Around this time last year, Atari's "Enter the Matrix" was to have been the definitive convergence of Hollywood and video games. But for gamers, the only two things that converged were boredom and disappointment, as "Matrix," with its clunky gameplay and boring cinematics, fell far short of being the ultimate movie game.
It took a year for somebody to deliver, and the game comes from two unlikely sources. Publisher Vivendi Universal's last movie game, "Van Helsing," was awful. And, well, did anybody really demand a "Pitch Black" sequel after the lights went up? But despite shaky pedigree, the Xbox-exclusive "Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay" is hands-down the best movie-based game to date, surpassing even Electronic Art's exquisite "Return of the King."
"Butcher Bay" does not follow the events of the David Twohy-directed summer flick "The Chronicles of Riddick," which is scheduled to open in mid-June. It only ports the characters over to the game and drops them into a plot that serves as a prequel to the events in "Pitch Black," Twohy's 2000 scifi Riddick adventure. In "Butcher Bay," gamers will discover how Riddick received his night vision, as well as learn how the hardest man in the galaxy became even tougher.
This is the model by which future movie games should be designed. It is pointless to follow the plot of the movie, beat for beat, in a game. Movies have downtime, and unless a developer is incredibly clever, downtime is deadly in a video game.
The best-selling "Lord of the Rings" movies were full of intimate moments between epic battle scenes, where audiences laughed and wept with the fellowship -- but EA neglected these for a reason. Who wants to control a crying hobbit?
"Butcher Bay" is a game with zero downtime. From the moment Riddick is tossed into the maximum security Butcher Bay prison, the player's only goal is to escape. You must fight other prisoners to earn both respect and the tools to start whacking guards. But Riddick knows to never bring a shiv to a gunfight, so you must fight your way to the prison's server room and upload Riddick's DNA into the system - unlocking all of the guards' guns for personal use.
Determined to be the first inmate to escape Butcher Bay, Riddick dives into the sewers beneath the prison. In a horror show sequence that bests "Resident Evil," gamers must navigate a series of, uh, pitch black tunnels full of diseased prisoners that you hear just before you see them. After surviving such a creepy ordeal, it's understandable why Riddick would submit to the painful night-vision surgery.
The game is played out entirely from a first-person perspective, so unlike EA's latest "James Bond" game, where Pierce Brosnan is always front and center. The player only sees Riddick's mug in a series of short cutscenes. Slipping into Riddick's skin gives "Butcher Bay" both a feeling of immediacy and immersion; a "you are there" feeling highlighted by dialogue scenes where characters turn to the camera and address the player as Riddick.
Visually, "Butcher Bay" is the best-looking Xbox to date. Swedish developer Starbreeze AB has created a new graphics technique called "normal mapping" that drops smooth, detailed skin textures over low polygon models. Fewer polygons used on characters means that backgrounds can be more intricate, more characters can be on-screen, and the frame rate never suffers.
Another important contributor to the game is Tigon, a video game production company headed by Vin Diesel, who provides both the voice and likeness of Riddick in "Butcher Bay," as well as starring as Riddick in both movies. Diesel is an unabashed gamer, which shines through in his voice work. Diesel has a voice designed to stop bar fights, and he delivers each and every line with the same intensity as if the camera was on him.
Regardless of how "Riddick" scores at the box office this summer, the character certainly has a bright future in video games. Of course, that's as long as somebody keeps the lights turned off.
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