Vin Diesel’s inimitable growl introduces you to Riddick.
“The dark,” he rasps, “is where I shine.”
It’s the voice of a man who’s about to kill his way out of the highest security prison in the Galaxy.
Butcher Bay is a concrete monster that descends kilometres below the planet’s surface, a high security centre built to hold the toughest convicts alive. Nobody has ever escaped before, but the folk who built the prison evidently didn’t anticipate containing the likes of their latest inmate.
Inside it’s a shiv or be shivved world full of angry men who would mostly rather kill you than have you mess with the carefully balanced hierarchy of prison life. You’ll spend some time rampaging through Buthcher bay with a shotgun and more time sneaking around killing guards with a screwdriver, but while both sections are perfectly good fun, neither are as compelling as the time you spend with the prisoners themselves.
The burly inmates of Butcher Bay have an uneasy relationship with each other and the brutal guards charged with maintaining control. Out of the necessities of cohabitation a kind of truce has emerged. Alpha male guards allow the prisoners certain liberties in exchange for favours, money and drugs. Those who fall out of line are beaten or killed.
It’s a dirty and brutal place. Huge, expressionless concrete slabs make up the walls and corridors, security camera turrets watch from rails above you, ready to open fire at any sign of defiance. The architecture is soulless and efficient as though the whole prison has been designed and built by a machine. It genuinely feels as though there is no escape.
Fortunately Riddick doesn’t share my pessimism. His obnoxious silence, growled quips and general antagonism proves wonderfully irritating to those who fancy themselves in charge. In fact, he’s oddly likeable in spite of his reticence. He’s a stone cold killer, but somehow the filth and corruption of Butcher Bay slides off him, leaving a very disturbed and almost alien individual who’se simply doing anything that’s necessary to gain his freedom. In fairness this includes killing, poisoning, maiming and generally brutish behaviour, all executed in spectacularly hyperviolent fashion.
Riddick’s first person brawling is splendid. It’s all rather simple, relying on direction presses for different attacks with a counter system thrown in for extra challenge. Chronicles’ engine handles the contextual damage, reeling animations and execution maneuvers with aplomb. Many times I found myself groaning at my latest foe’s spectacular demise. It’s desperate, bloody and visceral.
The ranged weapons are chunky and futuristic in a practical way, but the gunplay can’t really match the intensity of the melee combat. Your greatest ally will be the tranqualizer gun with its unlimited ammo and ability to extinguish lights silently. A tranqualized enemy can be executed at close quarters, a maneouvre that, by some glitch of the physics engine, often sends their corpse bouncing around the room in a comical fashion.
Oh yes, extinguishing lights, it’s useful and you’ll want to do it often. Crouching in the dark sees you enter stealth mode. A blue tint to your vision will signal whether or not you’re hidden from enemy view. From this position you can stalk your enemies at will, turning out lights to gain a greater advantage. An inspired addition, in some circumstances, allows you to whisper to your victim for no greater reason than to freak them out before you dispense with them. It’s mean, but helps magnify Riddick’s schtick as a creature of the dark. His eyeshine, an ability that you gain partway through the game with basically no explanation, allows you to see clearly in complete darkness, further lessening your enemy’s chances of stopping you.
As a package all of these elements come together brilliantly, making for one of the surprise hits of 2004. The remake does a good job of adding a graphical sheen to proceedings. Depth of field effects and high res textures make a good looking game even better. Chronicles still has some of the best use of lighting in any game to date, and I’ll mention it again, the fighting is brutal.
In some ways Chronicles has proved to be quite an important game. It seems to have had positive influences on the character interaction and meaty combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum, as well as opening the door to proper first person melee games like Zeno Clash. I still haven’t finished its sequel: Assault on Dark Athena, but so far it seems to be lacking the character interaction that made the original stand out. I really bought into that prison, and the thugs caged within it. The voice acting and the writing is good, and the facial animation was surprisingly advanced. Not quite Valve-level, but getting there. All in all it’s worth picking up for all of the above, especially if you’re in the US, where currently it’s going for about $5 on Direct 2 Drive, you lucky devils.