You probably missed The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay when it was released four years ago for the Xbox. The Chronicles of Riddick movie was complete crap, and despite the fact that the game wasn't really connected to it, many a gamer wrote off Butcher Bay as just another lousy movie tie-in. An easy mistake to make, and now, thanks to the release of The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena an even easier one to correct.
Along with the new Dark Athena content, the game includes Escape from Butcher Bay in its entirety. It's been cleaned up a bit for its new home on the 360, and though it certainly shows its age here and there, for the most part the transition is a smooth one. Butcher Bay takes place before either of the Riddick movies, with bounty hunter William Johns dropping Riddick off at the famous prison, looking for a hefty payday. Your goal, as the game's name implies, is to depart the less-than-comfortable accommodations as fast as possible. The action of Dark Athena isn't much different: you start off on a ship instead of a prison, but you're still trying to get the hell out of dodge.
For those not familiar with the movies (Pitch Black really is great, you should check it out), Riddick is a classic antihero: strong, charismatic, with a long history of incarceration and an uncanny knack for survival. He's not completely heartless, but if it ever comes down to a choice between you and him, here's hoping your will is up to date. The Riddick character is easily the most compelling reason to pick up Dark Athena; he's a badass through and through, but his fluid morality makes him a far more interesting character than the space marines or criminals that usually populate the first-person action genre.
Though you might expect someone with Riddick's physique and talent for killing to take a full-on approach to busting out of prison, he actually uses his head more than his hands. You'll spend much of your time in Dark Athena talking to your fellow cons, trading favors and gathering information that will eventually help you escape. There are plenty of fights to be had, but sometimes avoiding them is the smartest course of action. Keeping out of sight is the best way to avoid getting recaptured, so prepare to creep through plenty of ventilation shafts, shimmy along pipes, and skulk in dark corners. Ironically, Riddick's habit of being the law's unwilling guest gives him an edge on the guards; During one of his extended stays in the slam, he had his eyes "shined," which lets him see in the dark. The environments of Dark Athena aren't exactly cheerful, well-lit places, so you'll appreciate the ability, if only to help you find your way around.
Stealth alone won't get you through the game, though - eventually, you're going to have to come out swinging. At first, you just have your fists and maybe a blade or two, but eventually you collect a healthy assortment of guns. Which, frankly, is kind of a shame. Riddick isn't a charge in, guns blazing kind of guy, he's more the knife you in the neck and watch you bleed out sort. Giving him guns not only feels untrue to the character, it robs the game of its individuality. When Riddick is fighting barehanded, or with a pair of ulaks, the combat is personal, visceral and intense - exactly the way it should be with Riddick. Once he has guns, the action becomes far more generic and bland. You can opt to use a tranquilizer gun instead of bullets if you like, but in some areas you simply have no option but to shoot your way out, like in the mech sequence. (Apparently, every new game this year needs a mech sequence, whether it makes sense or not.)
Dark Athena's gameplay may become far less interesting once the guns come out, but its characters rescue it from being forgettable. The voice acting throughout is simply superb, with Vin Diesel's gravelly silken voice stitching everything together. All of the major players are fantastic, but even the supporting cast does an excellent job of giving their characters life and depth. Dark Athena shows not only what a dramatic impact quality acting can have on a game's ability to draw you in, but it also illustrates just how crappy the acting in most games really is. I have to particularly give credit to Jovan Rameau, who plays the dirtbag ex-mercenary Jaylor to perfection. I truly looked forward to the chance to kill him not because he was in my way or even a threat, but simply because he deserved it. Games that can make you care that much about non-essential characters don't come along terribly often, but Dark Athena is particularly adept at pushing your emotional buttons.
Dark Athena has the multiplayer options that are seemingly obligatory in first person games these days, but, much like the Chronicles of Riddick movie, I choose to ignore it. The whole point of playing Dark Athena is to play as Riddick, not some generic prisoner trying to kill other generic prisoners. There are plenty of shooters in which I will happily step into the anonymous shoes of some random soldier, mercenary, or thug, but this isn't one of them.
Bottom Line: Assault on Dark Athena feels generic in places, but overall delivers the goods, thanks largely to its main character. The gunplay may be forgettable, but Riddick himself is not.
Recommendation: If you were smart enough to buy Butcher Bay the first time around, pick this up for a replay and the Dark Athena content. If you weren't, now's your chance to correct that particular mistake.
Susan Arendt would happily listen to Vin Diesel all day long, but still can't bring herself to watch Find Me Guilty.