Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay


Escape From Butcher Bay had a turbulent development, starting out as a game based on the 2000 film Pitch Black before evolving into a tie-in for the 2004 follow-up. This allowed it to have a two-year production cycle, which was especially unusual given that licenced games were ordinarily churned out in less than a year at the time. Times were tough at Swedish developer Starbreeze during the making of Riddick. The studio shrank from 80 to 25 people throughout Butcher Bay's beta, and most elements of the game didn't come together until later into development. Vivendi even tried to cancel the title at one point, but immense pressure from Universal kept it in production.

Vin Diesel and his studio Tigon got heavily involved as well. Diesel told DVD Talk in 2004 that it was a "much less expensive way to play and be creative" in expanding the universe introduced by Pitch Black.

For Starbreeze, the developer needed the project, and it helped that the staff saw promise in the Riddick universe. "When we are evaluating a licence deal, we are looking for potentially interesting gameplay mechanics inherent in the key character and the world," former Starbreeze CEO Johan Kristiansson told 360 Magazine in 2009. "In Riddick we liked things like the Eyeshine." It was the creative ingenuity at Starbreeze, however, that made it great. "A strong licence can be one component in making a successful game, but it is certainly not the only one."


In all honesty, it would be a little generous to the Riddick 'franchise' to say that Starbreeze owed the game's critical and commercial success to the licence - in fact, after a mass exodus at the Swedish developer in 2009, Butcher Bay designer Jerk Gustafsson deemed The Chronicles Of Riddick "shitty IP", a judgement that we'd have to agree with. It's a testament to the talent of Starbreeze, however, that it produced a first-person shooter built on unique ideas in spite of being based on a property that is entirely derivative of other films; Riddick is a brutal, bleak and labrynthine experience that uses the tunnel-based level design of its genre to make the player feel confined and helpless.

Escape From Butcher Bay sees Richard B Riddick trapped in a high-security prison with the intention of escape. One of Butcher Bay's most effective plot devices is the way it leads you to believe you've nearly escaped the prison you're in, only to find yourself in another, much harsher level of the complex - and then again, on to Butcher Bay's 'triple-max' nightmare even later in the game. There appears to be no way out, no matter what kind of deals Riddick strikes with the other inmates, who he shivs to death or which new paths emerge; in terms of atmosphere, the hopeless scenario is a perfect match for Riddick's mix of gameplay styles.

Without a gigantic armoury, players need to gather smaller weapons and make the best of it. Most of the weapons carried by guards are ID-tagged, so wielding them is impossible, shunning the conventional FPS template and instead drafting in a more tactical style of gameplay - and this is where Starbreeze's unusual level of design ingenuity comes in. Riddick is exceptionally difficult to play as a straightforward action game. Instead, sticking to the shadows, cutting the lights and performing off-the-cuff stealth kills is often the only way to succeed in certain areas.

Yet repeating the same method twice rarely works: there are dozens of different combinations of enemies and level layouts in Butcher Bay, and many of them demand the player rethinks his or her tactics every five minutes. In one memorably hard scenario, when Riddick ventures gunless into the guard-infested mines beneath the prison, the best tactic is actually just to run; accepting that your armoury of a club, screwdriver and knuckle dusters stand little chance in the face of assault rifle fire and mechs is a fundamental part of besting Escape From Butcher Bay.

The use of light and dark also caught the attention of critics and players - early on, Riddick gains the 'Eyeshine' ability, enabling him to see in the dark when his enemies can not, and giving him a slight advantage in combat encounters. For an original Xbox game, the lighting that brought these sequences to life was absolutely stunning, an impressive fusion of mechanics to Starbreeze's technical aptitude. While Riddick was revolutionary in this sense, the title was also noted at the time for primarily being a first-person beat-'em-up, of sorts, and capturing the bloody essence of a bareknuckle brawl from that perspective.


Starbreeze developed a tie-in that should be remembered long after the films that inspired it in the first place are forgotten. Escape From Butcher Bay surprised players by going in the opposite direction to the FPS titles of the time, forsaking spectacle for tension and swapping well-worn shooting mechanics for raw hand-to-hand combat, which suits the beautifully-realised sci-fi prison environment surrounding Riddick.

The sense of progression in Butcher Bay is perhaps most impressive, though; the way the facility sucks you into its horrible depths and introduces you to the backstabbing inmates that reside there. Riddick has to resort to anything to get the job done, beating people to death, poisoning them, and going on a rampage in a mech just to get out. Most action games feature arbitrary tasks; every action has a purpose in Riddick, as part of the story's logic, and when you finally do break out, you reflect on how rewarding that extensive journey has been.

Riddick is anything but a typical FPS, and by experimenting with so many different systems in the midst of unique development cycles, Starbreeze ended up with a surprising classic on its hands.
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