I’m a huge fan of the Riddick films, I love the mythology, world building, alien anatomy and general vibe, and while the film trilogy is amazing there are also all kinds of other bits of lore to be found in other arenas including comics, animated shorts and two spectacular video games that I got a chance to view entire walk-throughs on YouTube the other night. Now, these aren’t just cheap promotional ‘tie-in’ games that are rushed into production to be released alongside the film for no other purpose than cash, they are deep, important chunks of Riddick’s story with integral character beats, wonderful stories and jaw dropping set pieces all their own. They’re also great because Vin Diesel did the voice and motion capture work for Riddick, which has to be the lynchpin role of his career and he’s supported by a galaxy of star talent and cult actors in voice roles.
The first game is called Escape From Butcher Bay and it sees Riddick and his perennial bounty Hunter nemesis/best pal Johns (Cole Hauser) arrive at the titular penitentiary, a grim institution lorded over by preening Germanic warden Hoxie (Dwight Schultz) and brutally kept in check by his corrupt head guard Abbott (rapper Xzibit). It’s here that Riddick must fight his way through hordes of feral inmates and descend deep into the bowels of the prison to find a way out and discover pieces of his mysterious identity. He participates in a gruesome fight club run by Centurion (Michael Rooker), fights alongside exiled gang kingpin Jagger Valence (Ron Perlman) and runs afoul of many other creeps voiced by awesome folks like Tony Plana, the late William Morgan Sheppard, Stephen McHattie and Joaquim De Almeida. Deep in the heart of the facility he encounters half undead deformities and meets a shadowy subterranean prophet called Pope Joe (Willis Burkes) who operates on him and first gives him his ‘sight in the darkness’ eyes. Along with these eyes come haunting visions where Furyan spirit Shirah (Kristen Lehman) speaks out to him from his ancestral past and guides his eventual path towards destiny that we see unfold in the films.
The second game is called Assault On Dark Athena and while not as mythologically rich as Butcher Bay it has the advantage of being made a few years later and so the graphics, cutscenes, fighting styles and visual aesthetics are far more polished and impressive. It picks up right where the other left off, as Riddick and Johns approach a mammoth slave ship ruled by aggressive tyrant Revas (Michelle Forbes), where he must fight and outwit his way to find intel and weaponry deep within the giant floating prison. He’s aided by former military man turned inmate Dacher (Lance Henriksen, superb) and he forges a deep bond with a little orphaned girl roaming the craft, a relationship that reminded me very much of Ripley and Newt from Aliens and provides Riddick’s arc with pathos and poignancy. I can’t speak for the actual gameplay, controls or anything on the ‘hands on’ aspects of these games as I essentially watched them as you would a movie, but in that sense they are absolutely terrific stories and more than essential to the Riddick canon and lore. Spectacularly violent, gory and hard-R like these stories were always meant to be, a beautiful fusion of poetic deep space atmosphere and kinda steampunk/mecha/convicts in space aesthetics and a wonderful pair of expansion stories on Riddick’s exciting, moving, imaginative, immersive and artistically spellbinding voyage through galaxies to find his identity, history and change the course of the universe’s future. Highly recommended, whether you want to get an old console and play them as games or hop on over to YouTube and view them as films.
Shadow Of The Colossus is a strange and beautiful game, surreal to the point of subconscious imagery and about as ambient and unconventional as they get without going full on experimental arthouse on us. I only knew about it in the last five years or so when I was crashing on my buddy’s couch one night and he loaded it up to play long into the wee hours. I was so tired I watched him play it through that sort of half awake half asleep filter of awareness and for awhile I thought that I did *actually* dream it until months later when I brought it up and he goes “nope that was a real game, I played all night and beat it at like 4am.” I think that the reason it has that kind of power (besides the combination of alcohol in my system and being awake at the witching hour) is that it’s such a ‘different’ game. You play as a young man named simply ‘Wander.’ He certainly lives up to the moniker when he brings his deceased true love to a mysterious dimension full of rugged landscapes and giant shadowy stone giants who inhabit them. He’s directed there by a metaphysical being called Dormin and told that if he ever wishes to see his love alive again that he must fight and destroy each of these colossal entities. And that’s basically it. The game is spent wandering this breathtaking yet desolate land. Every once in a while you come across a Colossus, do battle, claim it’s life and move on further into this land. Each new giant has different a anatomy, weak points, defensive maneuvers and overall personality traits to keep each confrontation feeling new, yet part of the same collective quest. I’ve seen people rip into this game and post memes spoofing it as an experience of ‘16 bosses and nothing else’ but I feel like those people are kind of missing the point and would be much happier playing something louder and more kinetically involving. I myself have only played about five actual minutes of it and spent most of the experience watching my friend play as I drank it in like a hazy cinematic experience, but that offbeat quality is exactly what I gravitate to and this hit home. Atmosphere over action, ambience over logic and exposition, it’s the exact same way I approach film when picking what to absorb and store in my memory bank, and this thing was so good it was able to procure real estate in my subconscious. Brilliant game.
Right off the bat I consider all the games in the Hitman franchise to be fantastic in different ways but if I had to pick a favourite it would definitely be 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, a gorgeously produced, star studded update on 2006’s Blood Money that draws us further into Agent 47’s shadowy world by adding new graphics, well drawn supporting characters and paying far more attention to storytelling as well as the trademark intricately structured missions. Some people felt (weirdly) that the in depth nature of story and larger than life villains here took away from the overall aesthetic, like made the vibe less atmospheric or something but for my money it just breathes so much life into the mythology and spurs on the evolution of these games from quiet, guarded and strictly atmosphere-based to verbose, witty and full of personality in every corner of the frame. The game opens as 47 finally tracks down and eliminates his former handler, that treacherous bitch Diana (Marsha Thomason), which he does and listens to her last dying wish as she begs him to protect a mysterious girl who holds the keys to his own past. This puts him on a dangerous ditch effort and collision course with his former agency, other clandestine factions and countless freelance killers for hire including and unbelievable army of sexy nuns with enough firepower to blow up a bridge. The big bad here is scumbag billionaire industrialist Blake Dexter, voiced by Keith Carradine in the kind of peacocking, purple-prose drenched, scenery chewing performance that demands the slow clap and has you hating him when you’re not laughing hysterically at his impossibly arch dialogue. He’s after the girl 47 is harbouring and he ain’t the only one. Powers Boothe (who really took advantage of video game work over the course of his epic career) is Benjamin Travis, an agency kingpin with a prosthetic arm, a nasty temper and the iron will of a megalomaniac. He’s assisted in his unholy quest by slinky head operative Jade, voiced by the underrated Shannon Sossamon. The cast is wonderfully dense and eclectic, with appearances from Vivica A. Fox, Adrienne Barbeau, Traci Lords, Jon Gries, Isabelle Fuhrman and the great Steven Bauer lending his leathery pipes to the role of Birdie, a terrifically untrustworthy underworld operative. The gameplay and graphics are flat-out fucking gorgeous, immersive and layered, perfectly speckled with lens flares where appropriate and crisp, tactile and detailed environments that feel lived in and carefully rendered. The actors here would usually find themselves sitting in their PJ’s in a cozy recording booth but here they’ve gone the extra mile and had them do actual motion capture work so that the performances feel authentic, fluid and dynamic. This for me is the pinnacle of the Hitman legacy so far, and hasn’t been topped since. Oh and as for the movies, they’re both so terrible and miss the mark of what makes this story so wonderful in the first place, Absolution is ten times more cinematic that both films combined.
It’s always best when the character you play as in a game is voiced by someone super cool with genre ties to the subject matter, whatever it may be. In Area 51 you descend into a top secret military base in response to a nasty viral contamination as Ethan Cole, a covert badass played by David Duchovny who cements the SciFi X Files vibe nicely, although the game is obviously more in shooter territory rather than investigative federal intrigue. Cole must navigate a dangerous subterranean environment as the contamination spreads and mutates the soldiers around him. No soldier game would be complete without dissension in the ranks and another sketchy team moves in headed up by hotshot Major Bridges (Powers Boothe), as well as a pesky doctor (Ian Abercrombie, who was Alfred Pennyworth in the old school Birds Of Prey cable show) who gets in the way. I’ve always thought that Marilyn Manson looks kind of like an extraterrestrial and apparently so do the makers of this game because they cast him as an alien defector named Edgar who has been held captive by the government and is none too pleased about it. I have only hazy memories of this game as I was perpetually stoned when I played it and I can’t remember if I ever made it to the end. I do recall the voice acting, Manson is cool and spacey, Boothe is his classic tough guy persona but it’s just a real treat having Duchovny play the lead, he’s got such a casual affability to his line delivery that feels both comforting and nicely nostalgic for The X Files. Cool game.
The Simpsons Road Rage was one of the all time demolition derby driving games, the cartoonish, off the wall design in Springfield adding to the racing against time theme in a cool kind of Dr. Seuss way. If you’re going to approach The Simpsons and try to do a video game it seems logical to do a madcap driving experience because every single episode ever of the show starts off that very same way, with Homer driving back from the power plant like a lunatic. That’s the spirit here, chaos that with enough practice you’re able to master and find your way through a series of extremely hyperactive vehicular missions. So basically that old fucker Mr. Burns has bought up all the transit services in town and the citizens are forced to use their own vehicles as a sort of renegade unofficial Uber service. That’s all there is in terms of plot but like that’s kinda all you need to be honest. Springfield is a colourful wonderland of billboards, bus stops, store fronts and all sorts of fanfare for you to destroy, while the voice actors from the show record a bunch of hilarious new dialogue to keep things interesting along the way. This has a cool arcade feel despite being a PS2 game, like a Simpson’s brand of Crazy Taxi. Whether it’s Krusty The Clown on his way to an adult video store, a severely drunk Barney spouting jibberish or Marge making a mad dash to the grocery store the missions are always fast paced, hilariously written and full of interactive destruction for the player. One of my favourite old school PS2 games and one I lament the fact that I can’t play on my PS4. One day.
I recently saw Driv3r in a youtube compilation of the top ten worst open world games ever made, and yeah not gonna lie this game has more glitches than the matrix and enough gameplay issues to warrant its inclusion on any such list, but that aside it’s still one of my favourites ever made on pure nostalgia value alone. The thing here is that all the care, attention to detail and artistry went into the very cinematic, gorgeous cutscenes and what we’re left with in actual gameplay is fuzzy, jerky, free-for-all scrappy madness with all the loose wires still hanging out as if the de-buggers were on strike during production. That didn’t bother 14 year old Nate who was just happy to finally be allowed to get his hands on M Rated games for once. This game sees you play as ruthless rogue Miami vice detective Tanner (a steely Michael Madsen), who trails a gang of international car/drug/prostitute/anything smugglers over to Nice, France and eventually to Istanbul for a fiery showdown. Cue endless car chases and shootouts, tough talk, atmospheric background music and tons of free time to drive all over all three cities mowing down pedestrians, shooting cops and causing destruction. Mickey Rourke is a hoot as Jericho the big boss of this crime syndicate, having a ball with sly dialogue like “Remember me? I remember you. You’re the cop.. and I’m the guy who said I’d find you.” Michelle Rodriguez does her patented tough chick thing as his lieutenant Calita, Ving Rhames gives solid support as Tanner’s partner and voice of reason Jones and Iggy Pop has a quick cameo as reptilian thug Baccus. Honestly the cutscenes here are so slick, well orchestrated and streamlined they’d make a cool movie looped in together and indeed I’ve seen such an edit over on YouTube. The game itself, not so much although it does have strong points too. The driving physics are so ballistic and insane that a simple sideswipe against a wall can have your vehicle doing furious cartwheels for half a kilometre, so it’s kind of like this freaky Russian roulette as to which crash, fender bender of head-on will react realistically and which will send you flying to the moon. Also the cops are absolutely maniacal insane daredevils with no regard for their own or civilian lives, they will literally T-bone you at close range, empty every fucking clip of ammo they have at the drop of a hat and make the overzealous officers in Grand Theft Auto look like choirboys, it’s quite frustrating. The three cities are well painted and feel kind of dreamy, hazy and curiously empty of too many AI extras. Miami is picturesque and there’s a few direct references to Michael Mann’s Heat in the way Tanner’s house looks, while Nice is a quiet seaside town with impossibly narrow streets that serve as a terrifying gauntlet of carefully placed death traps when engaged in car chases. Istanbul is a rabble of street markets, kiosks and cluttered streets with plenty of stuff to destroy, a sun scorched vista. Each city has its own ambient background score that sets mood nicely. The missions are wanton chaos and quite difficult because of all the bugs, but I’d just sand-box it most of the time anyways, the single time I did manage to beat this was so maddening it probably took a year off my life. The soundtrack is a plus though, as it should be in any game with driving involved. Not a great game by anyone’s measure but like I said, I’ve got huge nostalgia for it and that shit can transcend quality in any arena of life.
This one is an all timer for me and not just as a video game but as a gorgeous, cinematic piece of western storytelling. Gun is a terrific game, well ahead of its time for the PS2 era, but it’s also a brutal frontier exploitation tale, a larger than life, hugely badass yarn that benefits from one of the coolest voice casts ever assembled, fluid graphics, vast arenas to roam through and music that sets the tumbleweeds rolling, accompanies paddle wheeler boats down rivers and sweeps across the terrain like any great western score should. You play as Colton White (Thomas Jane in the kind of rough hewn gunslinger role he was born to play), who wanders the American frontier of late 1800’s with his mentor/father figure Ned (Kris Kristofferson, perfectly rugged) learning the ways of the gun and living off the land until lawlessness and trouble inevitably interrupt their peace. After a riverboat gunfight and a nasty killing spree perpetrated by psychotic preacher Reverend Reed (Brad Dourif, oozing his trademark brand of evil), Colton sets out beyond the horizon after him and finds intrigue, murder, conspiracy, a whole gallery of villains and even the secrets of his own birthright in a jaw dropping series of action set pieces, tense standoffs, train raids and firefights everywhere from Dodge City to the lands beyond. He goes up against vile, corrupt Mayor Hoodoo Brown (a scenery chewing Ron Perlman), joins forces with notorious outlaw Clay Allison (Tom Skeritt), does battle with fearsome native warrior Many Wounds (Eric Schweig) and eventually comes to the big bad wolf at the end of the chain of antagonists, a civil war general turned maniac named Thomas MacGruder, voiced by a booming Lance Henriksen in one incredibly thunderous portrait of bad to the bone. Other memorable work is provided by Wade Williams, Frank Collison, Kathy Soucie, John Getz, Nolan North, Robin Downes, Phil Proctor and more. The mechanics of the game are phenomenal, and like I said feel quite ahead of their time, or at least they did to me and always immersed me in that world. The gunfights are hectic and ruthless but ever too chaotic and there’s a few super satisfying slow motion features like ‘QuickDraw mode’ that allow you to pick off enemies with otherworldly precision. The horse riding is tactile, smooth and the animals feel real right down to how they jump, get fatigued when you ride them too hard and the way your controller vibrates specifically for hoof beats on whatever path you’re charging down. This is a broad, brutal game that doesn’t glance over the uglier aspects of the west and feels dangerous, lived-in and grandiose both in terms of the natural environment and humanity’s encroaching industries like the railroad, wagon trains and dusty townships. Gotta give a special shoutout to the score composed by Christopher Lennertz, it’s a magisterial, often quite mournfully emotional piece of orchestral work that rivals and even tops many Hollywood compositions. There’s also quite a few references to Hollywood westerns including The Outlaw Josey Wales and many characters are named after real life old west figures to cement the feel. Quite simply one of my favourite games ever made.
Los Angeles and New York City get a sordid, hard boiled pair of rogue cop stories in True Crime: Streets Of LA and True Crime: NYC, two badass, star studded, knockout crime games that demonstrate these days how they really don’t make em’ like they used to. I’d review these two separately but they’re a pretty intrinsic pair that feel like sibling stories despite being made and released two years apart.
In Streets Of LA you play as volatile renegade LAPD detective Nick Kang (Russell Wong having an utter blast with the dialogue) who is suspended from the force under shady circumstances and goes severely rogue with an unofficial vigilante unit to stop a corrupt plot against the city perpetrated by Russian mob, triads and others. This ones cool because it’s a choose your own adventure game where the outcome and chain of events is different depending on what choices you make Nick pick. There’s endless shootouts, brutal chase sequences across the LA highway overpass and vicious hand to hand combat too. Christopher Walken narrates the whole thing in Greek chorus mode as wisened ex-cop George and voiceovers are also provided by Ron Perlman as a Russian hood, Mako and James Hong as Triad bosses, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, CCH Pounder and Gary Oldman as a both a dodgy federal agent and a psycho Russian boss.
Over in New York City you’re Detective Marcus Reed (Avery Kidd Waddell), an ex gangster who chose the law over the ways of his crime kingpin father Isiah (Laurence Fishburne basically reprises his kingpin role from Assault On Precinct 13) and is mentored on the streets by tough veteran Sergeant Terence Higgins (Mickey Rourke) until he’s murdered under mysterious circumstances. Marcus now has to shoot his way past criminals and cops alike as he smokes out a deep web of corruption and avenges those he lost while leaving a path of bodies behind him. There’s work from Esai Morales as his precinct captain, Traci Lords, Lester ‘Beetlejuice’ Green and more. Walken is in this again in full bonkers mode as a Fed who can’t stop getting sidetracked by anecdotal monologues about his life long enough to brief Marcus and provides much comic relief.
These two games have a terrifically gritty late 90’s street feel, the actors add a lot, the gameplay is violent and profane to the maximum and while LA is bright, energetic and hyperactive, NYC is dark, austere and bleak and they feel like two sides of the same unlawful coin. Great stuff.
Dinosaurs in space!! That’s a great pitch for a story across any mediums of entertainment and provides wicked fun in Turok, a game that’s quite literally about dinosaurs in space and samples flavours of everything from Aliens to Predator to Apocalypse Now to The Wild Bunch to Jurassic Park. You play as mercenary Joseph Turok (Gregory Cruz), a badass combat veteran who travels deep into the galaxy with a team of soldiers looking to find his former mentor, war criminal Roland Kane (Powers Boothe), so he can exterminate him. Unfortunately the planet he’s chosen to hide out on is going through a primordial age and is home to hundreds of different dinosaur species, none of which are happy to see these loud, unruly warriors show up in their jungles. Turok and his men have armed themselves with enough heavy artillery, extreme firepower and excessive weaponry to blow up a whole city so you get to blast, shoot, stab and wrestle your way through countless raptors, winged pterodactyls and more including one very angry female T Rex called Mama Scarface who has a personal vendetta. Not all the men on Turok’s team are loyal and trustworthy though, and he has to deal with a nasty dude named Slade (Ron Perlman) who has a grudge against him from way back as well as the squirrelly Logan (William Fichtner) who has a PTSD episode and becomes highly volatile and unpredictable. There’s also a marooned survivor named Cowboy (Timothy Olyphant) who causes his own brand of trouble. The actors are all excellent with Boothe and his deep rumble of a voice faring best as the maniacal Kane who has seriously lost his marbles but none of his nerve or keen edge, making him very dangerous indeed. The planet’s terrain is lush, gorgeous and picturesque yet quite deadly as it’s not all that terra formed and getting around requires a shit ton of bushwhacking as well as keen eyes to spot predators lurking around you before they shred you to bloody ribbons (fair warning: there’s a few well placed “clever girl” moments featuring the raptors that are tough to dodge). This game didn’t make much of a splash when it came out but it’s pretty damn solid, stocked with cool voice talent, big heavy loud guns, and it’s got fucking dinosaurs in space man, how can you beat that.
Ever wonder what happens after the perfectly ambiguous ending to John Carpenter’s The Thing? I mean that film is pretty much perfect and never did really need a sequel, however.. in 2002 there was a follow up game for PS2 set directly after the film and its actually way goddamned better than it has any right to be, and miles better than that stagnant 2011 CGI turd. This is an appropriately atmospheric shooter that takes place almost immediately after the film as a battle hardened group of soldiers descends on US Outpost 31 to investigate what happened to RJ Macready and everyone in his team. You play as Captain Blake (Per Solli), a stressed out military man trying to stay in control of the situation as the Thing creatures begin to wake up and prey on his men one by one, just like they did with Macready’s people, and the Norwegians before them. There’s all kinds of gooey nastiness here, scuttling arachnid inspired beasties, giant glistening behemoths and evening disfigured humanoid cretins who unnervingly chase you around. This is a shooter so primarily it’s running and firefights so not quite as much delicious terror and suspense as the film but one cool thing is the level of distrust and unease they’ve injected into the gameplay in several different ways. Your comrades can turn on you at the drop of a hat and get hostile or suspicious, and likewise any one of them at any given time can be revealed as one of the things and fiercely attack you, so in that sense the dread from the film carries over nicely. It’s good stuff, it retains the hard, cold edge we remember from the film too and is exciting in spades. John Carpenter himself has a cameo too as a doctor and has gone on record saying this game is canon to The Thing mythology, which is pretty cool. Listen for William B. Davis (The Smoking Man from X Files) too as a Colonel with no time for anyone’s bullshit. Solid game and interesting chapter in this story.