2000’s Pitch Black was a cult sci-fi favorite about a group of stranded survivors fighting off nocturnal beasties during a total eclipse. One of the film’s highlights is the character of Richard B. Riddick – a stoic, clever, and ruthless criminal who Vin Diesel liked so much that he would play a variant of in every movie he’s been in since. Riddick’s quiet but also a smartass, deadly but reserved, an unapologetic murderer but not a crazed psychopath. He’s able to hide expertly in the shadows, use psychology to his advantage, but also follows his own curious moral code. Most importantly, he comes equipped with a surgical “eye shine” that allows him to see (and stalk) in total darkness – which turns out to be quite the handy ability in a movie titled Pitch Black.
Did I mention Vin really liked the character? He liked him so much, in fact, that he produced and starred in a movie sequel titled The Chronicles of Riddick, while also starting a video game production company (Tigon Studios) to finance a tie-in, Escape From Butcher Bay. The game acts a prequel to Pitch Black, and sets up a bit of Riddick’s backstory and just how he earned so notorious a reputation. Playing as Riddick, you will do exactly what it says on the tin, while channeling a bit of Thief-style stealth and some unique first-person fisticuffs.
You begin the game in transport to the notorious Butcher Bay penal facility. The prison is built out in the middle of the deserts of an inhospitable, rust-colored planet, and run by a pompous bureaucrat named Hoxie. In Riddick’s world, prisons apparently pay bounties to claim criminals (what the prison gets for their money is not clear), and Hoxie is eager to claim you as a trophy. You’re also introduced to Riddick’s strangely symbiotic relationship with the bounty hunter Johns (also from Pitch Black), who’s interested more in the getting the best deal for your head than serving any particular brand of justice.
From here, you set off on an adventure that blends so many game styles that it’s hard to distinctly classify. Combining so many forms of gameplay with relative ease is absolutely one of the game’s greatest strengths. It’s a first person shooter, an adventure game, a touch of an RPG, and a stealth game all in one. Certain gameplay types are sectioned off into their own areas, but when the time for action comes, you’re generally able to handle things as you see fit. Wait in the shadows for a guard to pass and slip by undetected? Sure. Move up behind him and break his neck? Go for it. Blast him with a shotgun? Absolutely, provided you have one at the time (it is a prison, after all). Meanwhile, you’ll be adding quest items to your inventory, trading them to fellow cons for cash, and using the cash to buy better shivs or useful intel.
The adventure sections are where you’ll get the most pieces of the story and collect optional side missions for money or gear. These always take place around cells or courtyard exercise areas, and fighting is strictly verboten. You’re free to move around, but your interactions are closely monitored (again, prison), so any aggressive moves usually see you blasted by guards or automated turrets. This never feels limited or boring, though. It’s a nice change of pace from the action and sneaking, the turrets prevent you from simply running around and murdering everyone (thus breaking the game), and there are a few clever requirements to off an inmate in ways that won’t draw the guards.
It’s also nice that the side missions are never required, unless you’re out to collect every secret cigarette pack and unlock every bonus artwork or concept render. If you don’t think Riddick is the kind of fellow who would run around grabbing moths for a junkie, then don’t do it. If you’re not a fan of these sections, you’re free to power on ahead through the plot. Likewise, a major progress block can be defeated either through side missions and chatting, or opting to enter into a straightforward arena tournament. Either way works, and it lets you play to your preferred style.
Though the game is played in first person, shooting is actually somewhat rare. Guns are DNA-encoded, delivering a Judge Dredd-style zap to any unauthorized user. This means a significant amount of your combat will be done with bare hands or makeshift shivs, and the first-person melee system is quite up to the task. You block with the right mouse button and attack with the left. Combining movement keys let you vary your strikes and set up combos, while perfect blocking will let you catch punches (or guns) and deliver a punishing counter.
Brawling in first person is neither as confusing nor disorienting as it sounds, and is actually a load of fun and surprisingly brutal. A basic damage model makes the results of your poundings satisfyingly clear, and a very fair damage system (if you only drain part of a health block, it will regenerate – fully drained ones need medical units) lets you take risks without being too fragile. You’re not going to want to rush up to packs of rifle-wielding guards, but you’re more than capable of holding your own in a one-on-one fight.
Of course, Riddick’s easiest kills are done from the shadows. Sneaking up behind nearly any enemy will let you perform an instant takedown. When concealed in shadow, the game lets you know by shifting to a wider, fisheye perspective with a light blue tint. The wider field of view helps you track passing guards, while the color shift is as equally helpful as Thief’s light gem without adding an obtrusive HUD element. This isn’t foolproof, of course. Guards carry weapons equipped with flashlights, and will shine them around if alerted by a noise, dead body, or glimpse of you dashing behind a crate. A bit of randomization also means they may finally wander upon your favorite hidey-hole.
Concealment gives Riddick an automatic advantage in the dark, but his eyeshine helps you navigate and exploit it. You do not begin the game with this ability, and must fumble around in the dark and utilize weapon-mounted torches just like your foes. A particular gauntlet of albino mutants in some blackened underground sewers serves to highlight just how much the darkness sucks, and makes you all the more grateful when you finally get your shine. This can be activated at any time once acquired, and turns the world purple with rainbow-colored trails. Any ambient light gets blown out drastically, so you can’t use it in well or even moderately-lit areas. But in total darkness, you can see with pure clarity. Visually, the effect is quite pretty, and different enough without an abundance of distracting visual effects.
This balance of light and shadow is handled expertly by a custom engine developed by Starbreeze. It is easily comparable to Doom 3’s, sporting many of the same features. Bump mapping helps concrete textures appear pitted and metal textures seem to have raised edges. Per-pixel lighting casts realistic shadows on all objects within the level. You can also knock out most lights to create new areas of darkness to use, with the lighting changing believably in real-time in response. There’s also a great focus on putting you inside the Riddick character, primarily through having the camera sit right within the model. The camera thus becomes Riddick’s eyes, and you can look down at your own body at any time, see your shadow cast accurately on nearby walls, or see your limbs move realistically near the corner of your vision as you shift around. It’s neat stuff, and certainly works more seamlessly here than, say, Trespasser.
Audio is equally impressive. Vin Diesel’s best asset – a voice that could punch you in the face and steal your girlfriend – is well-used to offer snarky quips in cutscenes or guide the player through self-mumbles and warnings about upcoming hazards. The voices for your fellow cons are similarly well-acted, and you’ll see quite the array of Hollywood talent on board. My only real complaint is a terrible overuse of John DiMaggio’s gruff guard growl. He seems to voice – literally – every third guard, so hearing his same “Hey prisoner! Stick yer head out so I can fucking kill you!” lines over and over gets annoying. There’s also no shortage of swearing. Sure, it is a prison, but the sheer frequency feels a bit too much like actors and writers trying to sound tough.
Music is handled through a system similar to LucasArts’ iMuse. Multiple tracks run concurrently throughout a level, each with a different theme (action, stealth, etc). As action ramps up or down, the music crossfades to the appropriate track. The idea is to create a seamless, organic score that matches the events on screen, and it generally works. The only issues I had were moments where enemies were far enough apart to trigger the shift to softer music, before scaling right back up as a new enemy rounded the corner. Tracks also felt a little similar across the game, though these awkward, repeated swells may have served to highlight their similarities more than was intended.
Plotwise, it’s a fun ride with a lot going on. Riddick’s rough plan for escape seems to be to cause so much trouble that it’s not worth holding him – a plan which will see you ushered into wings of increasingly-opressive security. You’ll think things can’t get much worse that a cell made out of a shipping container, but soon find that they can indeed. Areas of the prison and its underground mines look wonderfully distinct, from the initial rust and concrete courtyards to the opulent wooden panels of the executive offices. Pacing is great, there’s a nice amount of variety, and very little that feels tedious or unpolished, despite the blending of so many genres and gameplay styles.
The only misstep I noticed was the revision of Riddick’s character to fit the new(er) movie. He no longer gets his eyeshine surgically for “20 menthol Kools” as established in Pitch Black, and similar setups meant to suggest Riddick is something more than human feel awkward and shoehorned in. I haven’t even seen the Chronicles movie, but I could easily spot the parts that seemed added or changed to fit with the new mythology (though I suppose it’s not too difficult to tag a rage powered, Blanka-esque shockwave as notably out of place).
The game was originally an Xbox exclusive, so the PC port – sold as the “Director’s Cut” – adds a new area where you get to control one of the armed guard mechs encountered around the prison. It’s a nice distraction, and a rare section of consequnce-free shooting. The PC version also gets some added developer commentary, integrated directly into the game. With this mode turned on, you’ll encounter spinning Starbreeze logos you can activate to hear the developers prattle on about various aspects of development. These are divided by topic quite well and actually quite interesting to listen to (I’m guessing even more so for someone pursuing game design). The developers sound like a fun, laid back group of guys, and if you’re up to listening to a rogue’s gallery of Swedish accents talking about development minutia (sometimes for up to 17 minutes at a time!) then this mode will definitely entertain.
Escape From Butcher Bay’s reputation as one of the best movie games ever made feels rightfully earned. Like – dare I say – Deus Ex, it’s genre blending at its finest, taking the best parts of each system and making them accessible and smartly integrated. A beautiful engine and some excellent writing and acting don’t hurt either. You’ll need to keep in mind that it’s a stealth game more than it is a shooter, and there will be quiet sections where you won’t be snapping necks or breaking faces, but it’s a great time if you’re prepared to spend some time in Riddick’s shoes.
All the mechanics – first person fighting, shooting, body awareness, stealth – work exceptionally well. Engine looks great and art style still holds up. Strong pacing and pretty flawless execution.
Some occasionally dopey dialogue and heavily recycled guard clips. If you’re not into collectables, the development art they unlock, or the commentary mode, then there’s no real room for replay here.
“Are you afraid of the dark? I’m not. The dark’s afraid of me.” – Riddick