The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
by RaiRaiRai

Platform: PC, Xbox (reviewed)
ESRB: Mature
Genre: First-Person Shooter

Riddick has always been one of my favorite action heroes. His cold efficiency, his black humor, and the fact that it's never really clear if he's a loving person deep inside, or the sort who'd slice a puppy's face off and use it to jerk off in a crippled woman's face. The question of Riddick's humanity (or lack thereof) is never really brought up in Riddick: EFBB, mostly because it focuses on him getting out of some prison he doesn't want to be in, and it works for the better. The story isn't too in-depth, the gist of it is right in the game's title, but what little story there is is polished to a shine that would make the top of Vin Diesel's head proud.

After a quick tutorial (which it took me until around my fifth play-through to realize is a dream sequence), you're run through an introductory sequence from a first-person perspective, as you're marched to your cell. Sure, you can read the names that pop up (I very nearly sinned my pants when I saw Ron Perlman's name pop up), but then you'd be missing the point of the introductory sequence itself: to introduce you to Butcher Bay, which is one of the rare settings that almost becomes a character in its own right. Hushed conversations between prisoners as you walk past, guards keeping their back to you as they eye other prisoners, bloody-murder screaming from one particular locked cell. The game does well to let you know that the game world goes far beyond just Riddick's escape. The game shows you a big world, and then encourages you to litter it with bodies.

Still, sometimes the means by which the game shows you a larger world are rather heavy-handed, particularly through side-quests. Anyone who's seen five minutes of either Pitch Black or Chronicles can say with absolute certainty that Riddick isn't the sort who does favors, and no amount of what the writers doubtlessly thought was a clever script ("I don't do favors, but tell me anyway.") can get around it. It gives you a bit more to do when you don't feel like going after your main objective, but I personally can't shake the feeling that all of the effort put into the side quests could have been focused on lengthening and improving the main story. Either way, I can't whinge about the game not giving you enough to do, so I'll whinge about something else:

The gameplay. The gameplay as a whole is absolutely wonderful. When you break it into its main components, though, Stealth and Combat, it falls a bit flat. The stealth feels like a dumbed-down version of Thief made for people who don't play Thief, while the open combat feels like a slower version of Quake made for people who don't play Quake, so to get the full experience, as well as to get the most fun out of it, mixing the two approaches is nothing short of a requirement. Alone, neither element feels outright broken, and they certainly don't suck, but they still feel uninspired, and when the game tells you to go either guns all-out or a stealthy spproach, it feels half-done. The only points where this changes and everything feels absolutely wicked are the melee combat and one particularly tense midgame stretch where your only ranged weapon is a stun-gun.

The melee combat (which is like a version of Breakdown for people who don't play Breakdown) is absolutely excellent experience in brutality. You can throw a hook in either direction, do an uppercut, an elbow lunge, or a stationary blocking stance, and this exercise in simplicity ends up being a godsend from the combo-heavy bullshit Breakdown threw at me. Even with a melee weapon in your hands (of which there are three, one of which is a knuckleduster that just strengthens your punches), your basic attacks are the same, though the shiv will give you a little more mobility, while the club is something of a tank weapon. Melee combat was even integrated into the gunplay. Sure, you can thwack a guy across the face with the butt of your rifle, but that's not good enough. By timing your attack, when a guard throws out the butt of his rifle at you, you can turn it on him and feed him one of his own bullets, something that is nothing short of hardcore fuckawesome. In the end, by building something a little more complex from a simple template, the developers struck gold and orgasms.

As far as aesthetics go, everything is top-notch. The only game that ever made my jaw hit the floor with graphical flair was 2004's Ninja Gaiden, which still fucking stands up to current-gen titles. Riddick doesn't even try to approach that point, but it gets the job done with excellent animation work and levels without graphical seams and such. When it comes to sound, though, EFBB again hits a vein of gold in whatever mine the developers were digging. The voice work is absolutely excellent, at some points even topping the Legacy of Kain series (seriously you have no idea how difficult it was for me to type that). The guards' and prisoners' shouts as you're gunning, knifing, or neck-snapping all sound genuine, and there are even some darkly humorous pleas for mercy from the guards.

So you play it, you have fun with it, and then it ends. The biggest problem with Butcher Bay is that it's just too short. It's not the kind of short that's unfair, but rather it feels short because there's the sense that so much more could have been done with it. Eventually Assault on Dark Athena was released, but Dark Athena's pacing and uninspired feel were like replacing Butcher Bay's excellent toasted meatball sub with watery ejaculate spread between two thin sheets of particle board. Yeah, maybe I'm being unfairly harsh, but what kind of critic would I be if I wasn't?

I saw Escape From Butcher Bay at a store near where I live selling for $2.99. I'd be willing to pay a full $30 for it, and given how strict I am with my budget, that's massive praise out of me.


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