January is traditionally a time of year for videogame trend-spotting: putting money on the big themes that may help define the coming months. Here's one for 09: filing for bankruptcy. And here's another: Vin Diesel. These trends do not appear to be related.
Strange as it may seem, two separate studios are currently toiling away on 3D models of the cinematic giant behind era-defining events like The Pacifier and Knockaround Guys; for all we know, once you take unannounced games into account, the figure could be even higher. Vin Diesel's Word Search would work well for the DS (likely entries include 'grenade' and 'shiv', perhaps - alongside 'Vin' and 'Diesel'), and Cooking with Diesel could be a brilliant recipe mini-game collection combined with an off-road racer. Both ideas are free to a good home.
Unusually, we know ahead of time that at least one of what I've just decided will from now be referred to as the Diesel Duo is likely to be good: The Wheelman is anyone's guess, but The Chronicles of Riddick is something of a shoe-in, given that the developer, Starbreeze, has already made a good chunk of it before, and the results were pleasing. 2004's Escape from Butcher Bay was brutally clever, dazzlingly pretty - particularly if you enjoyed rust - and, as Oli pointed out in his recent hands-off preview of the sequel, more than capable of turning stealth into a visceral power play.
Rather than hiding in a closet waiting for the guard to walk past because you were so feeble and arthritic your only hope of an evenly-matched fight was if you lamped him over the back of a head with an anvil while he was filling out his timesheet, Starbreeze suggested you might actually be hiding in the closet waiting for the guard to walk past because you were a supremely capable and sadistic killer, and toying with your prey would be more fun than simply lurking behind a railing and popping caps in their head until they slumped to the floor.
While the gameplay focus is the same for this outing, over the past year the sheer scope of Dark Athena has changed considerably. What was originally envisioned as an HD remake of the first game with a single extra level attached, has blossomed into an - alleged - eleven-hour adventure that is now being pitched as a true sequel, with a reworked Butcher Bay thrown in as a friendly treat. Unlikely as that transformation sounds, a chance to play a fat three-hour chunk of the new campaign suggests the slant is entirely justified. Dark Athena, the towering pirate spaceship fortress where almost - but not quite - all of the new story unfolds, is shaping up to be an excellent playground for a game that feels suitably weighty.
A landscape of crates, steel plates, rusting airlocks and copious venting, Dark Athena's interiors are familiar but never predictable, the work of a developer with a confident eye for the right detail - a hasty patch of botched soldering, or an artfully sparking control panel - as well as a sixth sense for knowing when to break up the machine-riveted wall panelling with a window providing a gaping angle out onto a distant nebula and skybox filled with twinkling stars. Athena is also filled with devious level layouts and a casual sprinkling of brain-teasing environmental puzzles. Shadowy and claustrophobic, it's tailor-made for decent stealthing, and reinforces the notion that Riddick is a hunting game more than a shooter.
For the bulk of the early sections, you'll be hunting Drones - cyborg captives who have been painfully transformed into remote-control sentries, with assault rifles grafted to their arms, and presumably something like ham, cheese and pickle where their brains used to be. Their design is LED-studded deep space gimpery at its most darkly camp, and their limited perceptions make them an enjoyably studiable foe for your stealth pickings, their clockwork movements built to be analysed and exploited, and their surprisingly vicious alert cycles to be skilfully avoided.
They're also a clever bit of design. Guns, once again, are notably hard to come by in the game's opening section, and the Drones play a role that's part tease, and part rationing book. Once you've clobbered one of them into blunt submission, you can grab them by the neck, using the body as a human shield, Gears-style, and their gun arm as a mini-turret. Clips are purposefully shallow, and your movement is severely hampered: with a drone in your arms, you can slowly inch backwards, turn a little, and not much else. Far from a bit of stingy cleverness, however, they slot into the game somewhere between portable cover and a limited special attack: they suggest a pace for your movements which never feels forced, and encourage you to view each lovingly-constructed encounter for what it is: a violent spatial puzzle with a variety of different approaches and outcomes.
Proper guns are glimpsed in the game's brief dreamy prologue, and heavily hinted at for much of what follows, and, in a design u-turn from Butcher Bay, they're no longer DNA coded to their original owners, a mechanic which called for an irritating unlock ritual. It's an indicator of a new focus on more accessible action; another one, which is easier to evaluate, is the tweaks that have been made to the first game's hand-to-hand combat. Both punching and blocking have been notably tightened, and a range of suitably sadistic melee weapons (the most brilliantly unpleasant being the Ulaks: twin serrated scythes that create a decidedly unnerving squelch as they cut through someone else's skin and which I hope to never accidentally drop on my own foot) have improved what was slightly fudged with the first game.
Alongside the brawling, as with Butcher Bay, the game's environment encourages gruesome experimentation, whether it's hiding in a corner and breaking someone's spine as they stroll past, or even picking your moment and landing on them from above, like a shaven-headed Super Mario decked out in a sexy pair of cyber-goth swimming goggles.
Breaking up the combat is a fair degree of variety, even in the first few hours. Starbreeze knows this genre so well by now it can construct a set-piece from almost nothing: a climbing-frame room full of empty crates and some patrolling guards, or a locked-door puzzle involving a Drone and the game's first weapon - a rather sharp hairpin. Equally, the series' habit of switching to third-person whenever you scramble up a ladder or climb onto a crate, makes it a nurturing environment for surprisingly involved platforming sections, including one sweaty crawl up an almost sheer wall, avoiding a roving searchlight.
Elsewhere, even Butcher Bay's RPG elements have had a reworking, benefiting from clearer objectives and the deviously compact design of the maps, which shortcuts backtracking. They also serve to show off the pretty dazzling character models and animation. The textures may be less detailed than Crysis, a game in which everybody appeared to have their ravaged, dirty-pored skin cloned from a single reference photo of Bill Murray, but the performances are far more actorly - subtle facial movements add a peculiar force to the dialogue, and there's a notable absence of the near-omnipresent shrugging that passes for physical performances in many games.
Besides all this are the tweaks you might expect: better lighting, better textures, a streamlining of the first game's weapon-selection system, and a more refined use of Riddick's night vision, which sees it playing a subtle part in many of the game's puzzles as well as helping you to spot Drones lurking in the darkness. All of these upgrades have apparently found their way across the disk to Butcher Bay, too, suggesting that there will be more than enough reason to break out of its prison once more.
Multiplayer details are still scarce, but Starbreeze is apparently stung by the criticisms of The Darkness's online modes, which means it's either going to make Riddick's even worse out of spite, or is currently toiling extra hard at it in the hope of winning back your love. Either way, traditional deathmatches will be joined by at least one new game type, said to be inspired by Pitch Black (hopefully not to the extent that it will be slightly cheap-looking and stuffed full of people who used to be in Neighbours). We'll have online impressions for you in the coming weeks.
However that turns out, Dark Athena itself is shaping up to be one of the first big games this year that you might want to start getting excited about. It may be more crates, more spaceships, and more breathy snapping of necks, but the moment you first see that predatory shadow inching along a wall and realise that it's you, and that you're about to do someone a rather nasty injury, and that you're really, really looking forward to it, memories of other games and other kills will likely fade into the darkness.