Reviewed: June 13, 2004
Released: June 1, 2004
Easily the highlight of the Vivendi booth at this year’s E3 was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, not just because it was the best looking Xbox game of the show, perhaps the best looking Xbox game to date, and not because Vin Diesel was there signing autographs (with a 3hr wait), but for the simple fact that this is one of the few FPS games that actually “gets it right”.
Arriving just in time to ride the hype-train for the Chronicles of Riddick movie, Escape from Butcher Bay seals its own unique notch in the legacy of Riddick by offering a prequel glimpse into the sorted past of our anti-hero and when combined with this year’s movie and Pitch Black from 2000, you have an intricate trilogy that spans both film and video game.
Riddick weaves an intricate mix of stealth, melee, and weapons combat, all in a very dismal but totally realistic prison experience. You start the game in route to the “slam” and are given a brief tutorial in the form of a rather short dream sequence. What follows is an incredible opening credit cutscene that is semi-interactive. As the heavily armed guards escort you to the interior of the slam you are free to move your head about and view the surrounding environment and its inhabitant from any angle you choose, even zooming in if you wish.
Once you arrive in your cell you must quickly define yourself as the “alpha” male because let’s face it, Riddick ain’t nobody’s bitch. You can wander the halls; any open cells, and the courtyard and talk to a variety of NPC’s. Some will give you advice, some will give you quests, and others will just give you a hard time.
You’ll quickly muster a nice checklist of objectives and can start checking them off one by one as you secure a shiv, make a few “hits”, and take out the rival cellblock boss, much to the chagrin of the head of security who had some sort of “arrangement with the former leader.
Like any good videogame there is the underlying “collectible quest”, this time in the form of packs of smokes. Each pack unlocks some artwork, a movie, or some other bonus nugget in the Extras menu, plus each pack is uniquely labeled and quite humorous in its own right. You can find smokes in some very out-of-the-way locations, so exploring every nook and cranny is mandatory if you want to find all the smokes. Other packs are given to you as rewards for completing goals and others can simply be bought from inmates.
Rather than becoming too powerful too quickly, Riddick is forced to use his wits and various melee weapons during the first part of the game. The designers have cleverly created a system where all the guards’ weapons are DNA encoded and if your DNA isn’t in the security computer you get “zapped”.
Getting your DNA into that computer is one of your earlier quests about an hour or two into the game, but even when you do get your hands on some firepower the game remains nicely balanced. Enemy AI is not only very tough; there is a proximity system where if you even get too close to a guard they will rough you up. Later in the game you can actually get searched and if you have any contraband you will lose it.
Stealth is handled with an intuitive system where you simply crouch to enter stealth mode then slink into the shadows. Rather than having a visibility meter (ala Splinter Cell) the screen will turn into a monochromatic blue indicating you are invisible to anyone nearby. Riddick can also climb; shimmy, and monkey swing across ceiling grid work and even drop down for instant stealth kills.
Riddick has several cool moves. He can sneak up behind somebody in stealth mode and perform a head-snap - slow and silent or quick and loud – you decide. If you are in close range with an armed opponent and they are trying to pistol-whip you with the butt of their rifle you can try for a timed countermove and if successful reverse the weapon into their chest and have them pull the trigger. There is also an interesting fisticuff fighting system that combines the attack button with various positions of the movement stick. This system works with fists or handheld weapons like a shiv.
The game checkpoints and auto-saves frequently and there were only a few instances where I died and had to repeat some annoying sections of the game. Often I would die for some stupid reason like accidentally hitting the attack trigger instead of the talk button. Any act of aggression within view of the guards or security cameras results in death or at least getting stunned and dragged back to your cell.
Health is handled quite nicely. You start off with four blocks. Blocks can take several stages of damage but as long as there is a sliver of a block left it will regenerate. Throughout the game are several health stations that can restore up to four blocks, so if you only use two you can come back later and reuse the station. Later in the game you get power cells that can restore a health station back to full capacity. There are also health upgrade stations. These look like cockpits and you get inside and are given an extra square of health.
There are about 30 levels in Riddick, which sounds like a lot until you arrive at the closing credits about 10-12 hours after you start. I finished the game in two sittings, but there are three natural break points about four hours apart if you want to span the game over three days. The first part of the game takes place on the surface in the conventional prison level, then you eventually make your way to the interior of the planet where the really bad criminals hang out. Here, you will have to engage in a tournament of fights to the death and perform several fetch quests before gaining access to the mining levels even deeper down.
Once in the mining levels you will fight off an infestation of alien insects before making your way to the spaceport. And finally you will find yourself in a Triple Max Security Cryogenic cellblock. Escaping from here will be the ultimate test for Riddick and the climactic conclusion to the game.
Along the way you will get your eyes “shined” giving you the ability to toggle on a very handy night-vision mode. Just like the movie, if you get caught in the light with this mode turned on you will be blinded, but it presents some challenging opportunities to shoot out lights and make your own darkness. My only complaint with this mode is that whenever you do an action like climbing or accessing a health station or vent shaft the camera cuts away to a third person view and you lose the effect and are cast into darkness. Since these are cinematics it’s not a huge deal.
Escape from Butcher Bay is a linear story that offers a surprising amount of flexibility in the gameplay. There are often multiple paths to certain destination and you are free to complete the side quests in any order you choose or ignore them entirely. It is possible to get so far into the game that you cannot go back and complete any unfinished quests, and these thresholds aren’t entirely obvious. And don’t even think about finding all the smokes without a strategy guide. I found at least three packs while wandering aimlessly, lost in a maze of airshafts.
Riddick is simply one of the best looking games you can currently play for the Xbox. It’s dark and gritty, but strangely colorful and even beautiful in a disgusting sort of way. The walls are painted with graffiti including plenty of words you can only say (or read) in an M-rated game. The toilets are disgusting, coated with rust and grime and the entire prison looks so bad you can almost smell it. Textures are all bump-mapped and lit with per-pixel lighting so they pop off the screen.
Lighting is excellent and is rendered in real-time complete with shadows. Nearly every source of light can be destroyed ultimately giving you control over the environment and how you play the game. Shadows are a crucial part of Riddick’s stealth ability, which is called into play several times in the later part of the game.
Character design is flawless. The model for Vin Diesel is exquisite as is the facial texture mapping. You’d swear you were playing a movie. All of the supporting characters are equally impressive, each with very distinct personalities. You’ll ultimately talk to over 30-40 people and none of the major NPC’s ever double up.
Special mention goes to the wonderful interface, or rather the lack thereof. Critical information only appears on the screen when you need it then quickly fades away. Health cubes fade when you aren’t in combat and weapon icons appear only when you are cycling through them. The menus are awesome, like a pegboard and as you make selections the pegs all fall into place. It’s a very cool effect.
The menus also give you access to all of your checkpoints and mission objectives. There is even a map, but I found it to be totally worthless. It is so broad and generic that it doesn’t help in the slightest.
You couldn’t have made this game without Vin Diesel reprising his role as the ultra-cool Riddick. Normally I’d bash a game where there was so much emotionless acting but in this case that is the point. That is Vin’s trademark in nearly every movie he’s made, but especially with the Riddick character.
Other stars include Cole Hauser as Johns, Kirsten Lahman as Shirah, Willis Burks II as Pope Joe, and Ron Perlman as Jagger Vance. Everyone delivers their lines with a professional quality that complements the excellent story and script. Even the NPC dialogue is interesting and often informative giving you good reason to pause and eavesdrop whenever possible.
The soundtrack provides a unique mix of oppressive military themes and a cinematic background score that is worth of a major motion picture. Of particular interest is one piece of music that seems to have been lifted right out of Metal Gear Solid and dropped into this game. The music supports and enhances the visuals and the action perfectly and the Dolby Digital mix combined with the HDTV support will make this a favorite for gamers with a high-end home theater.
I’ve been reading a lot of complaints from gamers and critics with regards to the lack of multiplayer content. Riddick is Xbox Live Aware, which means people on your friends list can bug you while you are playing but there is no content or multiplayer support. Who cares and how would you ever implement it?
Riddick is a self-proclaimed loner so you could never have a cooperative mode and remain true to the character. Plus, in any multiplayer game there would always be huge fights about who would get to play Riddick. The only possible thing I can think of is a tiered ladder structure of prison fights, but the fighting engine isn’t that strong; certainly not strong enough to carry an entire game mode.
It should take most gamers about 10-12 hours to escape from Butcher Bay. Thorough gamers might want to take a few extra hours to locate all the smokes and complete every single quest. I finished the game in 10 hours and was missing about six packs of smokes and failed to complete one quest. Certainly not a huge disappointment and now I have a good reason to replay the game someday.
Some of you may have a problem laying out $50 for a 10-hour game, but in this case I still have to recommend it. This is a wonderful example of a quality FPS game and a movie-crossover title; two things consoles rarely see.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a wonderful mix of action and stealth. It’s got more action than Splinter Cell and plays better than Breakdown, plus you have the character of Riddick, crass, egotistical, and tough as nails. He’s a villain cast into a world of even worse villains ultimately making him the unlikely hero he is destined to become in Pitch Black and the recently release sequel.
If the gameplay isn’t enough to grab you then the audio and visual presentation will certainly make this a showcase title for your Xbox collection, one that will wow your friends. It’s a definite must-have addition to any Xbox gamer’s library.