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Monday, January 10, 2005

#4 The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Xbox)

Alright, so this one also wins an additional bonus award for "most cumbersome title". But hey - it's still a superb game.

This game is the very definition of a dark horse. A game based on a film, for one thing. And a film that nobody liked, for another. Plus, most of us hadn't heard of the developer (Starbreeze). There was no way that this was going to be a good game. But somehow, it came out of nowhere to be an absolute A-grade ball-tearer.

This is one of the best looking games you'll ever see, for one thing. It's simply beautiful. It also features some superb cinematic elements, and not the sort that get in the way of gameplay. The atmosphere is totally absorbing and completely believable, thanks to the game's immaculate and immersive presentation, top-notch voice acting, and consistently realised and intricately detailed setting.

This isn't one for the kids to play, incidentally. It's brutal, violent and sweary. In a good way, I guess, but only for the grown-ups. Given the game's prison setting, and the apparent status of playable character Riddick as something of a bad-ass, it'd destroy the illusion somewhat if the game *wasn't* violent and sweary.

I tossed up putting the game in this slot, or a couple of notches below, but really I think it deserves its #4 billing. There's so much that it does, and it does it all so winningly, with so little fanfare, that it's one of those games I get excited talking about down the pub. It's a little short, admittedly, but it's an experience that'll stay with you more than some far longer and more epic feeling games. If it's any indication, I started my second playthrough immediately after I'd finished the first one, without even getting up to go to the toilet. That should give you some indication as to how much I enjoyed it. There were some missions I hadn't completed, that I wanted to go back and do, but mostly, I just wanted to live the game's experience a little bit longer.

The game's essentially a jail-break story, and as such it's tight and lean, and well-paced. Sort of like the best action movies are. Don't expect War and Peace, in other words. The game's billed as a first-person shooter, but there's really quite a bit more to it than that. There are whole stretches of the game where you won't be able to use a gun, for instance. There are adventure game elements, with lots of conversation, plenty of stealthy bits, where you sneak around in the shadows, and hand-to-hand combat, which is actually done very well indeed - far better than I've ever seen hand-to-hand combat realised in any other game played from the first person perspective.

Subtle but important design choices add even more to the game's sense of polish and immersion. You can see your character when he climbs ladders and uses health stations. When he's crawling around in the dark, you can not only see his legs and arms (where appropriate), but also the shadow he casts. There's no HUD to speak of. The gritty, low-tech feel of the game makes itself felt throughout - your health is represented by simple white boxes that only appear to let you know you're taking damage, and weapon selection is achieved by simple, temporary icons. Ammo, where it needs to be displayed, can be seen on the gun itself. These sound like trivial things, but they all add up to create a real sense of being there. It's the experience as a whole that's paramount here - far more than any one of the well-realised game mechanics they've implemented.

Put simply, I've never played anything like this. It'd be a real shame to miss out on it, so long as you don't mind a bit of biffo every now and again.


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