The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
We May baulk at the conditions in some of the most notorious lock-ups on the planet - Iraq's Abu Ghraib, Springfield Penitentiary - but they have nothing on Butcher Bay; a nightmarish triple-max prison containing some of the galaxy's most despicable criminals. Well, apart from Lord Archer...
This futuristic hellhole becomes home to Richard B Riddick, the enigmatic slap-headed, goggle-wearing psycho convict with the ability to see in the dark, from sci-fi movies Pitch Black and The Chronicles Of Riddick, portrayed superbly by gravel-throated Hollywood actor Vin Diesel. Despite the fact that movie-to-game conversions haven't fared well over the years (think The Great Escape and shudder), I can happily report that Escape From Butcher Bay is one of the most surprising, atmospheric, brutal and downright enjoyable PC titles I've booted-up in the past year.
Developed by Starbreeze (previously responsible for third-person hack n' slasher Enclave) in association with Vin Diesel's new games company Tigon Studios, The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay is a triumphant sci-fi action-adventure that effortlessly fuses elements of first-person shooter, beat 'em up, stealth game and RPG. Although it's still essentially a port of a summer Xbox game, us lucky PC owners receive a special Developer's Cut' version of the game. In addition to mouse control, better graphics and quick saves, this features a smattering of new levels and characters, plus a developer's commentary, akin to those DVD commentaries where directors and actors wibble on about how marvellous it was to work with each other.
The plot is pretty straightforward, with the title summing it up perfectly - Escape From Butcher Bay. As the game is essentially a prequel, it's freed the developer to create a videogame set in the Chronicles Of Riddick universe, without having to jemmy in a movie storyline. You play as Riddick, who's been transported to the prison by his old nemesis William J Johns (voiced by Cole Hauser from Pitch Black) as punishment for as-yet-undetermined crimes.
Your arrival ruffles a few feathers (and large, rippling muscles), and you're soon involved in the seedy underworld of the jail, learning how to chat with other prisoners through a LucasArts adventure-style interface, gradually beginning to work the system, find out valuable information and earn respect from guards and inmates alike. To progress the storyline, you complete missions - some essential, some optional - given to you by the characters you meet, ranging from taking out rival gang members to retrieving packages from poison gas-filled caves.
Fists Of Fury
The game really sucks you in right from the start, and in the beginning is actually more akin to an action-adventure role-playing game than a first-person shooter. You don't immediately have access to guns, because all of the guards' weapons are DNA-encoded -attempt to pick one up and you get a short sharp shock. What you do have access to is a range of nasty weapons for hand-to-hand combat, such as knuckle-dusters, clubs, screwdrivers and shivs', which are basically crude, homemade knifing implements.
Butcher Bay's brutal punch-ups are the best I've experienced in an FPS, with combinations of the movement keys and both mouse buttons pulling off a range of punches, stabs, uppercuts, blocks and combos that leave unfortunate opponents reeling with bruised faces, cut flesh and walls decorated in streaks of crimson. You can even wrestle with guards and use their own weapons against them, forcing their hand to pull the trigger and blow their own heads off. Superb stuff.
Ah, but that's not all - Riddick also has the ability to use stealth to sneak up behind opponents and kill them in various unpleasant ways. Pressing the C key makes Riddick crouch, with the screen getting a blue tint to indicate that you can't be seen by enemies. In this mode, you can tiptoe behind foes and snap their necks or push them over a ledge using your bare hands. Alternatively, you can use a handheld weapon to bash their brains out or hack at their spine. The stealth element of Butcher Bay works really well, and is actually much better and less clunky than many proper' stealth titles, with kill moves easier to pull off than in, say, Manhunt.
Once you've done away with the enemy - now an unloved, crumpled body on the floor -you can drag the corpse to a secluded part of the level to hide it. If you don't properly dispose of Riddick's victims, other guards could stumble upon the evidence and become suspicious, calling in back-up and searching for you. However, once Riddick gets his infamous Furvan powers (or Eve Shine') that allow him to see in the dark, no-one is safe (see Glower In The Dark', above).
Escape From Butcher Bay's level design is certainly not on the scale of Far Cry or Half-Life 2's massive outdoor locations, but the game still manages to create a believable, self-contained claustrophobic indoor world of foul-smelling cells, rusting air ducts, dank underground mines, mutant-infested pits, clanking lifts and high-tech cryogenic chambers.
Hide And Seek
Much of the first two-thirds of the game consists of tightly interlinked levels, where vou get a certain amount of freedom to explore and make your own way through the prison and mine areas, but it can get confusing. The static map screen is woefully inadequate, and you may find you have to wander back and forth between sections, linked by horrid loading bits (a hangover from the console conversion), until you realise you've missed a vital duct that gives you access to a new area.
Despite this, Butcher Bay is still expertly structured, stagemanaging a thrilling and varied gaming experience. This is seen in stealth levels where you have to use cunninq to survive, and in insane office shootouts where you're armed with massive weaponry (you'll have to play to find out what) that can shred humans like paper, shatter chandeliers and rip up tiles from the floor. You rarely tire of the adventure, with the developers craftily scripting the game so that you're constantly having the rug pulled from under you and hurled into new, unexpected and frightening situations.
Your HUD is kept uncluttered throughout the game, so weapon changes only flash up briefly and health is only shown in combat with white blocks in the top-left comer of the screen. People or objects you can interact with are indicated by small on-screen flags -pressing the use key when prompted either triggers a conversation or an 'action sequence', when the camera switches into third-person and, for example, Riddick uses a vent-tool to unlock an openinq and climbs into it.
Third-person view is also used in situations such as climbing ladders and boxes, hanging from railings, operating med stations (see Bad Medicine', opposite page), or in the game's excellent cut-scenes. It takes a bit of getting used to, but you soon appreciate how smoothly the transition between first- and third-person is executed, instantly solving the annoying FPS ladder problem' and any clumsy platform-jumping.
As for the rather clever Al enemies you face in Butcher Bay, be prepared for an onslaught of both human and non-human opponents lining up to shoot, bite, claw and blow you up, such as angry bluefaced inmates, sadistic security guards, mutant pit dwellers, tooled-up mechs and ED209-style robots. There's also a beady electronic eye watching you, dishing out futuristic vengeance in the form of sentry quns and rail defence networks that can spot you even if you're skulking in darkness at the far side of the room.
Fortunately, as well as the hand-to-hand combat, you get your mitts on some serious hardware including a lethal shotgun and a hilarious tranquiliser gun, that zaps foes and enables you to finish off helpless twitching victims by stomping down hard on their heads with a well-placed boot.
Graphically, Escape From Butcher Bay uses similar technology to Doom 3 - normal mapping' - a technique where you can get detailed lighting and shading on characters and environments using low-polygon models. In practice, this means the game looks gorgeous but it can also zip along at a fast frame-rate. The dirty, dusty and corroding prison environments have been superbly realised, containing rusting metal wall panels, scrawled offensive graffiti (my personal favourite is guard your dick'), damp stone walls, buzzing electrified fences, decaying strip lighting, gleaming cryo pyramids and ominous rotating fans.
The atmospheric real-time lighting is really something special and as well as looking rather spiffing, it's used to great effect in the gameplay, gifting Riddick moments when he can take advantage of his Furyan powers. Riddick and other characters also cast shadows on walls and floors, adding to your immersion into a solid and believable 3D environment.
Say It Again
Motion-captured animation for the cut-scenes and third-person sequences is also excellent. What's more, the facial animation of the characters, especially Riddick, is top-notch - especially when combined with the smart, understated vocal performances from Vin Diesel and the cast.
A fully-integrated physics engine means that as well as ragdoll bodies, objects in the environment, such as grates, clatter satisfying to the floor when kicked out. Other inspired touches include bullet holes that glow red hot on metal surfaces, faces of enemies that visibly get splashed with blood, and flickering flares that light up dark comers. Even the game's menu interface is cool, featuring a series of small rotating 3D metal blocks that shift and slot into place as you browse the options on offer.
The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Developer's Cut) is a hugely enjoyable cinematic actionadventure with sublime pacing, impressive graphics, sound and music, dark humour and a seamless mix of gameplay styles. It's stuffed with constant surprises and great scripted and non-scripted moments. We particularly like the repetitive exercise scene in the cryo chamber, pulling off a kill by dropping down onto an enemy from a rail; pushing a poor unsuspecting screw' into a rock crusher and Riddick's stylish comedy put-downs.
I've referred to a few criticisms throughout the review - the sometimes-confusing level structure, the annoying checkpoint loading -but there are a few other concerns. There's no multiplayer, enemies sometimes spawn from nowhere, and the game is very short, clocking in at around ten hours. You can collect smokes' that unlock easter eggs (see Art For Art's Sake', left), and there are a few extra bonus levels and other distractions in this Developer's Cut', but they don't expand the length of the game by much at all.
However, in popular entertainment, the mantra is always leave them wanting more', so maybe Starbreeze and Tigon Studios are continuing with that proud tradition? In any case, for the brief stretch you spend with Riddick in the galaxy's most notorious correction facility, Escape From Butcher Bay will keep you imprisoned in your house and chained to your PC from start to finish.
Glower In The Dark
Riddick's Eye Shine' Is A Revelation When It's Pitch Black
If you're familiar with David Twohy's sci-fi epics Pitch Black and The Chronicles Of Riddick, you'll be aware of Richard B Riddick's special see-in-the-dark powers, hidden behind his trademark black specs. The great news for fans is that Escape From Butcher Bay has clues to Riddick's disturbing past (and future), and shows how an inmate known as Pope John gives Riddick his Furyan powers, known as 'Eye Shine'.
In the game, the device works brilliantly, allowing completely dark areas to be lit up with one key press, giving Riddick a stealthy advantage over much more heavily-armed opponents. The effect looks great, with the fish-eye lens, spooky luminescence and eye veins in the corner of the screen lending the experience an ethereal, other-worldly atmosphere. Also, there's no annoying battery to run down, so you can use Eye Shine as much as you like. However, watch out - use it in brightly-lit areas and your view will be completely washed out, leaving Riddick blind and at the mercy of any nearby foes.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode