I used to confuse Vin Diesel with the Rock. They're both big-muscle actors who broke into action movies at about the same time. But Diesel is a much better actor, certainly in video games.
In fact, I am going out on a limb to say Diesel is probably my second-favorite video game voice actor of all-time, behind James McCaffrey's lead role in the Max Payne series. The timbre of Diesel's voice is deep and resonant. It has real texture, like James Earl Jones' Darth Vader.
And Diesel knows how to variously elongate or chop his phrasings to achieve a heroic yet menacing effect in The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, one of the best games of 2009, so far.
Diesel plays his movie character, Riddick. At first, he is trapped in a prison, and he tries to escape by crawling through vents, shimmying up ladders and ledges, sneaking up on guards and rival prisoners, stabbing them in the kidneys with shivs and shooting them in their mouths with their own guns.
If that sounds familiar to you gamers, that's because the first prison half of Dark Athena is a revamped, faster-moving, high-definition copy of the excellent 2004 game, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. It's still loads of fun.
The second half of Dark Athena is a new sequel, where Riddick is trapped on a spaceship and tries to escape by climbing through vents, shimmying up ladders and ledges, stabbing robot-men with handheld sling blades, grabbing guns attached to their arms, then shooting other robot-men in the face.
Even if he escapes the prison or the spaceship in this stealth game, he's really just trading one hell for another, as Riddick himself might say.
Three quick notes: A) You can play the spaceship portion first, if you'd like. B) This would be a tough game for casual players. And C) You can skip to the online multiplayer, which offers the usual death matches, plus a setting where gamers rotate as Riddick versus guards.
I usually don't read other critics' reviews before I delve into a game. But I noticed a few critics think Riddick isn't as eye-popping as it was in 2004 (despite the upgrades), and that the spaceship sequence is lackluster and hard to navigate without hints. I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree.
For sure, there are finer details in other games. But the sets of Dark Athena are elaborately staged, particularly in the second half. And when visuals fall short of photorealism, it doesn't matter, because the artistic stylization connotes what is necessary, a look of sinister gravity.
You do have to figure out how to get through the prison and spaceship without hints or portable maps - two crutches we gamers have gotten used to. But I don't mind getting challenged in a game like this from time to time.
The thick plot is borne out by creative cinema scenes and harsh dialogue about female body parts. And there's Diesel, who is superb as the universe's most confident killer, telling anyone who threatens him that they are about to die.
At one point, Riddick says to an old prisoner telling a tale, "Did you succeed? Or did you fail? Because I see a lot of fail in you." But then, everyone fails compared to Riddick. He punches hard. Real hard.