Movie tie-ins are almost universally the bottom feeders of the gaming world.
Hungry studios looking for a return on their investments seek out any and all opportunities to make extra money through licensed merchandise, like the nostalgic pangs you get when you remember your favorite childhood Star Wars lunchbox—companies looking to turn a profit net some worthwhile pop culture detritus. Video games are not often one of those things. Typically slapped together for a low budget under a tight deadline and with little serious thought to concepts like, you know, gameplay and design, most tie-in titles are critical and commercial flops.
A good video game that's better than the movies it's based on would be almost unheard of if it wasn't for The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Released by Starbreeze before 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick film but taking place before the events of sleeper hit Pitch Black, Butcher Bay is a masterstroke of stealth, RPG, and action-puzzler that puts infamous convict Richard B. Riddick in his natural environment: one of the universe's most notorious prisons. The was co-developed by Vin Diesel's own gaming studio and is the best kind of tie-in property: one that's developed with real care by people with a personal investment in enhancing the mythology of a popular character.
Escape from Butcher Bay and its 2009 follow-up Assault on Dark Athena boast top-notch (for the current gen) visuals, creepy and exciting stories, and a bevy of talented voice actors including Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser reprising his role as corrupt merc Johns, Battlestar Galactica's Michelle Forbes, Lance Henrikson, and many more. Even if you don't love either film, Butcher Bay works perfectly well as a standalone title—especially if you enjoy games like Half-Life, Splinter Cell, and Thief that are high on tension and tailor-made for playing in a dark room with headphones turned up high.
The first game drops Riddick in the lower reaches of a prison planet. Rendered in lovingly grim detail, Butcher Bay houses some of the worst convicts and harshest wardens in the galaxy and Riddick has to help or take out as many as possible in order to escape. Challenges run the gamut from making your way up the ranks of prison fight club to collecting moths for a junkie. Riddick is without a weapon for a good chunk of the game and the melee combat dual-wielding controls are stellar. Sickeningly stellar, especially with a gory collection of finishing-move animations. You can't spell prison without “shiv.” I mean, if, like Riddick, you were educated in the penal system.
Adding to the immersion is a barebones HUD that is largely hidden except in moments of stealth or combat. Stealth is a very viable strategy in this game. If you enjoyed recent PS3 blockbuster The Last of Us, you'll find plenty of fun sneaking around the mineshafts and lower levels of Butcher Bay and, later on, the starship Dark Athena. When Riddick gets his eyeshine here — and access to a gun — the fun really begins as you can shoot out lights and catch your enemies by surprise. And then spend a stupid amount of time tossing their corpses into working fan shafts or arranging them in embarrassing positions thanks to the silly ragdoll physics. (Yes, I'm mature.)
Butcher Bay is relatively short, about 10 hours of play, and the later levels are weighted really well. One moment might see Riddick without ammo and desperately trying to run from enemies, while in the next you've gained control of an ED-209-type heavy mech and wreak havoc through the prison's corporate offices in one of my genuine favorite, most joyous, gaming memories ever.
Someone really cared about making this game not suck.
Assault on Dark Athena is the more recent installment, again taking place before the events of Pitch Black. Michelle Forbes plays Captain Revas, at the helm of a frightening slaver ship. More stealth, more puzzles, and more action abound. While I didn't like it quite as much as Butcher Bay, there were definitely some tense-as-hell quandaries to get out of. And it was still a higher caliber of acting than could be found in The Chronicles of Riddick. (I'm looking at you, Dame Vaako.)
Both titles are currently packaged together for the Xbox 360 and available for PC at a really great price on GoG.com. The remastered Butcher Bay also includes a developer commentary track that pops up throughout gameplay and offers a unique insight into the game's creation. Building up a fictional universe is tricky, but by putting Riddick in new situations too dark and too expansive for most major studios, the character returns to all of the grit and ingenuity that made him a cult figure in the first place. Riddick's best stories are controlled by you.
It's been a long time since Theresa DeLucci smelled beautiful. A regular contributor to Tor.com, covering True Blood, Game of Thrones, and gaming news, she will soon be covering all things Hannibal on BoingBoing. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci