(Note: While this review covers the recently released PC port, I’m going to go over the whole game for the sake of the readers. If you’ve got an Xbox, rest assured that most of what I’m going to say applies to that version of the game as well.)
I’ve heard a conspiracy theory about Escape From Butcher Bay. Vin Diesel is known to be a big videogame fan; it’s why he started Tigon Studios, who collaborated with Starbreeze on this game. The theory goes that Diesel agreed to do the Chronicles of Riddick movie as an excuse to have Butcher Bay made. Ridiculous, probably, but it might explain why the movie was mediocre while the game was (and is) so good.
Certainly the scenario is one of the more plausible takes on the Riddick character. None of this one-man-against-the-universe tripe. He is facing incredible odds, but all the player is supposed to do, as a criminal named Riddick, is escape from the Butcher Bay penitentiary. His “destiny” is only hinted at.
One of the things that struck me early on was the grim atmosphere of the game. It fuses graphics, sound, plot and dialogue in such a way that we have the impression of prison infinitely harsher than any ever seen. Inmates are murdered regularly, frequently by the guards themselves. It feels like a hopeless place where being clever is just enough to keep you breathing. Fortunately Riddick is a bit more clever than most, and nihilistic enough to risk everything else just for his freedom.
Yes, the story in Butcher Bay is such that you can actually read things into it, in contrast to many movie-licensed games. It helps that the game is set before Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick; Starbreeze is able to say whatever they like and go wherever they like, so long as it maintains continuity. The story isn’t terribly profound mind you, but it is an incentive to beat obstacles.
Gameplay itself is a strangely effective blend of shooting, brawling, and stealth, controlled predominantly from a first-person perspective. The game temporarily switches to a third-person view when you do something like mantle a ledge or kick open a vent.
A title that kept coming to mind as a reference point was Namco’s Breakdown. That game also attempted to bring some of the complexity of third-person fighting (blocking, combos, etc.) into the immersion of the first-person, mostly with tedious results. Butcher Bay is far from tedious because it brings variety to the opponents and your methods of killing. Bare fists are useful early on, when it’s difficult to find a weapon, and throughout the game in quietly snapping necks, or making guards shoot themselves. Shivs and clubs are followed by pistols, shotguns, rifles, and more. One of the additions to the PC version is a brief level where Riddick steals a riotguard suit. Coupled with a few other surprises, combat should never be dull.
Stealth is handled a bit differently here than in games devoted to it. For one, it’s often optional. Once you’re armed with a gun you can generally survive firefights with multiple enemies (who are not always human, I should add) with a little bit of tactical thinking. If anything, Riddick is a bit too resistant to gunfire for a man without a flak jacket. Stealth is simply a way to avoid being overwhelmed.
Like Manhunt, Butcher Bay has a mechanic to make it pretty clear when you’re concealed: move into shadows and Riddick’s vision becomes tinted. Crouch, and the tint shifts again, letting you know that enemies can pass within feet without catching a glimpse. Noise and a disturbed environment (namely bodies or shot-out lights) will still attract attention, of course.
Two added differences are in the reaction of guards and Riddick’s “eyeshine.” Once you’ve been noticed by guards, they stay on alert much longer than in most stealth action games. And it’s about time, putting it mildly. I’ve never been able to fathom why developers think it’s plausible for enemies patrolling a high-security compound to be shot at, and resume work two minutes later as if nothing had happened. You’ll find moments like that in Butcher Bay, but my experience has been that once on alert, they tend to remain on alert.
Riddick’s famous ability to see in the dark has immediate impact once it’s gained, partway through the game. It allows you to destroy as many lights as you like without getting lost, or having to use a sling-mounted flashlight that serves as a “Shoot Me” beacon. Aside from it being a twist on stealth mechanics I enjoyed this (admittedly expected) feature because it made Riddick feel like a proper, predatory threat instead of just another soldier who happens to be skulking around corridors.
As flaws go, Butcher Bay has very few. I’ve mentioned some, but foremost would be the amount of content. Going through the game at normal difficulty takes less than 20 hours, after which there’s no multiplayer and relatively little incentive to go through single-player again. Relatively. The Developer’s Cut adds a mode similar to a DVD commentary, with recordings you can trigger throughout the game to hear how one aspect of the game or another was accomplished. It can be amusing, especially since the developers have thick Swedish accents, but it wouldn’t be a reason to buy the PC game if I already had the Xbox version. There’s no incentive for that really.
The second and last problem of significance is that the AI seems to have problems with navigation and being unresponsive. On rare occasions, enemies will get stuck on corners or in doorways for a few seconds as they to figure out how to get to their destination. There are other times when NPC’s will fail to react to your actions, which is probably a matter of forgetful omission rather than bad coding. Despite my leading an enemy in riotguard armour to within metres of him, for instance, Jagger Valance once continued to lean against a shipping container as if there was no way he could possibly be shot. He was wrong - not that it mattered, since he’s apparently immortal.
Thankfully incidents like this have little impact on the fun factor of the game overall. Escape From Butcher Bay is better than any licensed game has been in months and maybe years. It is at least one of the top games from 2004, superior in my mind to the likes of Doom 3 or Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Now what that says about me, Butcher Bay, or 2004 is up to you.