Riddick is best when played in the dark.
Genres: First-person shooter, Multimedia
Multimedia: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena
Platforms: Playstation 3 (reviewed), XBox 360, PC
Number of players: 1-12
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
US release date: 2009-04
The world was first introduced to Riddick in the movie Pitch Black; at the time he was just a prisoner aboard a crashed transport ship, but he was easily the most interesting character in the movie. He proved to be so popular that he got his own spin-off movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, which suffered from a common flaw in sequels: by trying to make things bigger and better, the traits that made the original so good were lost. Riddick waged a one-man war against a totalitarian alien race, and the movie ended with him in a position of leadership not befitting the solitary anti-hero. Riddick is so fascinating a character specifically because he’s not an action hero. He’s a creature of the dark that has more in common with the monster from Alien than with John McClane or Duke Nukem. The fact that he’s often pictured with knives speaks to this monstrously personal quality; he’s more comfortable with the intimacy of a knife fight than with the impersonality of a gun. The first game starring Riddick, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, embraced Riddick as the silent killer he is with a unique combination of stealth and action not usually found in first-person shooters. For the most part The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena succeeds in all the same areas as its predecessor, but like the movie it derives its title from, it tries to up the ante on action, especially in the final third of the game, and suffers for it.
Assault on Dark Athena picks up immediately after Escape from Butcher Bay ends. Riddick is brought on board the Athena, a mercenary ship before escaping capture and proceeds to wreak an increasing level of havoc wherever he goes.
For all his tough talk Riddick is actually quite weak at least by first-person shooter standards. A few shots from any gun will kill him so being caught in the open is often a death sentence. In this way, the game encourages you to stay in the shadows and pick off enemies one by one with some particularly brutal stealth kills. These kills are the most effective way of dispatching enemies because you wont get a real gun until about halfway through the game. However, you soon find an electric tranquilizer gun that’s very useful for destroying lights. Once in possession of it, it will quickly become second nature to shoot out all the lights before entering a room even if there are no enemies present. You, like Riddick, start to feel at home in the darkness. This is where you shine. You may be the one hiding and running, but every silent, brutal kill reaffirms the notion that you are the hunter. You are Riddick.
However, Assault on Dark Athena is still a first-person shooter so it’s inevitable that there will be some shooting involved, which is unfortunate because, while Riddick is a monster in the dark, he can’t take a bullet. His low health is fine when you’re able to retreat into the shadows, but it makes the firefights feel unbalanced. You’ll often find yourself in corridors with only a single box for cover, and, since there’s no place to hide, all you can do is pop out and shoot, turning the game into frustrating cover-based shooter. Without spoiling too much, there’s a drastic change in scenery in the latter third of the game that makes stealth essentially pointless. The new environment is brightly lit, and Assault on Dark Athena becomes what it tried so hard in the beginning to avoid: Just another shooter. At times the need for stealth returns, but there’s no warning of it. You’ll spend an hour running and shooting until you enter a room and are quickly killed for being exposed in the open. Learning when to change your playing style is a matter of trial and error.
The multiplayer consists of the standard affair, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, but there are some interesting additions. Arena is a one-on-one or two-on-two cage match. Butcher Bay Riot is a three-way Capture the Flag with only one flag, but the best mode by far is Pitch Black. In it, one person plays Riddick and everyone else plays as guards hunting him through dark corridors with only flashlights to see ahead. It combines the mediocre shooting with the excellent stealth in a fast-paced game that reaches levels of fear and suspense few games have achieved, let alone a multiplayer mode. As Riddick you’re outnumbered, but learn to use the dark to your advantage, and you come to love the thrill of hunting so much prey. As a guard, you’ll begin each match with the confidence only a gun can bring, but, once a minute passes and no one has found Riddick, every consecutive second builds upon the paranoia only pitch blackness can cause.
Assault on Dark Athena begins with a great blend of action and stealth, embodying all that makes Riddick such a memorable character, but the latter third pulls him out of his natural environment, and in the light Riddick becomes just another gun-toting tough guy. This last part suffers from the same flaw the movie did: It preferred action over suspense, and lost what made it unique. After beating Assault on Dark Athena, I suggest starting up a game of Pitch Black. The cat-and-mouse game, in which you’re not sure who’s the cat and who’s the mouse, will remind you why Riddick is best when played in the dark.