Thought of the Day: Gaming, 4 Mar 09

Thought of the Day: Gaming Presents...

Palantas plays the Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena demo

I'd always heard very good things about the first Chronicles of Riddick game for Xbox, but I'm sad to say that I never got around to playing it. I was thrilled to hear that a new game was being made for 360. I was doubly thrilled when I heard on the 360 forum that the demo was out on Xbox Live.

So begins our story:

It's around 700 MB, and it took me under five minutes to download it.

At the main screen, you have New Game and Options. That's it. Notfinding any solid gameplay in the options,I hit New Game. You're plopped straight away into a level, with no explanation of what's happening, but that's fine for a demo.

Right off, certain elements in Dark Athena reminded me of The Darkness. Examples:

  • Instead of getting ammo for guns, you pick up entire guns, which are shot up, then discarded. (How Riddick carries around eight shotguns in his tank top is beyond me.)
  • Destructable lights.
  • The way the music picks up/slows down based on how aware enemies are of you.
  • At-will, no time limit night vision.
  • Weird strafing (more on this later).

Sure enough, Starbreeze Studios did both games. I don't know a whole lot about Starbreeze, other than that they made this shooter/action adventure game called Enclave for original Xbox. While receiving lukewarm critical reviews--mostly due to the game's punishing difficulty-Enclave is one of my favorite games for the first Xbox. So that's a good sign.

The game starts out with Riddick in a vent, watching two hapless guards converse about guard stuff. The option "Interrupt the conversation" pops up, and I'm treated to a brief and brutal cinematic of Riddick relieving the guards of theirspinal functions. Nice.

There's a high light/darkness contrast in the game. With the scifi-looking room, I was vaguely reminded of Doom 3. On first glance, Dark Athena appears to be a stealth action game. Pressing X, Riddick goes into stealth mode, with appropriate visual cues to let me know if I'm in a dark enough area to remain undetected. As I noted, you can activate night vision at will, and leave it on as long as you want. This makes perfect sense, with Riddick's special shiny-eyes. More on the stealth action vibe, I saw an option to "Hide Body" on the dead guards.

Quickly, another guard came along to investigate the death of his colleagues. I hid in the shadows, but the bastard turned on a flashlight (Doom 3 joke here) and charged me with a knife. At this point, I was armed only with two "Ulaks," some appropriately Riddick-looking bladed weapons. I ran towards the guard, mashing the attack button. My keen strategy was rewarded by another grisly death animation.

As I noted, like The Darkness, you can shoot out lights in Dark Athena to make larger stealth areas. This seems a little counterproductive, as none of the early weapons are silenced, but as with most shooters, guards are unable to hear weapons fire in adjacent rooms. (This always bugs me. Automatic weapons are incredibly loud, especially when fired indoors.)

The game uses a radial menu for selecting weapons. If you've read any of my recent articles, you'll know I'm a fan of radial menus. Bonus points for the radial menus.

Radial menus, radial menus.

I ran around, shooting lights and knifing guards, and some problems began to show up.

Movement is a little rough. It feels a lot like The Darkness, which isn't really a good thing. In-game Riddick isn't terribly fast, which doesn't fit with his on-screen performance. I found myself wishing I had a sprint button. Another thing: The strafing. You don't just strafe. You sort of lean for a fraction of a second, then start strafing. It doesn't sound like a problem, but it's a little awkward and takes some getting used to. It wasn't that big a deal in The Darkness, but it seems out of place when applied to a highly agile character like Riddick.

The melee fighting system leaves a lot to be desired. You have your basic block and attack, and as far as I can tell, that's it. In a melee fight, I just blocked, waited for an enemy to attack and be staggered, then I attacked. In other words, it has as much depth as Oblivion. The more I played, the more I found it easier to hide in the shadows and just shoot enemies, instead of sneak up on them. That makes sense in a real-world kind of way, but that's not how I should want to operate as Riddick. Riddick likes to get up close and personal, and the game doesn't really seem to reward that sort of play. Well, that's not entirely true: There are numerous ultra-violent death animations when you manage to mash the attack trigger at the right time. They're well-done, brutal, and very Riddick-looking.

This is a nitpick, but like The Darkness, Dark Athena is one of these games that makes a big deal out of climbing up or down ladders. Here's what I mean: You don't just hit the forward stick and climb up the ladder like in any normal shooter. No, you have to hit the action button when near the ladder, then you're treated to a mini-cutscene of Riddick mounting and climbing the ladder. Why do games do this? This is a pain in the ass, especially in a stealth-action game.

Speaking of mini-cutscenes, Dark Athena is a game that begs to be played in third person. As far as I could tell, there was no option for it. Now and then, I'd see my shadow as Riddick went running or jumping by. I found myself wishing that I could see him all the time. Riddick has a lot of personality and grace in his movement, so why not put that on screen? You might even be able to have a more in-depth melee system (!). Aside from aesthetic concerns, stealth action games are always better in third person.

Summary of the Demo:

This might be a fun game, but it doesn't seem like a very Riddick game. I expected a half stealth action, half beat-em up. Darth Athena seems to be a shooter with some stealth elements thrown in. I went into the demo really wanting to like this game. It seems like it could be fun, and I'll probably get it eventually. However, it's not exactly what I was expecting.