Chances are you might not have come across the game that precedes this. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was a much-admired, but criminally overlooked title a few years back; exactly the sort of game that won those End of Year Awards for most underrated game. It’s small reward for such an accomplished title. Butcher Bay had a much better script, better voice talent and a mix of common sense and innovative gameplay features that stood it apart from many of its contemporaries.
Butcher Bay made it all the harder to wait the four-and-a-half years for its follow-up, Assault on Dark Athena. Starbreeze, its developer, has been keen to stress that the latest game is not a sequel, but more an extension of the first title, much like Half-Life 2’s Episodes in the excellent Orange Box. In fact, Dark Athena bears a number of positive similarities to the revered Valve shooters. It’s not so much a case of stealing good ideas as one of Starbreeze seeing a way to do something that works and putting something similar in its own game. All this would count for nothing if Dark Athena didn’t have any good ideas of its own – and on that count Starbreeze has delivered too.
It’s probably safe to say that Vin Diesel’s movies aren’t really noted for his acting prowess. Mind you, Pitch Black, the film these games act as prequels to, was probably the best movie he’s ever done, and that he glowers a lot and doesn’t really say very much is no coincidence. In Dark Athena it’s the same deal. Diesel is his usual menacing presence – and given to a few classic (that is to say, massively cliched) Hollywood one-liners – but it’s the excellent supporting cast of characters throughout the game that really makes it shine.
Even now, with next-gen as current-gen, it’s rare to find a game populated with believable characters who add to the game. It’s usually the case that flat, poorly animated and badly acted characters pop up between the gameplay bits, getting in the way of the action. This time the interludes help the game along and add authenticity to what’s going on. Maybe it’s because of Diesel’s involvement with the title – his Tigon Studios is working with Starbreeze to put the game out, so perhaps that’s why there’s so much attention to the smaller details.
Revas, the self-appointed captain of the mercenary ship Dark Athena, is one example of a particularly effective character – she’s convincing as an unsettling, calculating megalomaniac. Although the game is scripted and stubbornly linear in its approach, and therefore given to few genuine surprises along the way, the strength of the supporting cast of degenerates, unfortunates and reprobates makes the atmosphere of the game really enjoyable, a throwback to some of the better sci-fi titles of the last decade – games like Half-Life, Deus Ex and Doom.