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Capsule of Curiousities: Vin Diesel Edition

Inside the all-encompassing laboratory for capitalist media experimentation, no prospect holds a futuristic glint quite like the ability for a celebrity to upload their likeness in full to the digital realm, the chance for a figure to embolden a B-list IP with their ever marketable presence despite how superfluous it is to the playing experience. This meeting of the self-promoting minds can manifest in two forms; either the orthodox route of transmedia, allowing a developer to adapt a film franchise for the benefit of every involved property, or an actor merely lending their identity to a singular game elevating interest in the IP single-handedly. In Spring 2009, Vin Diesel went on a multi-pronged licensing tear reviving the Riddick IP in the form of a remaster and an expansion, and lending his authority to Midway’s Wheelman, an arguable death knell for Midway as well as a borderline asset flip of their prior attempt to make Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the face of SpyHunter.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and its sequel-spansion Assault on Dark Athena retained the stark brutality of its prequel film Pitch Black, a tendency which The Chronicles of Riddick film strangely betrayed in favor of George Lucas-esque space operatics. Tonally, it manages to be one of the most faithful translations of film franchise to video game ever, in a manner that actually outperforms the movie trilogy. In the opposite direction, Wheelman was a defanged GTA clone without a single defining characteristic. It tumbled out of its faltering studio as an open world anachronism, in the vein of 2006’s Driver: Parallel Lines more than GTA IV. Doomed to the same fate as SpyHunter: Nowhere to Run, the threat of a filmed sequel fell to the wayside, as Midway went bankrupt and co-publisher Ubisoft abandoned the property entirely. It may not be the best batting average for Mr. Diesel, but it is the sort of brazen swing for the fence made all the more bizarre ten years down the line in an industry that prides itself on being a serious form.

 

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay

Chronicles of Riddick prison brawl

It is a series of miracles that The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, made to coincide with the film’s release and five years old by the time of its remaster not only holds up the best amongst the Vin Diesel’s slyly self-aggrandizing output of games, but is also the best use of the Riddick IP period. A shockingly multi-faceted first-person action-adventure given its perpetual location on a space prison of nebulous dimensions, Butcher Bay is a methodic journey through the dregs of a futuristic society that is absorbing in its claustrophobia, yet surprisingly expansive in its gameplay. The story is largely extraneous, preceding the entire Riddick trilogy but merely preoccupying itself with a floor-by-floor prison escape connected by bouts of mass murder (a largely refreshing decision when compared to the nigh-incomprehensible lore of the accompanying film).

It is instead distinguished by the noble attempts to have Butcher Bay approximate a living environment packed densely with seedy souls. Butcher Bay is hardly an open-world title- much of its interstitial gameplay resides in hubworlds that adhere to the austere prison setting, but distinguish themselves in terms of sordid company and level design. Riddick repeatedly has the chance (and occasionally the requirement) to accept missions from inmates, who are often weaponizing Riddick against each other’s factions. Beyond upholding Riddick’s lone wolf status in a less calculated way than the misanthropic platitudes he mutters internally, the arrangement of location specific errands puts every crevice of the environment to use. For sizable portions of the game, the ranged weaponry plundered from guards is withheld from players entirely. You experience much of the campaign as a prisoner, instead of a supersoldier simply displaced to the environment. Intimate combat centered around shivs and fisticuffs is lumbering but seething with impact. Scrappy prison fights are experienced up close, volleying fists directly at the screen to be weaved and countered. Finisher animations are visceral and require extensive build-up, Riddick is a skilled fighter but rarely encounters an enemy he can take down with cursory blows. The multi-legged mission to obtain a shiv allows the setting to command progression and feels like a hard earned upgrade.

Prison inmate conversation in Chronicles of Riddick game

Floydian slip

In most respects, Butcher Bay feels like a rejection of blockbuster game design. Enemy encounters largely feel incidental, spilling between rooms and often overpowering players to a degree where scurrying away is the best bet. Butcher Bay is frequently a game of evasion, spent crawling through air vents with the understanding that every enemy you face can overpower and out-strategize. The decision to dampen colors noticeably to a nocturnal blue when you’re imperceptible by enemies minimizes the tendency for AI to abruptly notice you. The limited viewpoint of the first-person perspective is met halfway by this mechanic allowing you to gain your bearings in real time before enemies flex their superior firepower. Ammo is allocated conservatively and shootouts with guards are as panic ridden as they are power fantasies. The ability to cautiously lean around corners with gun in hand folds right into the tension fostered by the pacing of combat.

Instead of stretching itself across a barren open world or reducing combat to the mundanity of corridor shooting, Butcher Bay connects areas that operate on both scales. A continuous environment is approximated by the prison’s design, efficiently devised to allow players the freedom to return to previous zones through newly unearthed pathways. With the labyrinthine design of the environment, most every location is in service of distinguishing the world, be it the cyberpunk neon engulfing glitzy staff residence spaces or the dire mining environment prisoners are forced to work in. You won’t get much of a feel for any of the characters in Butcher Bay, but the penal society you work your way through across the 9 hour campaign makes a remarkable impression. Despite absorbing all sort of sci-fi and prison film tropes at once, Butcher Bay hangs together as an environment that you maneuver through instead of being funneled. The balance of open exploration connected by cavernous hallways is a conduit for location and gameplay variety. The walls around you propel pace forward without allowing the game to present itself as a series of disconnected setpieces.

If the understated lighting (only slightly ruined by the bloom effects plastered across the remaster) didn’t nudge you in the direction already, Butcher Bay is effectively a stealth title for a majority of your escape. The verticality enhancing Hitman titles and ultimately Dishonored is largely absent, restricting navigation to a few convergent paths, but strategy remains malleable due to the enemy variety. Guards are armed and observant but can be taken down from behind with a select few ultraviolent animations. The monolith security bots on the other hand are impenetrable from most angles requiring a flanking exercise that would be annoying in most contemporary titles but benefits from Butcher Bay’s forward-thinking cover system. The sense of pursuit is maintained across combat as no matter how loud or subtle an encounter is, it is Riddick’s ability to conceal that pushes him forward. The power struggle between the player and enemies is surprisingly tactical, a clash between compact environments and a need to hide to gain the upper hand. For the bulk of the game, Riddick is resilient but relatively powerless with only two setpiece types bucking the trend.

Chronicles of Riddick mech battle

Sweet vengeance

The more freakish type displaces players to a new environment entirely. Two trips beneath the prison are the perfect excuse for Butcher Bay to mirror Pitch Black directly. In more timeless terms, both push the throttle in terms of FPS gameplay and pivot to action horror, recalling Aliens better than numerous Alien games. Butcher Bay’s shooting isn’t very flashy, some dated elements include a broad reticle and a full screen zoom replacing iron sights, but the same impact offered in melee combat is preserved by the gunplay. The sense of panic spurred by security bot encounters is retained in alien encounters. However, ammo and enemies flood these sections, the unapologetic climax contrasting the patience of typical Butcher Bay encounters.

Still more explosive than that is the late game introduction of two mecha sequences, finally allowing you to pilot the security bots that have been stalking your every move. In these sequences, strategy is almost besides the point, machine gun rounds and missiles rain down endlessly, Riddick’s turn from prisoner to super-soldier deftly expressed through the player. The total body count of the action horror and mecha sequences combined is that of… a single level of Modern Warfare 2, but it never fails to feel huge distributed amongst the minimalist conflicts characterizing the rest of the title. A quest for an inmate’s glasses at the bottom of the mines becomes a rambling tour through ghostly hollows best punctuated by fleeting technical fireworks. The attention forcibly directed to atmosphere (in a similar vein to the first-person storytelling of Half Life 2) makes the eventual carnage feel earned. While Butcher Bay’s seams show in its animations and the occasional gameplay quirk, the pacing of its campaign remains faultless and was more than enough incentive for me to escape Butcher Bay’s confines fifteen years later.

 

The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

Chronicles of Riddick game mini-boss

Escape From Butcher Bay was such a deceptively solid, varied and measured game it could only put me in an even more inexplicable scenario; having high hopes for the sequel-spansion to a Vin Diesel movie game based on one of the silliest blockbusters of the 2000s. Assault on Dark Athena is unfortunately a visible regression from Butcher Bay, and yet it is still more playable than it has any right to be. Described simply, Dark Athena is Butcher Bay with a brighter color palette, a more melodramatic narrative, and a substantial helping of sillier tech. Its first half is in lockstep with Butcher Bay, a new space prison, a new motley crew of prisoners, the same balance between stealth and prison brawls, and the decision to give you Predator claws for some reason.

AI is markedly less sophisticated in Dark Athena than its predecessor and core combat mechanics haven’t been updated at all, yet the parameters have been adjusted just enough in all the right places to make Dark Athena a bit expendable but relentlessly entertaining. Stealth unfolds at a faster pace with your upgraded claws and more impatient AI, somewhat negating the tension that took Butcher Bay to the stratosphere but proving that its mechanics are well-equipped for snappier gameplay. The newly devised space prison preserves the aura of Butcher Bay but alters the floorplan just enough to become its own journey. It is actually when Riddick escapes into the outer world that Dark Athena starts to lose its distinct character.

The aforementioned first-person storytelling presented in both Riddick games is an undeniable asset, but the introduction of an energy gun in Dark Athena’s second half turns the Half Life undertones into overtones and is a bizarre change of pace for the series. Outside the confines of Dark Athena, stealth is downplayed entirely in favor of first-person shooting that is a small step up from Half Life 2 mechanically but displays no identity of its own. Excepting a new method of handling security bots that better resembles Serious Sam than the Riddick franchise, much of the second-half of the campaign is merely going through the motions. It’s neither a hassle to play nor an inspiring experience, a mech battle here, a punch out there. In its own vacuum though, the advanced cover system and dilapidated environment detail makes for a final leg that holds up just fine. The fact that I could be disappointed by any aspect of a Chronicles of Riddick game mostly just lends credence to the high bar the titles set in the first place. If Dark Athena isn’t essential playing (it’s not), it reconfirms the distinct composition of the Riddick titles comprised of mechanics that would later inform Condemned but never be entirely replicated. Sometimes more of the same isn’t bad when “the same” can’t be found anywhere else.

 

Wheelman

Vin Diesel literally drives through an office building

Talk about peaking early

It was only here where Diesel’s branding eye truly failed him, Wheelman is Midway’s T-rated foray into open world mayhem scrubbed of all objectionable content or idiosyncrasy. For a game that opens with Vin Diesel driving through the center of an office building that appears to be entirely composed of glass, Wheelman is remarkably lacking in subsequent entertainment. The ability to jaggedly slam your car into other vehicles horizontally is worth a laugh, but Wheelman’s open world is otherwise as inactive as it gets to the point that civilians are protected by a forcefield impenetrable by your vehicle. On-foot gunplay gradually becomes a larger part of Wheelman repertoire and never justifies its lurching presence. It arms you with some of the most ridiculous mechanics an open-world could give you (including the ability to hijack a vehicle by pouncing on top of it) and provides almost nothing to do with it. The undercover agent Milo Burik never transcends his status as a vessel for Vin Diesel, and the alleged Wheelman movie in development would be roughly indistinguishable from The Fast and the Furious property. It is resultantly an exemplary case of a game that is only distinguished by celebrity presence. Although I guess I’d rather play a dark ages Driver title in the body of Vin Diesel than anyone else, Wheelman is mostly just a reminder that you should have played Driver: San Francisco (there’s still time!)

The review of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena was based on the PC version of the game; the review of Wheelman was based on the PS3 version of the game

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