Retro: The Chronicles Of Riddick

By Jim Rossignol on August 18th, 2008 at 11:11 am.


One particular game seems to have come up a great deal in our gaming discussions from the past couple of months, and so I decided it was time to go back and play it. 2004′s The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (TCOREFBR?) is one of those games that sits at the back of my mind, silently benchmarking everything else that has appeared since. It is one of those action games that really doesn’t seem to have had much influence over the course of gaming, and yet is a splendid comparative high-watermark for anything with guns, or fists. Weirdly, for a first-person action game, the fists are actually what is most important.

Perhaps what I recalled most clearly about Riddick was the nagging sense that my review at the time (86%, PC Gamer UK) failed to capture what was most interesting about the game. I remember marking it down because it spiralled off into a medium-quality shooter in the later stages, but it was one of those times when I should have ignored my most recent impressions and returned to what was most compelling about the game: the ultra-violent action adventure in the three prisons of Butcher Bay.

Returning to the game in 2008 the first thing that strikes me is just how smooth and clutter-free the game world is. There’s almost no HUD, except for name tags on characters and the odd conversation tree.. yes, conversation trees in an action game. Hell, it even begins with a dream sequence (or is it some kind of a memory?) as a tutorial. Riddick is quite unlike anything else from that era. It’s dead linear in its direction – and not an RPG – yet much of the game deals with wandering around talking to in-mates and getting on the right side of tattooed convicts. There loads of fighting, but also a good amount of talking, investigating, wandering and sneaking.

In fact this is a rather low-key game, nothing like the hyperbolic storms we’re constantly being served by the action-game fraternities. It’s a science fiction game in which the futurism keeps its head down – utterly unlike the film that came out around the same time. The game story acts as a prequel to Pitch Black, explaining Riddick’s supernatural eyes, but that almost doesn’t matter. It’s a prison-drama in which story-telling takes a back seat. You’re simply dealing with being imprisoned: looking for an exit. As a result the tone is closer to a hyper-violent Thief game (stealth being a major feature; Thug: The Dark Project?) than it is to other games from the same era, say Far Cry or Half-Life 2. The themes are close-up and fleshy: shattered faces in fist-fights, broken vertebrae from stealth kills. The gunfights are generally a disappointment, although they’re just about brutal and noisy enough to be interesting.

Even Diesel’s muttered one-liners don’t seem as overwrought as they so consistently are in his Riddick films. It’s just your character muttering to himself, as you suspect habitual murderers might end up doing.

The prison setting is remarkably convincing. The in-mates are wonderful grotesques, muscular and weathered, and cast starkly in Starbreeze’s remarkably beautiful game engine. The play of light and the cast of shadows made this a game that would not age rapidly, and remain impressive even now. The level of detail in the prison was balanced with a lack of general mess: it’s some how just enough to give you an impression of a living world, and yet starkly minimal. Perhaps it’s the life of the characters, the peerless idling animation of thug smoking a cigarette and then idly stubbing it out on the ground, that make it so convincing. A behavioural trick of the brain: if it moves like it’s alive, it’s alive. These motions are supplemented by a huge cast and excellent voice-acting (Vin Diesel, Ron Perlman, Xzibit). No squeaky-voiced comedy character here, just hard men… and even harder men. Oh it’s macho, but the fact that they’re all imprisoned, or about to be beaten to death with your fists, mean it’s no Gears Of War.

There’s also a strange tension in the prison itself: action games are about empowerment, and yet you’re always controlled and hedged in by the game world. In this particular case that is easily explained away by your environment: the layers of a planetary prison.

Anyway: those fists. There’s an indistinct, messy quality to the fist fights, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The wild physical action of battering someone to death /shouldn’t/ seem as controlled as using a rifle at thirty metres. Riddick gets across the brutality of melee better than almost any other first-person game I can think of. I love the fact that it’s so low-down and dirty too: tackling soldiers at close range and blowing off their heads with their own shotgun is exactly how Riddick should operate. The broken necks, the facial injuries on your fist-fight opponents – their tumbling, broken bodies. Riddick is long on the nastiness. It’s horrible stuff. Great stuff.

In fact this game so much right – from the tone of the environmental design and the characters, to the balance between action and atmosphere – that I’m surprised it comes across so modestly. Despite Diesel’s ludicrous Riddick character, this is not of the same bombastic magnitude of over-the-top adventure that so many games want to give us. I see it rubbing shoulders in the same shadowy bar as Stalker, Thief. Riddick taps a vein of gaming that is something like Film Noir.

Finally, I should note that I have no idea how to get Riddick working on Vista: although apparently that’s just me. Comments report working Vista installs. Hopefully the PS3/360 remake of the game will bring us a Windows DX10 version too, because for now I have to revisit Riddick on my cranky old laptop. That’s okay, but it’s not exactly my preferred experience.

If you’ve not played Riddick yet, I suggest you do so. You can pick it up on Amazon for about $6.

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70 Comments »

  1. absentblue says:

    I remember I showed Pitch Black to my brother cause it was awesome, then we went and checked out the sequel, and it was alright, then we went to Block Buster and I rented the game cause– well I couldn’t tell you why other than I thought the screen shots looked good (surprisingly I do a lot of basis on graphics, but I’m usually right).

    Needless to say I enjoyed the game a whole lot more than either of the movies. I played through it three times before returning it then went and got it on XBox when it was on sale for $20 shortly after release. It’s the only game I have that I can’t play, and I know I can’t ever play it without an XBox, but I just can’t get rid of it.

    And maybe it’s just me, but I thought the cigarette collecting was pretty lame. If I’m going to scavenge a game to satisfy my OCD I’d prefer it to be more rewarding than extra content I shouldn’t have to work for. I didn’t like how the echoed this in Darkness, also a very fun game, but I’m biding my time for Dark Athena!

  2. malkav11 says:

    I *loved* Riddick. It even made me go back and check out Starbreeze’s freshman effort, Enclave, which I remembered looking interesting at the time, but the reviews were poor. And yeah, it turns out that Enclave isn’t great, but you can see the sparks of greatness that caught flame in Riddick.

  3. lio says:

    I really enjoyed the Riddick game… the melee combat beats every other game easily in my opinion – Condemned was close but Riddick pulled it off better.
    I also liked how you could see your own body and how well it worked with the game.
    Heck, it was released before Doom3 and the technology was at least as good if not better (soft shadows on the pc version) but somehow it didn’t generate a lot of buzz it seems… the director’s commentary feature on the pc was real nice, too…
    if you haven’t played the game yet you really missed out…

  4. Scandalon says:

    RE: Commentary: Rogue Squadron 2 on the Cube had developer commentary, and it was released (google google…) end of 2001.

  5. propanol says:

    Riddick is a great game. I bought it (it was cheap) in ’06 or so and my cousin kept nagging me to play it for like a year, but I wasn’t feeling too compelled seeing as movie-licensed games have always (with almost no exception) been crap. I was taken by surprise by the quality of it – very atmospheric, good voice-acting, fun level design (with some over-reliance on the climbing mechanic). A welcome throwback to the FPSes of old which focused on the fun factor rather than being pretentious vehicles for the development team’s crazed ideas (see: everything released since ’05, and a lot of stuff before then).

    Also,
    NanoMed Plus – we treat you right when the world treats you rough!

  6. Jetsetlemming says:

    My favorite part of Riddick is comparing it to Doom 3. Came out in the same year, same type of setting (Rusty metal semi-neglected complex on a dusty red planet), same genre (FPS), same platforms (PC and Xbox). Riddick is 10x better, with far bigger, more detailed environments, better graphics, better gameplay, and didn’t have to get it’s already small “larger areas” cut out for the Xbox version like Doom 3 did. For all the talk of Carmack being the god of game engines, Starbreeze beat the shit out of him in one hit.

  7. absentblue says:

    @Jetsetlemming

    No kidding, id Tech 4 was a big failure and so was Doom III, but give Carmack his due, every other engine he’s made has done incredibly well. And if Rage along with his current boasting is any indication then id Tech 5 will certainly be the amazing piece of tech that the fourth should have been.

    However Starbreeze did wipe the floor with him. I remember when it came out that due to the graphical similarities everyone was speculating that Riddick used the same engine as Doom III. When it was revealed false it just made it all the more impressive. Unfortunately it was not so scalable to the PC, but I hear that it’s been improved. It is worth noting though that despite the XBox is a DirectX based system, Starbreeze followed the rare path that id has been vehement about and released Riddick on PC as an OpenGL game.

  8. The Sombrero Kid says:

    i’d just like to say every piece of code in id tech 4 is written by id software, there isn’t another developer in the world who can say anywhere near the same thing, no one has yet wiped the floor, at what he does, with john carmack and i doubt will do before he retires.

    i might add that id tech 4 to date is has the only commercial per polygon hit testing and physics system that can handle it without spazzing out to date.

    the tech didn’t fail at what it was designed to achieve, you can’t write multiplatform engines and release the source and the world needed a multplatform engine, but id needed to educate and share as much as make money and get lisences, it’s just a shame that trend has probably ended with rage and id tech 5.

  9. LittleJanJansen says:

    Had to do a double take at the sign – No fucking in the exercise yard! (or something to that effect.) The game really nailed the feel of being in a bad ass prison with a certain Oz like vibe. Vin Diesel’s ‘acting’ was understated enough and was probably better than all his movies put together.

    Nice mechanic for not being able to use guns for sections too – really made you appreciate the times when you did get hold of one.

    Graphics (even on original Xbox) are still pretty good today, I think it was one the first titles to use normal mapping.

  10. James Lyon says:

    I had the pleasure of playing this for the first time a couple of months ago (worked fine for me in Vista – straight out the box). It stands up astonishingly well, even a few years later: dark, gritty, oppressive like it should be.

    I’m surprised nobody’s yet mentioned one of the rarer lighter moments, though. For a game that takes itself so seriously most of the time, the GLaDos style admonishments of your mech were pretty good comedy relief.

  11. Charlie says:

    I enjoyed it but never finished it. Personally I found the stealth a little dodgy, and the combat a bit iffy as with all melee in fps’s. I have to completely disagree with you about the setting too. It didn’t feel like a scary prison to me, just big empty spaces with stupid stationary npc’s. And it just didn’t feel like the most dangerous prison on the planet, let alone the universe what with everyone just standing around motionless. A surprisingly roomy maximum security prison it was too!

    Also, it ruined my idea of a pitch black prison where Riddick had to get new eyes to save himself from getting shivved. In fact he had to get new eyes so he could do the generic zombie level. Not a bad game at all, I just think it has been over hyped somewhat. Give me The Darkness anyday of the week!

    edit: Oh I just remembered that Bender from Futurama was in it. So strike everything I just said, its genius.

  12. hydra9 says:

    It arrived in the mail this morning. Started playing it and it sucked me in straight away. Good stuff.

  13. hydra9 says:

    Ooh, scary. I just emerged into the daylight, went to Asda to buy bananas and stamps. I *felt* like Riddick. I would’ve definitely uppercut a couple of chavs if it had’ve come down to it.

  14. moonracer says:

    I remember hearing good things about this game when it came out but never checked it out. I’ll have to keep my eye out fro the remake or a cheap copy of the director’s cut.

    I also think remaking older games that are no longer compatible with modern systems should be more common. I would love to go through a well done remake of System Shock. It would be a much wiser move than trying to make another sequel (though I did like system shock 2 as well).

  15. Irish Al says:

    It was pretty good, even if it did have 2ft square levels due to the XBox’s 16KB memory (say hello Thief:DS and DX:IW)

  16. Charlie says:

    Well I never played the System Shocks as I’m too young, but my bro always says Bioshocks story was almost exactly the same as SS2 so maybe Bioshock 2 will be SS1?

  17. NickR says:

    I recently bought the Xbox version of Riddick. Took a while to get used to the controls (zoom on the black button?) and out of the Splinter Cell/MGS mindset (“this is a stealth game, I want to get through each area without being seen or killing anyone”) and into the Riddick mindset (“I’m playing a psychotic killer, I’m supposed to murder the guards!”) – but once I did, I really enjoyed it.

    > TCOR:EFBB…er Riddick, is probably the single best movie-related FPS yet!

    Except for that one James Bond thing.

  18. hydra9 says:

    Finished the game tonight. Verdict: REALLY good. A top-notch stealth/action/fighting/adventuring game, that also manages to be one of the best licensed products ever.

    What’s even more amazing is that I didn’t think much of the Riddick films, didn’t think he was a very interesting character… but the game managed to make me like him… and it was so much better than the movies that inspired it.

    Yep, great stuff.

  19. The Shed says:

    “I won’t be surprised if it all somehow leads up to the beginning of Pitch Black.”

    Good call, it would be a clever move to draw the final line between the game and Pitch Black as a little update. Gameplay on the Dark Athena would also still be fresh after the Prison’s three stages. Byline- isn’t the Dark Athena the one from that animation? Or is my memory screwing with me?

    Riddick was definately a fantastic game. Pitch Black is next in terms of quality, and the movie doesn’t even rank on this list. EfBB is one of (possible THE most) solid gameplay experiences I’ve ever had. The simplicity of the plot, the game design, and the gameplay itself worked perfectly in tandem to create a perfectly solid, enjoyable experience. The mood was so perfectly set, I think I’ll always remember being sat in front of our big temporary screen at night, playing through the impeccably clean experience. Awesome.

  20. Sander Bos says:

    Just a quick thank you to SwiftRanger, thanks to his link to
    http://www.techspot.com/vb/topic62308.html
    I now finally got this bl**dy game to work under Vista. My recipe

    Install Riddick
    Install Riddick 1.1 patch (e.g. http://www.gamershell.com/download_9603.shtml, this is the European version)
    Install http://www.gameburnworld.com/dl/dl.php?file=TheChroniclesOfRiddickEscapeFromButcherBayv1.1NoCDFixedexeEng.rar
    Install http://www.gameburnworld.com/dl/dl.php?file=TheChroniclesOfRiddickEscapeFromButcherBayNvidiaopenGLFix.rar
    Set compatibility mode on System\Win32_x86_SSE2\SbzEngine.exe to Windows XP and run as Administrator.
    Run Riddick from System\Win32_x86_SSE2\SbzEngine.exe