Game review: “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay”

Guess I’m on a “Riddick” kick, but so far it’s a pretty pleasurable one. The latest is this Xbox game, which takes place before “Pitch Black” and fills in a few of the blanks about Riddick’s past.

Even leaving aside the movie tie-in, this is a good game, the only first-person combat game I can remember seeing that does a decent job of both weaponed and bare-hands fighting. Once Riddick gets his trademark see-in-the-dark eye modification, it’s fun to take out the lights, then sneak up and attack the guards from behind as they stumble around in the dark. I often chose to make my kills barehanded and up close rather than picking the guards off from a distance. Understand that I’m the type who cranks up the resolution on “Jedi Knight” so I can target the stormtroopers from a mile away, so the “Butcher Bay” people clearly got something right in their play mechanics to make me give up that habit.

Some of the game is very linear, with a “get yourself from point A to point B and kill everything in your path” structure like any other first-person shooter. But other large sections of the game are more open-ended, with plenty of optional little side quests that give it an almost RPG-like feel. That variety of structure is a big asset to the game; as well as keeping the gameplay fresh, it also goes a long way toward making Butcher Bay seem less like a series of levels populated by cannon fodder and more like a real place.

And what a place it is. While the environments are for the most part drab (it is supposed to be a high-security prison!) the level of visual detail is impressive, and the character models are first-rate. With a few rare exceptions, the people move like actual people. When the game shifts into third-person mode (usually during cutscenes,) Riddick looks more like Vin Diesel than he does like a video-game character.

There aren’t really any “secret areas” in the game per se, but there are packs of cigarettes, often very humorously labeled, scattered through the game. Finding a pack unlocks behind-the-scenes material from the game and the second movie. Some of the packs are trivial to find, but some are quite difficult. I admit I ended up turning to a walkthrough a couple of times to make sure I collected them all before I left a particular area!

The save system is about average for a console game. You have no ability to save the game manually, but the automatic checkpoints are usually frequent enough that dying isn’t a huge source of frustration. Still, I would have preferred to be able to save at will, mostly so I could turn the console off rather than leaving the game paused for hours when real life interrupted and I had to stop playing.

Since this is a movie tie-in, and an official one at that, there is of course some extra information about Riddick’s background and the background of one of the characters from “Pitch Black.” There’s even a possible hint about what might happen in a third movie, should they make one.

I appreciated seeing some of the events referred to in the movies, and I especially appreciated that without introducing any continuity problems, the game managed to spin one major event in Riddick’s past in a completely different direction than the movies had suggested. Be sure to sit through the insanely long end credits (clearly designed by Academy Awards acceptance speechwriters — the credits continue to crawl long after the game has run out of soundtrack music to play!) for a final little sequence.

It’s not quite spectacular enough to knock “Jedi Knight” off the top of my favorite first-person combat game list, but I’d probably put it second or third.

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