In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Sam gets lost in the darkest corners of The Chronicles of Riddick.
I have no real love for Riddick, the middling Vin Diesel-powered sci-fi series that is no generation’s Star Wars. 2004’s Escape From Butcher Bay was a far better game than The Chronicles of Riddick deserved, and while at the time I remember thinking this was down to the way developer Starbreeze made the brutal melee combat feel better than firing a gun, years later I think it’s the depiction of a prison setting that really sets it apart.
Butcher Bay is a sci-fi jail that was seemingly constructed exclusively for gruff men. It’s introduced following an effective dream sequence where, outside the prison, you get Riddick to kill a guard, pick up a gun and start fighting your way out, until the screen fades to white. Moments later, you’re being led into the prison in a sequence not unlike the original Half-Life intro (and many subsequent scripted action games). You quickly learn the rules of Butcher Bay: start a fight in the courtyard with an inmate and you’ll be zapped by a guard droid then dragged back to your cell. Kill someone within the cramped walls of a cell, though, and no-one really minds.
This opening part of the prison is under the control of a guy called Rust, who has the guards on his side, too. Overthrowing him is your first quest in Butcher Bay, and you start with no tools to get the job done. It’s left to the player to figure this out, without getting on the wrong side of the guards and surviving ambushes by other prisoners.
The prison setting is a brilliant framing device for what’s a fairly slow crawl towards accumulating a basic FPS arsenal. Early on, two separate grudge-bearing prisoners ask you to kill an inmate called Molina. Riddick beats the guy to death in his cell, and in return gets some knuckledusters. From here, you fight Rust’s cronies until you get hold of a shiv, which feels really nasty when it connects with an enemy and creates a splash of blood. Cutting down Rust in a knife duel is the first sign that you’re no longer on the bottom of the pile in Butcher Bay: prisoners go from fearing Rust to respecting you. This is the first step to escaping this place.
I think the idea of putting players behind bars in Butcher Bay is smart in a few ways. While these basic first objectives and many that follow are essentially fetch quests, there’s a logic to them in these circumstances: being able to do favours for people is pretty much Riddick’s only bargaining chip, and killing other criminals is all he’s really capable of. The lack of empathy by the prison staff is unsettling, too. When a prison riot kicks off at the end of the game’s first act, Riddick is already orchestrating an escape plan, with the riot happening in the background, only for you to return later to a bloody aftermath where a bunch of the prisoners have already been shot dead.
Butcher Bay also makes it seem like Starbreeze is doing a lot with relatively little. There’s not much spectacle here—but there are a lot of linear sci-fi industrial corridors. The courtyard of the prison is one of the rare places to see what the orange sky looks like above the tall structure of Butcher Bay, and in a complex that’s otherwise dark and miserable, enjoying this rare half-sunlight feels valuable. Butcher Bay is a cold, cramped place where neither the guards nor the inmates are on your side. It’s meant to feel like going to jail.
This is just the introduction to Butcher Bay. Starbreeze plays its hand gradually: the prison surroundings gradually unfold as Riddick’s attempts to escape don’t pan out. There are dark corridors on different levels of the place filled with deadly, alien-like creatures. It’s a nasty setting to be in. Starbreeze uses everything from the textures of the walls to the colour of the air to tell the player that they need to escape this place.
I’ve had the Assault on Dark Athena version of The Chronicles of Riddick on GOG for a while now and I played it a few nights ago for the first time in years, just to refresh my memory of that opening sequence. I ended up going until 2.30AM. There’s a very strong sense of progression here: starting the player with nothing and gradually feeding new tools into the game means that getting hold of a gun for the first time feels really empowering. I don’t think Butcher Bay is an outstanding shooter or stealth game by today’s standards—only a good one. But Riddick’s real magic is tapping into the excitement of the prison break: the desire to escape, the planning, the execution and the real possibility that that it might all go wrong.