The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

Hello darkness, my old friend...

Vin Diesel must be breathing a sigh of relief. It looks like the fourth instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise is going to be a healthy box office hit. This is good news for the rumbling slaphead, since it means you no longer have to look back to the 2005 family comedy The Pacifier for a bona fide hit in his filmography. If you ignore that effort (and you probably should - Diesel co-stars with a comedy duck) then you'd have to rewind back to the halcyon days of 2001 and 2002 for the original Fast and the Furious, and XXX as the only other two Diesel star vehicles to break the magic hundred-million-dollar ceiling.

So Diesel is one of those actors whose celebrity is at odds with his box office appeal. The Chronicles of Riddick, in particular, was a fairly embarrassing flop, losing a lot of money for Universal and pretty much putting an end to the Riddick saga. Well, on the cinematic front at least.

As Xbox owners are no doubt aware, while Riddick floundered on the big screen he was being lavished with praise by gamers. Indeed, should Diesel's movie career ever stall, he's probably better placed than almost any other actor to become gaming's first crossover star. More than most of his contemporaries, he seems to understand that appearing in a videogame needn't be a cynical payday or contractual obligation. With shrewd input and guidance, Diesel has shown, a starring role in a game can be just as effective at maintaining the right profile as a movie or TV gig.

This is why the 2004 Riddick game, Escape from Butcher Bay, was so impressive. There was clearly passion and ambition behind it, and this fact alone made it stand out from the morass of lousy film-based games. It also looked phenomenal, delivering detailed environments and convincing character models long before the HD era had come to consoles, and it was innovative to boot, combining the traditional first-person shooter format with Thief-style stealth gameplay and an adventure game framework that harked back to Morrowind. It's also sadly at odds with the data sprockets of the Xbox 360's backwards compatibility crankshaft, and rather than allow such an acclaimed gem to slide into obscurity, developer Starbreeze - in tandem with Diesel's own Tigon studio - decided to remake Escape From Butcher Bay for the new generation of consoles.

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SOOOOO-PER-MAN. Sorry, wrong film.

The original game (in a slightly remixed form) is just one third of this package, however. Starbreeze also ended up creating a whole new official chapter in Riddick's life - Assault on Dark Athena - and introduced multiplayer as well, just for good measure. This three-way content split makes for an undeniably attractive bundle, even though the constituent parts all come with more than their share of gripes and grumbles attached.

Most notably, and most unfortunately, Escape From Butcher Bay is still by far the most compelling element on offer. The remake is close enough that you could be fooled into thinking it's an emulation, but that's both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it's good to know that, yes, it really was as good as you remember. On the other, it's a shame that more hasn't been done to smooth over some of the clunkier design decisions, which were more acceptable in the early days of the evolution of console first-person shooters.

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Shooting. You'll be doing a lot of this.

Opening with Riddick delivered to the infamous Butcher Bay "slam" (future slang for hellish deep space prisons), there's a fantastic sense of place, and it's a real tonic to see a game that could so easily have been all about blasting and stabbing instead forcing you to explore and talk to people for most of the opening hours. There are even optional side-quests, and many of the story missions can be completed in whatever sequence you fancy. The simplicity of your task - escape - means that there's a constant sense of forward momentum to the story as you're drawn deeper into Butcher Bay's brutal world. It's also a tough game, and the prison setting ensures that you're always the underdog, relying on your cunning and EyeShine night vision ability to even the odds against a staff of heavily armed and trigger-happy guards.

The annoyances are minor when compared to the pleasures the game has to offer, but are thorny enough to deserve closer inspection. The game still has that weird early FPS fish-eye effect when looking up or down, for instance. Checkpoints are a tad flaky, and you're never sure whether the flashing disc icon is a checkpoint or just an autosave. Since the game only allows for one autosave at a time, and there are no manual savepoints to be found, anyone opting to sample the Dark Athena storyline before completing Butcher Bay will find they have a lot of ground to retread when they return.

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