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Preview: The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

When a development studio announces plans to remake a classic game, the title's hardcore fans experience a bevy of emotions comparable to rekindling a fiery romance. Both situations require important factors to be considered. Will the attraction that first ignited your passion still burn with the same intensity? What daring new moves has your former flame added to her romantic repertoire? Will there be exciting new areas to explore, or will she simply wear a new dress to conceal aesthetics that have classic appeal, but are ultimately tired when compared to the beauties of today?

With The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, developer Starbreeze aims to give you everything you loved about last generation's Escape from Butcher Bay, but with so much more than a fresh coat of paint. To put it bluntly, Dark Athena is the geeky girl with braces, ratty hair, a lumpy body and a great personality that you turned down in high school, only to find out at your five-year reunion that she became a Victoria's Secret model. Fortunately, that stellar personality is still intact, and she's willing to give you a second chance to see all that she had to offer back in study hall, plus five year's worth of sexy new additions.

Meeting up with your old running crew at a reunion is an oddly fitting metaphor for how Assault on Dark Athena came to be. When Starbreeze decided to do more than simply remake Escape from Butcher Bay for the current generation of gamers, they knew that re-assembling the team that made Riddick's console debut a success would be instrumental to making the next entry equally auspicious. According to Starbreeze themselves, the band is back: all the designers, writers, artists, and programmers who worked on Escape From Butcher Bay have re-united with Riddick himself to escape the dreaded ship Dark Athena, a task that promises to be challenging to the utmost degree, but a blast for fans when the title releases next year.

From the time you insert Assault on Dark Athena into your disc drive, you'll have the option to play the remake of Escape from Butcher Bay, or jump right into the new Dark Athena campaign. This was a decision made for those gamers who have already partaken in the original game. If you want to play through Butcher Bay, feel free to do so, but it is not required to experience the new content.

Dark Athena is a direct sequel to Butcher Bay -- literally. Riddick awakens on the Dark Athena, a dark vessel with a seemingly infinite supply of steel corridors and plenty of hostile NPCs. Riddick awakens and, after darting through a few shadows and listening to Athena's captain bark orders over the ship's P.A. system, he comes across a Drone. Doubtlessly a Radio Shack employee's worst nightmare, Drones are guards controlled at remote stations (batteries not included). The Starbreeze representative manning the controls waiting until the Drone's heavy footsteps clomped past Riddick's hiding place before popping out, dashing forward and slicing the unaware guard in the back with dual Ulaks, wicked curved blades with serrated edges. Incapacitated, the guard slumped to the ground, giving Riddick the chance to make productive use of its unconscious form.

Each Drone carries a gun that it welded to its hand; the weapon therefore cannot be removed. To get around this disadvantage, Riddick can actually pick the guard up and carry him like a meat shield with one hand, while the other holds the Drone's gun hand and fires the weapon. This mechanic is also useful for hiding bodies in pits of shadow so that other Drones don't raise an alarm and bring overwhelming mobs to Riddick's position.

Carrying around a Drone does come with a major drawback. While carting them around like a drunken prom date, Riddick's mobility is severely decreased. Dispatching enemies in front of you and to angles of no greater than, say, 45 degrees isn't too tricky, but any enemies that appear to your extreme sides or completely behind you will probably have to be dealt with using other means.

For those who would love to control a Drone without the inconvenience of carting them around, Drone control stations are scattered throughout the Dark Athena and make for entertaining and easy ways to cut down large groups of foes. After mounting a control station, the point-of-view switches from Riddick's to that of a Drone, whose displays is overlaid with a red grid. The Drone steps down from an assembly line and is fully under your control until he takes severe damage. At that point, Riddick may either leave the control station or commandeer another Drone.

Drones often have other uses besides meat shields and cumbersome weapons. Our Starbreeze representative's forward progress came to a halt when he found his path block by a large ventilation fan. After running back to where a group of Drones had been defeated, Riddick hopped into a control station, took control of a Drone, and walked him straight into the blades. The shower of blood and chunks of meat proved excessive enough to clog the spinning blades, allowing Riddick safe passage to the other side.

Just as with Butcher Bay and all Riddick movies, presentation and atmosphere combine to form a riveting piece of Dark Athena's package. The term "cinematic experience" is grossly overused in the gaming industry, but Assault on Dark Athena seems to be the perfect realization of the buzz phrase. There were many incidents were an in-game cutscene took control away from the player, but the superb voice-acting and drama that unfolded was just long enough to be compelling, yet not so lengthy that they approached Metal Gear Solid-esque "I'm going to make a sandwich and eat it while this cinematic plays" levels of annoyance.

Like the game's cinematics, our hands-off demonstration of Assault on Dark Athena was just enough to whet our appetite for the game. Those who missed Escape from Butcher Bay on the PC or original Xbox have an immersive experience to look forward to, and those who have already escaped should anticipate the continuation of Riddick's adventures when The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena releases in the first quarter of 2009 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

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