its predecessor in terms of gameplay, but packaging the two games together gives every gamer the chance to enjoy them as one cohesive whole. Even if you enjoyed Butcher Bay five years ago, you'll undoubtedly relish the chance to go back to its filth encrusted walls. But it's those who missed the original game who will get the most out of Assault on Dark Athena, with up to twenty hours of grade-A gaming to be enjoyed. Only Valve's Orange Box trumps it for sheer value and quality. For that reason alone, Assault on Dark Athena is nigh on essential.