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.