This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.
Okay, so Pitch Black was a good film if you're into that sort of thing. It had Claudia Black getting her crotch pulled off, and that's always a plus. But the best part was the character of Riddick, because he was clearly vital to the survival of the other characters but utterly unpredictable. You were never sure if he was motivated by a genuine spark of compassion inside his stony, psychotic exterior, or if he was only serving the others so he could pull out their brain matter and use their empty skulls as muesli bowls.
Vin Diesel then completely grasped the wrong end of entirely the wrong stick and decided everyone was there to see Vin Diesel run around saying badass one-liners in a voice like he had severe congestion. So he vowed to see how long he could single-handedly keep a franchise going based around that alone. Shortly afterwards, The Chronicles of Riddick film burst into cinemas, killed all the character's interesting mystique and quietly slunk away to die. But let's be kind enough to forget about that and talk about the games.
Okay, so Escape from Butcher Bay was a good game if you're into that sort of thing. It had the ability to creep up behind a guard and dig out all his memories of childhood with a screwdriver, and that's always a plus. But it wasn't the kind of Criterion Collection timeless classic that demands a remake, a notion which someone was thankfully able to successfully crowbar into Vin Diesel's head and persuade him to re-release Butcher Bay with an additional campaign tacked on, Assault on Vinegar...er...Dark Athena.
Let's not waste the universe's time by pretending that there's much essential difference between the setups of Assault on Vinegar and Escape from Smoky Bacon. Riddick is placed somewhere he doesn't want to be with an interior design owing something to the Doom 3 engine and endeavours to not be in the place he doesn't want to be. On the way he kills a lot of people, but they all mutter to themselves about how much they like stomping on fluffy yellow Easter chicks all day, so it's alright. That's one of the recurring themes of the ongoing Riddick adventures, actually: writers desperately trying to come up with enemies who are even less likable than the socially inept, baldy-headed douche we're supposed to root for.
Anyway, let's leave that aside for now and take a look under the gameplay bonnet. It's first-person (all the better for Vin Diesel to project), except for occasional inexplicable cuts to third-person whenever Riddick climbs up things (all the better for Vin Diesel to admire his imaginary self's rippling, athletic bod, best of both worlds). Speaking of which, the gameplay is mostly stealth focused. Hang on, they've given us a gun! I guess it's a shooter now, then. Oh no, wait, the gun contrivedly fell behind a fridge and all my other guns spontaneously disintegrated. Now it's a melee brawler. Gameplay does tend to trundle back and forth between the three major stations of the FPS circle line, and to its credit, they all function surprisingly well. The guards are sufficiently thick and slow-moving enough to make stealth viable, and if you get bored, there's always the option of snapping peoples' necks like fleshy breadsticks. Melee combat is nicely visceral, and punching someone has the accurate feeling and weight of actually punching someone as opposed to, say, waving your knuckles around until they fall over. And shooting people with guns is just as wholesome and rewarding as it is in real life, although the locational damage is a bit mental when a headshot is an instant kill and blowing both their kneecaps off is about as effective as a foot massage.
At times, though, the schizophrenic exchanging of gameplay makes me want to fold my arms, sit down, and refuse to continue until the game makes its bloody mind up. I'll be crawling along from shadow to shadow in stealthy mode when suddenly, fifty guys burst in and I'll realize we switched to shooter mode while I wasn't looking, which makes me feel like a bit of a wally. The difficulty curve's all over the place when you can be riding around a powered robot suit one moment and having girly hair-pulling slapfights the next. Assault on Cool Ranch Doritos gets particularly unfocused about four hours in, after Riddick goes through what is unmistakably a final boss fight and something that is equally unmistakably an ending, only for the game to keep going in a new location for another hour or two before going through another final boss fight with the exact same villain, who was pretty sprightly for someone who ended up with a fucking spike through the neck the first time around.
My theory is that Dark Athena consists of two mission packs that were inexpertly mashed together after it became clear that the second one was too short and too shit. It's in this chapter that we're introduced to the spider turret, a small wall-mounted enemy that is very hard to spot and which can knock off all your health in two hits from two continents away. An enemy which can only have been designed by some kind of sinister conspiracy of sixteenth century Puritans working to eliminate the very concept of fun.
Butcher Bay was good, but remakes are bad. See how this works? If all we do is remake and re-release what was good, then we end up circling the drain various Nintendo properties have been monopolizing for the last twenty lucrative years. Disregard that aspect and concentrate on the expansion pack, or packs, because that's exactly what Dark Athena is: more of the same gameplay in new, darker, Athena-y locales.
I guess it'll be your thing if you felt Butcher Bay needed about six hours of extra length and gradually glide downhill in quality. Or if you still give a shit about Riddick as a character, in which case hello, Vin Diesel, for you are the only one! Riddick in Pitch Black had some personality, a sense of humor, actual flaws and ambiguous morals. You know, like what us tiresome human beings have. But now he's just an infallible cardboard cutout who does nothing but growl threats and pretentious bullshit one-liners that are supposed to make him sound like a warrior poet but more give the impression that he has fortune cookie papers glued to the inside of his goggles. I understand that it's fun to jerk off, Mr. Deisel. But most of us don't try to make a franchise out of the sticky tissues. And, since you asked, no, I probably wouldn't say that to your face.
- Last survivor of a proud warrior race: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- The four steps of video game melee combat: Bait, beat, retreat, repeat
- For this review I swore I wouldn't use the word 'Riddick-ulous'