The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
(Vivendi Universal; Xbox) Breaking out of the prison at Butcher Bay makes escaping from Alcatraz seem as easy as fighting your way out of a paper bag. Vin Diesel reprises his role as Richard B. Riddick in this prequel to the 2000 cult-classic film Pitch Black, which shares its title with the new sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. As the enigmatic anti-hero, you'll rely on brains and brutality to overcome prison guards, fellow inmates, and feral mutants in this first-person sneaking/shooting/fighting hybrid.
Thanks to a new technique called normal mapping, the visuals here put previous Xbox efforts to shame. Every surface - from the rusty grain of the prison walls to Diesel's stubbly dome - is ultra-detailed and reacts realistically to light and shadow. And because normal mapping creates the illusion of complex 3-D objects without putting a huge strain on your console's processor, you can keep crunching skulls as your Xbox crunches numbers, with gameplay moving along at a super-smooth 60 frames per second.
The bowels of Butcher Bay look appropriately dirty, but your screen is clean thanks to the absence of heads-up displays, which usually detract from a game's realism. Ammo counters appear on the weapons themselves, and health bars pop up briefly only when you're being pummeled. While this makes the game feel like an interactive movie, you'll sometimes wonder how much more punishment you can withstand.
Still, the game's no slouch, especially in the audio department. Ambient background sounds - like the metal-on-metal moans of heavy machinery and the echoing shouts from unruly inmates deep within the penal world's vast catacombs - are varied and enveloping. Gunfights feature exciting directional effects. And as gameplay intensifies, so does the dark, dynamic score.
Brash beatings and bad language get Butcher Bay an M rating, but the game qualifies as a Home Theater Standout for its superb graphics and multichannel muscle.
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