Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Assault on Dark Athena Review

by Videep Vijay Kumar

Pitch Black is one of my favourite Science Fiction movies -- it's also probably the best movie featuring acting legend Vin Diesel. The movie introduced us to a character, who arguably is one of the most interesting characters in science fiction: Richard B. Riddick (he calls himself only as 'Riddick', and understandably so). He possesses a supernatural ability (he explains in Pitch Black that he had his new eyes implanted on some vague planet) to see clearly in the dark. This helps him move around stealthily in the darkness, effecting brutal kills on unsuspecting baddies. I guess it was only a matter of time before a video game got made. In 2004, Escape from Butcher Bay added a back story to the cult-favourite character, chronicling his escape from the horrible prison, Butcher Bay. The game was also one of the best first-person experiences of 2004, accurately translating the feeling of being in Riddick's shoes (boots?) with a great blend of stealth sections, mêlée combat and shooting. What's more, the game was a reasonably big hit on the Xbox on PC. The Assault on Dark Athena bundle includes the original, plus an entirely new solo story mode.

This didn't actually work out as planned

Assault on Dark Athena takes place immediately after the events of Butcher Bay, with Riddick waking up from his cryo-chamber to find his ship being captured by a band of mercenaries. His original captor Johns is also taken prisoner. The initial stages involve walking/sneaking around inside the massive ship, picking up some cool mêlée weaponry and talking to prisoners on-board. You'll also end up doing favours for some of prisoners, and in exchange, they'll help you with what you need. A lot of the tasks will involve crawling through ventilation shafts, ducts, sneaking around and picking off the ship's crew one by one. You will also mostly indulge in mêlée combat during the initial stages, relying on some slick new moves Riddick's picked up since Butcher Bay.

The game does a great job of making you feel that you're on a large spaceship in the middle of nowhere thanks to some great atmospheric effects and an interesting graphics-filter. However, at times it becomes obvious that a lot of the graphics have only been touched up and the filter was necessary to cover up any obvious blemishes. The graphical high-point is the use of shadows – it's quite spectacular. The lighting effects obviously help, as well. You really feel that you're looking through the eyes of Riddick when you head to the darkest place around and crouch. The first game did it well, and this game does it brilliantly. The voice-acting is up-there as well. It's not over-the-top like The Wheelman, with Diesel delivering one of his best performances to date.

The ultimate intellectual debate

The game is all about melee combat. Movement and timing are crucial in all of the game's encounters not involving guns. Since hand-to-hand combat is a lot more personal, it makes for a lot of intense moments – particularly when Riddick is outnumbered. Tactics really count and you've got really got to pace your moves well. I'd still say Condemned: Criminal Origins / Bloodshot sport better melee combat mechanics overall, but Riddick's moves are simply way cooler – even the finishers.

On the other hand, there's just way too much shooting in Dark Athena. It's not a good thing because when guns are introduced into the mix, everything goes downhill. The code doesn't help because a lot of the levels / set-pieces require the use of guns, and guns only. There's not even an option of using stealth to take your enemies out. You can still shoot out lights to turn the tide of battle, or at least make things more conducive to a Riddick-like approach. The weapons arsenal includes a Tranquillizer gun, shotgun, assault rifle, an SMG and SCAR. There's nothing spectacular about the weapons or the shooting. There are problems with the level design in the later parts of the game, when you emerge on the surface. There's a lot of sun, which pretty much neuters all of Riddick's abilities. Enemy drones and turrets do too much damage – in normal difficulty, you'll lose over half your health just tracking a spider turret. The precision required for stealth kills is also pretty insane. If you mistime your attack by a pico-second, you'll get owned. When you're outnumbered, you're better off running to a passageway with one entrance and killing all the baddies who blindly follow you. That exposes the AI quite a bit, because, you see, it is quite dumb. To make up for its inherent dumbness, what does it do? Why, it cheats, of course! They're way more accurate than you will ever be, they dodge bullets, can see through crates, walls and large objects and instantly fire in your direction during scripted sequences.


The package is great overall, particularly if you haven't played Escape from Butcher Bay. Assault on Dark Athena sports some great mêlée combat, but is ultimately quite annoying – I recommend playing it on 'easy' difficulty, unless you're patient and masochistic.

1 comment:

  1. Despite the game moving away from the original, in terms of gameplay,
    I thoroughly enjoyed it. The spiders scared the shit out of me in the beginning. But once I started expecting them at every turn and behind every pillar, things became simple.
    PS: Scar gun is awesome!