The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena - Review

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Xbox 360 - £32.73 delivered
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, PS3 - £29.99 delivered
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, PC - £22.93 delivered

Review by Justin Thurman

In order to make some sense of this review, I would like to summarize my feelings on Assault on Dark Athena first and qualify them afterwards: I would very much like to recommend Assault on Dark Athena to you but I find that I am largely unable to do so. I wanted to like it myself. Having loved Pitch Black, been annoyed with but understanding of Chronicles of Riddick, and having not played Escape from Butcher Bay, I came to Assault on Dark Athena expecting (or at least hoping) to find a game wherein I play as the morally ambiguous, very unsettling, sneaky, stabby badass Richard B. Riddick – and at certain points throughout the game, this is exactly what I got. But those points are far too infrequent for me to have felt satisfied by the overall experience or to have felt that Assault properly seizes what makes Riddick such an appealing character.

During his introduction as a character in Pitch Black, Riddick seemed like an actual human being. He quite clearly had his ethical gray areas, he had motivations that didn’t feel like cardboard cut outs (partially because those motivations were consistently kept from us as audience), and he was a very powerful anti-hero. Assault on Dark Athena entirely misses the point of these shortcomings and turns Riddick into a brooding ‘loner’ (the bad kind) that reeks of pretentious self-righteousness. Riddick says things like “The Dark protects her” and “I could [help you]. But when I help people, they end up dead.” – how are we supposed to take him seriously at this point? And it’s not even that he’s mistaken when he says these things – they are actually quite accurate in a literal sense. But they obviously point at a more artistic, metaphorical meaning that suggests that the reason Riddick is wearing those goggles is to hide all the eye-liner he must be wearing.

But immature characterization doesn’t end (or even reach its peak) with Riddick. The supporting characters are the worst in this regard. In particular, there is a conversation with a prison inmate named Jaylor that left a horrible taste in my mouth. Jaylor makes mention of a female prisoner with whom Riddick was previously conversing, making note of all the unsightly things he’s going to do to her when he escapes. During this particular exchange, I’m reasonably certain he uses the word ‘fuck’ at least every other word and concludes by claiming that, “first I’m gonna kill her, and then I’m gonna fuck her.” Throughout the entire conversation, every time he uses any sort of expletive, he emphasizes the word like he’s thirteen and has just discovered the pre-pubescent allure of cursing like a sailor. Now I certainly realize that the mercenaries are supposed to be portrayed as tough and gritty but this sort of dialogue doesn’t sound natural. I am entirely convinced that the writer had the explicit goal of putting as many expletives into this particular conversation as he could – and it shows. And to make the conversation even more unnerving, Riddick makes virtually no response to this rant by Jaylor – and what response could he make? It’s no surprise that Riddick has no acknowledgement of this exchange when this sort of dialogue doesn’t fit in the Riddick universe to begin with.

I realize that I’ve just spent a good five hundred words bitching about characterization and not mentioned gameplay once, but to be honest, that’s what I wanted out of this game: characterization. Stealth action/shooters are not in terribly short supply these days, so I can get that sort of gameplay from a number of a different sources. What I wanted here was a game in which I felt like I was inhabiting the role of Richard B. Riddick in his own universe and I was largely let down. But still, the gameplay itself could have redeemed that shortcoming and made the game worth playing again – and it made a semi-decent attempt at this, but ultimately fell short.

I realize this particular horse has been beaten to death by now, but the biggest gameplay issue I found is that the game can’t make up its mind about what sort of game it wishes to be. The opening sections are sufficiently stealthy and stabby (even if there are certain flaws in both these elements) to make the player hopeful that this sort of work will continue. Even if characterization falls short, the gameplay in the early parts of the game is very much Riddick-esque. But soon you start becoming absolutely overwhelmed with bullets, guns, and more bullets to the point that the game becomes much more about (poorly designed) shooting rather than (wholesome fun) stabbing. To be fair, it’s not as if your stabbing instruments are taken away and you absolutely cannot use stealth – but it is sure to become an increasingly frustrating experience as the game goes on. Enemies become more densely populated, their guns get bigger (as does their ability to absorb bullets to any body part except the head), and then of course the infamous spider turret makes an appearance. So you certainly can stealth and stab your way through the game, but you might as well crowbar your way through Half-Life 2, as the gameplay (at least in terms of player-enemy interaction) won’t be much different.

This unfortunate shift really is quite a shame because the melee combat in the game is great. It’s visceral, the killing blow animations are excellent, and the stealth kills always feel rewarding. And then the gunplay feels approximately like flashing a strobe light at a mannequin until someone tips it over for you. But my absolute biggest peeve with the gameplay is the horrific eyeshine. The Dark Athena is sufficiently dark to warrant the name. Oftentimes you will be creeping along a corridor or an air vent with only a single light source off in the distance, making navigation rather cumbersome. Your eye shine, however, while semi-functional in absolute darkness, is blindingly headache-inducing when there is any source of light in the vicinity. I found myself switching back and forth constantly in order to even walk down an empty hallway. Many of the rooms you must navigate have light sources abundantly placed in one section with total darkness everywhere else, so you must switch your eyes on and off just for turning around. I am not exaggerating when I say that it quite frequently gave me headaches over longer playing sessions. Weird, glowy vision was fine in the movies for one reason: we weren’t the ones controlling it. In game, it is cumbersome and unnecessary. More traditional forms of night vision would have been just fine. But the worst part of Riddick’s eye shine is that it actually hampers your ability to hide from enemies in shadows. Quite frequently you find yourself slinking about in a dark section of a room with enemies just on the other side of whatever crates you’re hiding behind, and you have two options: leave eyeshine off and be unable to make out the environment in which you’re hiding, or turn it on and be unable to see when you’re about to stick the end of your nose into the light, resulting in it being blown off your face. The only way to make sense of the situation is to switch eyeshine on and off repeatedly, which, as I’ve suggested, is rather frustrating.

I could go on about other complaints I had such as frequent backtracking, long loading, or a boring story (and how could the story be any good with such lackluster characterization?), but I feel that would be largely unnecessary. The game had two fronts on which it could have succeeded. It could have been an engaging portrayal of the Riddick universe but it turned out to be immature and insipid. It could have been entertaining, well-executed stealth gameplay but it turned out to be a weak shooter. Even still, I have heard that Escape from Butcher Bay is better in both these regards and I was not so turned off by Assault that I won’t play Escape. I want to reiterate that I really enjoyed stealthing around and picking off guards in the early sections of the game. I still hold out hope that the Riddick character can be revitalized and that more of the engrossing stealth-stabbity fun is in there somewhere. There are some promising aspects of Assault on Dark Athena’s gameplay that, if they were refined and focused on more fully, could make an excellent game and I am hoping that Escape from Butcher Bay will fit that bill.

And last but not least, there’s the multiplayer. Seeing as multiplayer was not originally planned to be included, I expected it to feel tacked on and unnecessary – and largely it did. But the Pitch Black game mode in which one player plays as Riddick and the rest as the mercs hunting him was surprisingly engaging. Playing as Riddick is a fun hide and seek, cat and mouse chase, whereas playing as a merc brings out the fear that should be associated with hunting and being hunted by Riddick. The environments are claustrophobic and dark, forcing the mercs to choose between a relatively weak weapon with a stronger flash light or a strong weapon that offers little in the way of visibility. It promotes coordination among the mercs and allows Riddick, when that coordination is lacking, to pick them all off one by one, exactly as he should. I don’t know if that experience is worth the price of admission all on its own, but it’s an enjoyable diversion nonetheless.

So ultimately, if you enjoyed Butcher Bay (as many people did) and would like to play it on a current-generation console, pick it up. You’ll get the game you know and love, some entertaining multiplayer, and if you must lengthen (and reduce the quality of) the Riddick experience, you have the single player portion of Assault on Dark Athena. But for anyone looking for a new, exciting entry into the Riddick universe or the stealth/action genre, I must suggest you look elsewhere.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Xbox 360 - £32.73 delivered
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, PS3 - £29.99 delivered
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, PC - £22.93 delivered


Joe said...

Certainly more verbose than Spoony's classic 5 second review: "It uses SecuROM with a 3 install limit, so enjoy your $59 rental, if it even works."

Anonymous said...

You should check out the Dark Fury animated prequel to Chronicles.