'Riddick' gives gamers big small-screen thrills


Vin Diesel might be a better video game star than Hollywood celebrity.

His latest movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, has gotten mediocre reviews, but the new Xbox game starring his Riddick character is superb.

Vivendi Universal's The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay ($49, rated for ages 17 and up) takes place before the first movie in the Riddick series, Pitch Black.

The game opens with a captured Riddick being flown to Butcher Bay prison, a sort of intergalactic Alcatraz. Nobody escapes.

So, of course, you must escape.

With that simple premise, the developers unroll an intricate plot filled with jail yard rivalries, shambling monsters and hints of supernatural intervention.

Mechanically, Butcher Bay is a first-person shooter, but the game is not just about racing to find the biggest gun.

Initially, you have to master the art of hand-to-hand combat, and the developers crafted a surprisingly good fighting system that lets you block punches and throw uppercuts, jabs and roundhouse blows.

Eventually, you start to collect shivs, brass knuckles, screwdrivers, clubs and other crude prison weapons for bloodier encounters. These items come in handy as you involve yourself in the prison gangs, trading your fighting skills for cigarettes, escape tips and cash.

Firearms are more elusive, as the guards' rifles are encoded to fire only if they recognize your DNA. So you have to find the mainframe computer and program the system to recognize your genes.

From the get-go, you can crouch down stealthily, which helps with sneaking around, and later on you acquire the ability to see in the dark. But bright lights can blind you if you have your night vision activated, which keeps you from gaining an advantage.

As you work your way through the various prison factions, you gain notoriety and powerful foes. These role-playing aspects prove that action games don't have to be mindless.

On top of that, Butcher Bay has some excellent eye candy.

The dank, rusty prison is rendered in stunning detail. The character models are amazingly detailed, and the voice work is the best you'll find in any video game: Diesel rumbles and rasps with vigor.

But it would be nice to interact with more objects in the game. Chairs, barrels and crates seem nailed to the floor. And large vehicles that would be fun to drive are only for show. Also online player-vs.-player combat would have been a nice touch.

One last thing: This is a foul-mouthed game that's not for kids.

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