Would gaming be a more advanced medium if it were independent of technology? Film wouldn’t be universal if we could only watch Buster Keaton via 16mm projector; literature wouldn’t affect culture if a novel could only be read on papyrus. On an infinitely smaller scale, it’s cool that current consoles can now play Escape From Butcher Bay, the 2004 PC/Xbox game featuring Vin Diesel’s Riddick character. So cheers to Atari for packaging a remastered Butcher Bay on the disc for the comparatively inferior new Riddick game, Assault On Dark Athena.
Both games rely on a similar premise: Riddick has to quietly explore and escape a highly restricted location. He can see in full darkness and virtually disappear into it, the better to commit violence unnoticed. Butcher Bay has endured thanks to a well-realized prison environment in which brutal violence and ugly characters are right at home. It’s like a version of Alien 3 where you play both Ripley and the alien. The game’s art direction and use of light and shadow felt advanced in 2004, and still play as moody and claustrophobic.
But by hewing closely to a similar design, Athena feels oddly behind the times. AI and character interaction are rudimentary and 2004ish, and gameplay is more tightly bound to action-game traditions. Rather than blending into a population, Riddick avoids it while developing thinly scripted relationships with key characters. (The voice acting is top-notch, however.) While more sparsely populated, the new setting doesn’t feel as lonely, and with more plentiful firefights, Athena often feels like a clone of its forebear that fell victim to focus-group testing meant to broaden appeal.
Beyond the game: The two solo games are linked by several multiplayer modes. Surprisingly exciting: Pitch Black, in which players take turns in the dark as Riddick, hunting five other soldiers who pierce the shadows with flashlights.
Worth playing for: Beautifully tense moments of furtive creeping from shadow to shadow.
Frustration sets in when: Dark Athena disregards Riddick’s quiet tendencies and resorts to flashy gunplay.
Final judgment: The package is finer than the new game, but even Dark Athena contains darkly glinting gameplay gems.