So, how does the followup to the still spectacular Escape From Butcher Bay hold up?
Pretty well, overall. The tone is different than the previous game, and there’s more focus on action than expected. If you encounter someone who’s not locked away from you, well, you won’t be chatting. Everyone is to be considered hostile, and there are more direct action setpieces rather than stealth oriented sections. Assault really is the proper term, all the combat ability learned in the first game will be tested in this one.
Rather than a few prisoners and guards, Dark Athena is a ship mostly filled with drones, followed by the occasional mercenary. Instead of the many areas Riddick could move about freely before, there are mostly tight areas with less shadow and more enemies. Much more careful observation and precise timing is needed, and combat can turn bad in an instant. There are quite a few areas where moving ahead fast will result in a cheap death, be it by turret or an enemy sitting around the corner, though fortunately the game saves automatically often to minimize the annoyance.
Unfortunately, where Butcher Bay often gave players a choice of how to handle a situation, Dark Athena will demand gunplay, stealthy assassination, or a straight brawl in a corridor where you can only go forward or back and have no shadow to hide in. Six times in a row. I don’t think that last part is an exaggeration, sadly, and after that set of melee brawls, there’s rarely another for the rest of the game, which is a shame as the gunplay is still functional, but far from standout, and occasionally it’s just frustrating. I have to call out one particularly rough section where Riddick uses a drone gun on an elevator platform, but can’t duck down for cover. Players are forced to memorize where enemies are going to be as the elevator descends, and just start shooting before they get hit too much. I think I spent 20 minutes on a one minute sequence, which is incredibly far from fun. Combat isn’t the game’s strong suit, and Butcher Bay mostly saved it as what happened when you screwed up and got spotted, here it’s the expected method.
Despite the lackluster shooting, the game hasn’t lost the sense of tension, stalking, hunting, and very narrow escapes when a section opens up. An early area has some ten to fifteen drones in a cargo bay, but the patrol routes and tricky shadows make it feel like there’s a solid 50 of them, waiting for you to screw up, and it forces some hard choices. Leaving drones alone means they can come find you, but they’re still looking in the dark. If they find a dead one, the flashlight comes on, meaning there’s one less drone searching but that shadow can disappear. Same goes for shooting out lights later on in the game. It’s a new place to hide, but if the mercs get suspicious, it’s flashlights, which present dangers all their own.
Credit goes to the AI here, though, even in combat. While enemies won’t sit still by any means once engaged, they do tend to suppress areas they’ve seen the player in, and react properly to light and sound disruptions. Putting down a lot of fire from behind cover, then sneaking over to another position can result in getting beside or behind the enemy, and allow them to be killed easily, one at a time. And once the AI is hunting the player, it seems to hunt intelligently, checking behind barriers and around corners often enough, rather than blindly moving forward.
The game’s style is still very much Riddick, an artistic bullseye. Dark, dingy setpieces, gritty areas, intimidating enemies, lots of blood. There’s plenty of horrorshow to go around, as there should be. The sound is top notch as well, solid sounding guns, great clashes in melee combat, and once again, EXCELLENT voice-work, even the grunts. While the levels may not be very fun to play through in some spots, they all seem real, no cases of “Come on, this only happens in video games” bring players out of it. It’s a great success, thematically.
There’s a definite pacing issue, unfortunately, as the game shoots through the first section, drags horribly through the middle with occasional bursts of movement, then spends about spectacular fifteen minutes in the third act with, sadly, a VERY disappointing end boss. There’s a distinct lack of the slower, nearly RPG style sections that came before as well, which served to set the slow, deliberate pace of the prior game between fast action sequences, and a lot of character and setting is lost to that. Players don’t feel like part of the world around them this time, simply an intruder. Which they are, in all fairness.
The level design doesn’t really help the case. While it’s realistic enough (okay, one exception, but a minor one), it’s not fun often enough. The early areas feature a lot of backtracking, the later areas are a little too open with no hint of where to go or what to do. And late in the game, cheap kill traps start showing up which can result in a few controller tosses.
Despite all the complaints, Dark Athena isn’t a bad game by any means, it’s really good when it comes together, but it’s got the feel of the middle child in a trilogy. It never really starts or ends, the climactic moments generally aren’t, and it seems to be setting up for something really big to come next. Hopefully something that won’t be so linear and will have a few more ways to go about the hunt, like the first game, instead of deciding how it wants you to handle an area for you.
Chronicles of Riddick:Assault on Dark Athena gets 3.5 out of 5 canes. It’s a very good game that has moments of greatness, but is often down by weak level design and pacing, and inevitable comparisons to the prior installment. Fortunately enough, buying Dark Athena gets Butcher Bay, which is still a 5 of 5 game. Just think of it as an expansion pack, it even adds multiplayer like those used to!