It’s long been a standard assumption in the game industry that licensed games – that is, games based on movie or book or television properties – pretty much always suck.
However, that old saw has been recently challenged as more and more licensed games get good reviews.
Probably the most spectacular instance of this interesting trend is the XBox title,The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. What’s even more surprising than the fact that game is fantastic is the contrasting reality of the universally reviled film it was released in conjunction with. Yep, while The Chronicles of Riddick laid an expensive egg at the box office this summer, savvy XBox owners experienced a rare treat.
This first-person action/adventure game is actually a prequel to the first Riddick movie, 2000’s Pitch Black.
It begins with Riddick’s delivery to Butcher Bay, a maximum-security prison on a mining planet. As the title suggests, the goal of the game is simple: Escape!
Riddick, of course, is voiced by the wonderful actor Vin Diesel, who plays him in the films. During the course of your titular escape, you will have Riddick fistfight, shoot, explore, sneak, and puzzle his way out of the prison.
The game has two great general strengths. The first is a simply spectacular presentation and attention to detail. Despite the grim environments depicted, this is one of the best-looking XBox titles I’ve seen. The details are breathtaking, from the blood on the walls to the vermin underfoot. This is one of those games in which you feel the developers fierce attention to detail no matter where you look. One particularly good bit is the fact that almost every room has security cameras that follow your character wherever you move. This is not only clever, but ratchets up the paranoia in a weirdly fun fashion.
Your fellow inmates are also lovingly detailed and specific in their nastiness. Your first few hours in the game involve running around, making friends, and doing (sometimes not so nice) favors for thugs who are higher on the food chain than you are.
Before too long you find your way out of the main cell area, and this leads to the games second great strength. Most action/adventure games, even most of the excellent ones, consist of a series of pretty consistent levels of the same kinds of activity, with the difficulty just ratcheting up. Riddick is unusual because as the story progresses, you’ll be doing different things. In the cells, you do a lot of RPG-like chatting and quest solving. Later, you do lots of hand-to-hand combat. Then some collecting. Then a lot of stealth. And, of course, lots of combat. Each sequence of the game feels very specific and particular, which adds to the feeling that you are starring in your very own action movie.
The varied tasks take place in a wide variety of environments. There’s the main cell area, with its mess halls, fistfight areas, cells, and such. There’s a huge mining area, complete with secret corridors and complicated industrial elevator puzzles. There’s the ore processing area, creepy caves, and even the palatial headquarters of the prison warden.
The amazing thing about all of this variety is that the game handles it all superbly well. The degree of polish on every aspect of the game is reminiscent of Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series as well as UbiSoft’s spectacular Beyond Good and Evil. Yeah, it’s that good.
The game was developed by the Sweden-based Starbreeze games, whose earlier offering, 2002’s Enclave, didn’t hint at the quality the developers would soon be capable of.
The only caveat I can offer is that this game is definitely for adults. It’s grim, violent, even sadistic at times. There is one sequence, for example, during which after knocking foes out, it is required that you literally stomp on their unconscious bodies until they’re dead. (I just pretended they were each Linda Tripp or Rosie Perez.) The game’s language is appropriately salty as well, with use of The F Word even (amusingly, I thought) in the tutorial!
The Chronicles of Riddick is one of those games that just sneaks up out of nowhere and blows the competition away. Much more fun that the hugely hyped Deus Ex: Invisible War, Fable or even Thief 3, Riddick is a game everyone with an XBox should pick up.
The even better news: The PC version of the game has just been released!
Final Grade: A