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Wot I Think - Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena

It's taken me a while to get around to Starbreeze's remake and expansion of Chronicles Of Riddick, but I've finally punched and stabbed my way through it. The original game is one of my favourite olden FPS games, as detailed here, but can this contemporary-tech revamp and sizable sequel live up to the legacy? Here's Wot I Think.

Let's get this bit out of the way: Atari have included batshit DRM in the PC build of Assault On Dark Athena. It needs to validate online the first time you play, and Atari says: "The activation code lets you install the game on up to 3 machines, with an unlimited number of installs on each assuming that you don’t change any major hardware in your PC or re-install your operating system." If that stuff boils your piss then you'd best steer clear. I'd be expecting an unlock in a few months time, mind, and if you follow the rest of what I say here you might think that's okay. So yes: Riddick.

Emotionless, but still kind of a good bloke, that's our hairless and begoggled felon. He's the kindest psychotic murderer in outer space, and he's a genuine pleasure to take control of. Sneaking, beating, shooting - he's like the Lara Croft of transgalactic neck-breaking. In fact Assault On Dark Athena reminded me a whole lot of Lara's most recent adventures: there's lots of climbing and exploring to be done. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The first thing to note is that this release includes a high-quality remake of the original game, and you can play either from the start. They're both distinct packages and can pretty much be considered in isolation from each other. The original game pushed many of the best buttons in my brain and this pretty much a beat-for-beat recreation of that game. The prison environment is even more atmospheric than it was previously, and the melee combat remains solid - although a little less entertaining that it used to be, thanks to contrast provided by Zeno Clash. Riddick's melee is as pleasingly brutal as ever, but it does feel a little constrained: straight up boxing, compared to Ghat's lunging brawl-technique.

When I started playing the Butcher Bay remake I was initially horrified: it barely looked any better than the original game, albeit running at a higher resolution! I was being an idiot, of course, and hadn't bumped up the texture detail or the post-processing. When these were maximised, with a hint of anti-aliasing, it started to look pretty good. It's not exactly going to rival our most high end PC corridors, but it's not doing a bad job. The depth of field effect for melee, which brings a combatant to the foreground while blurring out the background, is particularly good.

I won't say much more about the original chapter, suffice to say if you've not played it, then that alone gives you a decent reason to want to buy this. It mixes stealth, adventure, and hand-to-hand combat brilliantly, and only really falters on the bits of the game that require you to use a gun, or a robot deathsuit. I might be suffering from mental exhaustion or something, but there also seems to be a slight disparity on the melee of Butcher Bay compared to that of Assault On Dark Athena. Perhaps it's the heavy dependence on blade weapons in the new game, or a lag in the new animations, but it doesn't feel quite as smooth, or as believable, as the original. In this, hands-on your foe excels.

Anyway, Assault On Dark Athena sees Riddick dragged aboard a mercenary slaver ship. These space nasties turn out to be capturing people and either selling them into the galaxy's prison system, or killing them and using the bodies as cyborg drones. These drones make up the majority of the enemies you face, and you even get to take control of them for some disposable death action. The opening hour or two of Assault On Dark Athena is splendid: the feeling that you are engaged in the infiltration of a starship is superb, and you spend a good deal of time hugging shadows, only to step out and brutally face-stab your enemies. It's thrilling stuff.

This breaks down a bit as you hit the first hub of the game. The idea that you'd be left largely unmolested as you chat with prisoners, and carry out tasks for them, seems a little strange. And as this section develops you come to rely heavily on ranged weapons: the weakest part of the game. There are small bouts of melee to follow, but the game does start to lean on man-shoot traditions at this point, and it becomes far less interesting. There are also some problems with rough edges in presentation: the voice acting is often out of sync - voice acting which is, incidentally, quite profane. I've not heard swearing like that in a sci-fi game, ever.

Worse, perhaps, are some of the poorer set pieces. I'd rather have faced another dozen stealth kill situations than have to go through the humdrum linear shooter sequences. It's as if Starbreeze really weren't paying attention to what made the most sense, or was the most entertaining, in the original game. Add to this the occasional AI failure, and you get a stretch of annoyances.

That's not say I didn't enjoy playing through it: there are some splendid combat sequences, the story is stronger than I expected, and there's a fair bit of environmental exploration, with you leaping, clambering and puzzling your way forward. The only problem with that is a strange inconsistency in the jump/use controls. Some stuff mantles on jump, some does not. There seems to be no hard rule, and you end up hitting both keys.

Being miles behind all the other reviews that have come out, I've had plenty of time to mull over what has been said. It's hard to quantify the value of a remade game. Will gamers really want to replay something just for improved visuals and the odd tweak?* It seems a given amongst reviewers that this is somehow a not much of a bonus. Reviewed in isolation from its past, this is quite a package, even if Assault On Dark Athena does not impress as it might have done. (I do find it bizarre that one reviewer are claims that Assault On Dark Athena is a better game than the original: it isn't.)

This is a game that has been made in the spirit of its original incarnation, but has not learned from it. What was strongest about Butcher Bay was that much of your time was spent working through a semi-hostile environment: talking to NPCs, working out what needed to be done to facilitate your escape, and killing people when you had to. Assault On Dark Athena returns to that in only the most cursory fashion, and despite some superb dialogue and splendid false ending, it does not match up to the muscularity of the original game. There is too much dependence on Riddick's rather wobbling gun-toting skills, and not enough opportunity to maul and murder your enemies in melee. Nor is that melee always as good as it could me: I even saw a couple of desynced animations, with Riddick stabbing brains that were not there. Then there are the checkpoint saves, which occasionally make you replay too much.

That said - and against my own critique - I've found it consistently entertaining. The ludicrousness of Riddick's "I HUNT FROM THE DARKNESS" dialogue - which is treated as normal by the people he interacts with - is amusing enough on its own, but the bits where you ace a sequence of violent kills have you starting to believe it. There are so many psychotic killers in gaming, but Riddick is one of the best. It was an interesting contrast to Thief: Deadly Shadows, which I'd been playing the week before. I think there's probably an ultimate Riddick game to be made: one which truly delivers the neck-breaking shadow-lurker in his most empowered, close-combat form. Playing through Butcher Bay again reminded me just how good Starbreeze had been when they hit this originally in 2004.

I'd probably wait for this to become less than full price before making the plunge into the shadows. It has too many flaws to be recommended without reservation, but it's nevertheless an engaging and distracting game, particularly, I imagine, if you've never sampled the skull-crunching delights of the original.

Chronicles Of Riddick: Assault On Dark Athena is out now, published by Atari.

[*Random side thought: there do seem to be a few games out there which are candidates for a full tech overhaul. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 could both be brought to a new generation by being wholly remade in modern engines. And you'd have to cut greasels from DX, natch. They were shit.]

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