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The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Xbox 360) artwork

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Xbox 360) review

"Riddick is the bogeyman, a silent assassin who can see in the dark, and Vin Diesel exudes the perfect mix of menace and emotional detachment. The outrageous Chronicles of Riddick film tried its best to ideologically kill the character, but Riddick's two videogames bring the devil-may-care badass back. The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena actually includes both games, making it a tremendous purchase for anyone who missed out on 2004's Xbox classic."

Early in the film Pitch Black, a deep space cruiser crashes on a seemingly deserted planet. Most of the survivors are civilians, although a murderous renegade named Riddick takes advantage of the chaos to escape from his chains and his captor. The survivors scurry about frantically, trying to figure out how to cope with this new world and how to protect themselves from Riddick. During a particularly chaotic moment, one civilian mistakes some poor bald chap for the lurking murderer, and shoots him dead. Chaos and bickering ensues. The camera pans out, revealing Riddick sitting in a lawnchair atop a nearby pile of debris, casually lounging in the desert sun beneath an umbrella.

Riddick is the bogeyman, a silent assassin who can see in the dark, and Vin Diesel exudes the perfect mix of menace and emotional detachment. The outrageous Chronicles of Riddick film tried its best to ideologically kill the character, but Riddick's two videogames bring the devil-may-care badass back. The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena actually includes both games, making it a tremendous purchase for anyone who missed out on 2004's Xbox classic.

Stealth adventure Escape From Butcher Bay retains the atmospheric grit that made it such a high-quality surprise five years ago, while incorporating numerous updates including higher-quality visuals, a slew of new animations, and more responsive enemy AI. If released for the first time today, Riddick's escape from the galaxy's most notorious prison would have impressed me all on its own, because the entire adventure still feels disturbingly real. Non-player characters are loaded with personality; even though very few are particularly sympathetic, the game plays out like a tragedy set in motion by the notorious Riddick's arrival.

Assault on Dark Athena's tale begins shortly after Butcher Bay ends, but it's easy to pick up without playing through the first game. After crashing on a gorgeous beach, lined by waves lapping against the twilit sand, Riddick makes his way into a large structure that appears to be a refinery of some sort. He crawls through a tunnel and encounters a distraught man.

I punched the man in the face. Not yet satisfied, I grabbed the man by the back of the head and punched him a few more times, dropping his lifeless body to the ground in a bloody heap. It occurred to me that perhaps I oughtn't have done that. I chose to "restart from last checkpoint" and instead listened to the man's story about how he had escaped from the dreaded "them", but his family . . . his family! The man's fervent plea for help moved Riddick's heart.

"Get over it."

Riddick doesn't take well to whining, especially from a man who left his family to die. On the other hand, he does take well to genuine innocence. While crawling through ventilation shafts on the intergalactic slave vessel Dark Athena, Riddick encounters a little girl -- five or six years of age, perhaps -- who has been avoiding the mercenaries and cybernetic drones that prowl the ship's corridors. She says that they're monsters, and that she's afraid they'll turn her mother into a monster, too. Riddick comforts the girl.

"Now the monsters have something to fear."

The monsters in question are the drones; human beings whose minds have been gutted and whose bodies have been converted into the perfect soldiers. Every drone is capable of independently patrolling the corridors and eliminating intruders, but they can also be remotely mind-jacked by mercenaries for missions that require advanced intelligence or expertise. Later in the game, I was pleased to discover an opportunity to mind-jack drones myself. I took advantage of this opportunity to march the drone straight into a giant ventilation fan. With that drone suddenly out of service, I mind-jacked another drone. The mercenaries who showed up to check on the broken fan were quite surprised to be met by machine-gun fire.

Whether mind-jacking drones, crawling through ventilation shafts, or sneaking up on guards and snapping their necks, Riddick is not the type of person to leap into a firefight with guns blazing. The game is set in a first-person view, but the emphasis is on melee and stealth (albeit to a lesser degree than Butcher Bay). If Riddick flies headfirst into a firefight, it's because he has no other choice. It's because I had no other choice. And, more often than not, I actually did have another choice, which I discovered after being brutally killed. Riddick's fast, but he can't pull off any crazy back-bending, bullet-dodging Matrix moves.

Prowling a sprawling slave ship, sneaking across overhanging ledges, dropping down from grates in the ceiling, popping up from maintenance grilles . . . all of these things firmly establish Riddick as the stowaway from Hell, and the control is both responsive and versatile. I enjoyed darting between cargo crates, hiding in the shadows, peeking out from behind corners, trying to neck-snap twelve drones (and drag their bodies into the darkness) without ever being seen by any of them. This is a new role for Riddick; instead of playing the trapped rat, he is the hungry predator.

Unfortunately, since most opponents are drones or nameless mercenaries, the killing carried less meaning than the personal prison-yard struggles of Butcher Bay. This felt more like a game and less like an interactive film. Taken out of context, that statement may not sound like such a bad thing, but Butcher Bay was so brilliant in its execution that it seamlessly blended atmosphere with gameplay. Dark Athena never quite gets that balance right, although it is consistently very entertaining.

On the other hand, Dark Athena does firmly establish a sci-fi environment. With a few cosmetic changes, Riddick's previous adventure could have been set in a modern-day prison. Dark Athena is very evidently set in an advanced era and simply would not work if set in the present. A surprising mid-game twist (which, in retrospect, shouldn't have been nearly so shocking) cements this even further. Riddick's not a hero for our times; he's a hero for our dark, twisted future.

Since this second episode contains very few side-quests and a bit less personality, dogmatic adherents to Butcher Bay may be disappointed. But those fans can still enjoy the updated port. I never expected Dark Athena to match its predecessor; I was just looking for an excellent stealth adventure, and that's what I got. A great teacher once taught me that "no matter how he normally acts, a real man does what needs to be done when it needs to be done". This game does what needs to be done, and so does its hero. Riddick may be a violent ruffian who doesn't respect authority, but he recognizes pure evil and never falls prey to its temptations. He's a hero, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena tells two of his greatest tales.


Rating: 8/10

zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (June 21, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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