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Riddick re-chronicled

Re-play: (Escape) From Butcher Bay, with love

Taking the term literally, there are very few legitimate 'roleplaying' games - certainly fewer than exist within the RPG genre. How many times, for example, do you remember actually feeling at one with the character you controlled?

How many times did you share not just their experiences and actions, but their mind and body as well? Rather than give you ownership of a character's stats and inventory, how many games give you the sense that your character in part has possession over you?

Not many, though The Chronicles of Riddick is one. Awkwardly described as a first-person stealth-action-adventure game, it sentences you to 24 hours in Butcher Bay, the most disgusting prison in the galaxy. This is a place where people aren't sent to die, but rather to wish they were dead.

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You play Vin Diesel's Riddick, leading light of the movie Pitch Black and its high camp, space-opera sequel. It's your job to survive and ultimately conquer this sub-human society, sneaking, beating and later blasting your way back into space.

While most shooters don't even render the hero beyond a pair of forearms and a gun, here there's a sense of total physicality. When you snap a neck, you see Riddick's hands. When you check your footing before making a jump, you see his legs. When you sneak, you see his shadow.

When you wrestle a shotgun into its owner's mouth, you do so with every lunge and jerk of a real human being. People scoff when Jack Thompson calls GTA and Manhunt "murder simulators", but it's to Riddick's credit that it is, without question, a superb murderer simulator.

So what if Vin Diesel is, as his critics claim, his own worst enemy when it comes to hubris? That's just what this game thrives upon. Butcher Bay, the triple-max, no-daylight slam, plays host not just to a clash of egos, but to a battle royale of egos. The thrill, as in the movies, is to watch a queue of bullies and madmen step up to Riddick, each convinced that they're bigger than his reputation.

If it's not the crooked mercenary Johns, butt of Riddick's endlessly entertaining mind-games, it's the tribal leaders of the Aquila clan or the brutal regime of Abbott, the prison's chief bull. And as ever, while these predators prey on the weak, Riddick preys solely on them, exonerating one of the most brutal combat systems of any game, rivalled only by the tramp-planking action of Condemned.

As a prison drama, Riddick needs this strong sense of place and community. At the risk of sounding trite, Butcher Bay is no less a personality than Riddick or his fellow inmates. While games still wrestle with texture tiling and visual repetition, here's an early example of one in which every wall has its own story to tell.

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Granted, it's seldom Christmas card material, usually scribbled in body parts and punctuated by the word 'fuck'. But this isn't a Christmas card scene. The corridors and cells of Butcher Bay emanate testosterone to the point where any right-minded individual feels physically sick.

By nature a very small and confined game, Riddick still generates an extraordinary sense of progression. As you move from one region of Butcher Bay to the next, you're acutely aware of the hierarchy that exists within this sphincter of humanity. Between the cell blocks is a rec area dominated by cooling towers and guardhouses; nearby is the infirmary, clinical and bleached.

Beneath both lies Tower 17, devoid of light and home to sanctioned prize-fights and undisguised corruption. Down farther are the mines, where it's almost as hard to see as it is to breathe. Atop it all are the palatial offices of Hoxie, the warden who wouldn't last five seconds in the squalor he's created.

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