I consider myself pretty in-tune to the gaming world, so it was with some surprise that Starbreeze AB's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay managed to fly completely under my radar until word of mouth hit the internet. Licensed games are notoriously bad, with the notable exception of Rare's Goldeneye in 1997. Usually competence is the most gamers can hope for. But Escape from Butcher Bay is far more than competent—it's innovative and brilliantly executed. It's exceedingly rare that a single game can both build on established concepts and integrate its own innovations to create a wholly unique experience while exuding sheer perfection in execution, but Escape from Butcher Bay is just such a game.
Although the game's release coincides with the film Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel to the underrated 2000 film Pitch Black, it is actually a prequel to both of the films. The game's plot is exceptionally well done, and there are numerous arbitrary plot developments that are clearly meant to reference the films. Moreover, we are given virtually no background on the protagonist, but simply propelled through a brisk setup and launched into the center of the action. Nonetheless, the plot works well in a functional capacity, driving events in the game and developing key characters. A bounty hunter has captured Riddick and is taking him to Butcher Bay, a notorious triple-max prison stuck on a desolate desert planet. Escape is impossible, Riddick is told—no one ever has, no one ever will. But Riddick is no ordinary convict, and things turn ugly quickly as he bargains, cons, sneaks and kills his way out of the massive, complex prison.
Escape from Butcher Bay may best be described as a first-person shooter, and an excellent one at that, but it is so much more. The brilliance of the game lies in its seamless transitions through numerous types of gameplay that are always intertwined in the narrative and never feel forced or contrived. The shooting is first rate, with superb aiming and speed, excellent artificial intelligence, a challenging and interesting variety of enemies, and fantastic open-ended level design. But Riddick spends large portions of the game sparsely armed, and must rely on wits and stealth to progress. Riddick can enter into a "stealth mode in which he can move silently and remain unseen in the shadows," and quietly dispatch unsuspecting guards with gruesome efficiency with a quick neck break or knife-slice to the throat. Guards are keen on their surroundings and will notice their fallen comrades, but Riddick can drag bodies to dark corners where they'll be hidden from view.
When confronted while unarmed, which happens often, Riddick has a few options. The game features a wonderfully intuitive hand to hand combat system. He can block and throw four basic punches, and with careful timing the blocks and punches may be combined to create speedy counters and deadly combinations. If an enemy is armed, a well timed button-press will cue Riddick to grab the weapon and turn it against his enemy for a deft and violent kill.
Riddick faces an extensive variety of challenges, from armored guards to lumbering mechs with devastating firepower, so escaping Butcher Bay will require Riddick to put all of his skills to use. Most gratifying though is that players can often make use of Riddick's many skills at their own discretion. In one play through in a level, for example, I went run-and-gun through the level drawing attention to myself and getting into heated shootouts. On repeated play, I decided to shoot out the lights (nearly all of which are destructible) and would use a highly accurate pistol to snipe blinded enemies with a mortal headshot, or capitalize on their confusion to lure them into an ambush.
In addition to the action, significant portions of the game take on a role-playing quality, in which Riddick forges quid pro quo friendships with other inmates, learns the workings of the vast corridors of Butcher Bay and confronts other inmates in hand-to-hand combat. The variety of gameplay is coordinated artfully with scripted sequences that develop characters and flesh out the plot. Numerous side quests are optionally available, and because they are tied into the overall progression of the game (often requiring only a modest diversion from the core objectives) I found them enjoyable and unobtrusive.
Escape from Butcher Bay is also a technical masterpiece. For the graphics, Starbreeze utilized "normal mapping"—the same method being used for the forthcoming Doom III—in which high resolution renders are painted over simple polygon models. The results are crisp, highly detailed environments and characters and a fast, fluid framerate. Animation is spectacular—the best I have seen since Metal Gear Solid 2, and looks remarkably natural. Lighting and shadow are spectacular as well, surpassing the lauded visuals of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Thief: Deadly Shadows. The graphics lend a convincing and brooding atmosphere that compliments the diversity of the gameplay and brings Butcher Bay to life.
For the audio, Starbreeze recruited exceptional voice talent from top to bottom. Vin Diesel voices Riddick, and numerous other Hollywood actors make appearances including Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Michael Rooker and Xzibit. But although the lead characters are voiced with superb professionalism, more impressive is that all of the characters in the game, from the menacing prison guards to the impressively varied slate of Riddick's fellow inmates, are voiced professionally and convincingly. Sound effects are impressive as well; everything from the ambient sounds in the prison to the crisp boom of gunfire is first-rate. A sparse but well done musical score adds nicely to the atmosphere.
Escape from Butcher Bay is also relatively short. While some may find that this detracts from their satisfaction with the game, I found the length to be utterly perfect. The game is paced briskly, transitioning from one sequence to the next with impressive fluidity, such that the game only left me wanting to play it again rather than leaving me unsatisfied with its resolution. And with the numerous sidequests and the variations of the game mechanics, I found repeated play to be every bit as thrilling as the first time through.
It's rare that a game of such impeccable design and ingenious execution is seen. It's paced wonderfully through an interesting story; features well-developed, appealing characters; and blends numerous gameplay types into one flawlessly executed adventure. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is the biggest surprise of this generation of gaming, and it has raised the bar on game design in every respect.