Friday, 11 March 2005
Certainly no Stranger to danger, James dusts off his crossbow and heads down to Oddworld to experience the life of the bounty hunter.
You’re racing along a dusty path, galloping on all fours. The town you have just left is already fading into the distance, and the queer-looking townsfolk are hurling abuse and gunfire at you after you unwittingly collided with a particularly hideous woman wandering around the general store. At least, you think it was a woman. You come to a steady halt as the path ends and you enter a clearing littered with chunks of rock and clumps of foliage. Straightening up, you glance around and notice three Outlaws warming their yellowed flesh around a fire. Silently, you raise your crossbow and creep though the tall grass, moving closer towards the trio of unsuspecting targets. Selecting a Stunkz and a Bolamite from your bag of ammunition, you load them into each barrel and take aim, noticing your live bullets squint and frown up at you. One carefully aimed Stunkz bomb renders your three foes helplessly wretching and writing in pain. Three well-placed Bolamite shots later, and the trio are tied up and ready to be taken in. As you capture the final Outlaw, a fourth rounds the corner, spots you, and draws his rifle. It's time to bring out the heavy duty ammunition. With deadly accuracy, you fire two Fuzzies from your crossbow into the path of the advancing mercenary – and watch in satisfaction as the little creatures tear him to shreds.
Of course, you much prefer to capture your bounties breathing. Bringing them in alive means more Moolah, and you need plenty - your life depends on it. "Still, it all adds up," you think to yourself as you walk on into the caves ahead. Being a bounty hunter isn’t easy, but it sure has its perks.
Welcome to Oddworld, Stranger.
Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath is the latest creation by developers Oddworld Inhabitants, meant as a spin-off of sorts from the originally intended trilogy. Fairly obviously, you take on the role of Stranger, a mysterious bounty-hunter type creature who needs to earn as much Moolah (the game’s currency) as he can in order to pay for a life-saving surgical operation. You move from town to town, accepting bounties at the Bounty Store before heading on after your chosen target. Kill or capture them and return to the town to turn the criminal in and collect your fees before beginning the process again. Sounds repetitive, doesn’t it?
On the contrary. While it can begin to grate slightly later on in the game, this somewhat formulaic gameplay is far from tedious - each mission is so involving, so varied and so entertaining that each one feels like a fresh new adventure. The slight change of focus later on in the storyline does little to stray from this path, instead choosing to crank things up a notch, but nevertheless this barely detracts from the gameplay.
What I love about Stranger’s Wrath is that it has managed to achieve a perfect equilibrium; a balance in almost every aspect of the game. It has excellent visuals, the kind of which could rival any Xbox game of this generation, but it never goes over the top - the style is held wonderfully throughout. It never holds your hand, but carefully nudges you in the right direction if you’re feeling lost. Perhaps most pleasingly of all, the difficulty is perfectly balanced. Perfectly. Stranger is challenging without ever being frustrating for the entire experience. You'll be dying plenty of times, but not once will you ask "why?"
It's this painstakingly crafted balance that few games of the last decade have even approached that keeps you playing. Stranger’s Wrath never tries to shove you away; it never has you throwing the controller down in anger, pointlessly stuck and unable to go any further. It keeps you playing without being ridiculously easy - you know you can do it with the right amount of thought and effort. Like Stranger himself, you feel confident, relaxed, and focused on your goal; you know that if you concentrate, if you take your time, you can achieve your goals. This game tells you that you have the skills; you’re never ‘not quite good enough’ to perform the task at hand - focus and you will be successful.
Now, ask yourself, "how many games do I know that instil that kind of confidence within me?"
You'll have a tough time finding many that do, that's for sure. Like the bounty hunter and his tale, this game is unique.
However, the game unique in more ways than this. You control Stranger from both the first and third person perspectives - an idea that has been implemented elsewhere, but never with the finesse and simplicity that Oddworld Inhabitants have applied. Switching between the two perspectives will soon become second nature– you’ll be flying across the trailing pathways in the third person and deftly switch to first person to gun down any outlaws you spot. It’s surprisingly well executed, and allows you tighter control over your character than sticking purely to one or the other could bring – freedom of movement and technical precision rolled into one seamless game.
Stranger himself, with his moody, dark persona, is one of the most memorable videogame characters of this generation, with touches of humour and some wonderfully ‘badass’ lines interwoven into his surprisingly deep character. You’re not playing as some anonymous soldier in a space suit and helmet (Samus and Master Chief, even in this generation, are still two dimensional) - you’re playing as a lean, mean bounty hunter with a big hat and bags of character.
Thankfully, the land of Oddworld (resplendent in a superb Wild West motif) is equally full of charm and character. The creatures you meet are entertaining, full of quirks and oddities. You'll be hard pressed not to chuckle as you explore the towns, and the whole world is brimming with a wonderful atmosphere that makes exploring it all the more enjoyable. As previously mentioned, the environments themselves are subtly stunning, and will never fail to amaze you - couple this with some astonishingly fast loading times, and we have a technical masterpiece unlike any other.
The ‘live’ ammunition consists of creatures that you collect as you explore the world in search of bounties. It serves as the game’s main draw to the average consumer, and could have been easily be dismissed as a gimmick. Fortunately, the range of ammo is so imaginative that using it (and even deciding which creature to use) is never a chore. Each creature has a different use, from sniping to stunning foes, from blowing up your opponents to rendering them immobile. What I found especially pleasing was that even the creatures in your double barrowed crossbow (which allows for some Halo-esque tactical choices) are also crammed with character. They’ll growl, squeak, twitch, mutter and even squint up at you as you load them onto their last journey.
Yet another impressive element of the game is the freedom and flexibility as to how you tackle your missions. Killing the bounties as opposed to capturing them serves only to lower the Moolah you receive when you bring them in, so it’s up to you whether you play Clint Eastwood or Solid Snake. Instead of enforcing a mandatory strategy, Stranger’s Wrath does gives you a choice; a testament of its perfect balance. Stealth is satisfying, and the firefights are nothing short of spectacular, and the range of ammunition allows your approach to depend purely on your style. However, it's worth noting that at the later stages of the game, things become a lot more combat-orientated than before, with the need to bring in bounties eliminated.
I really can’t recommend this game enough. It’s a prime example of how videogames should be – balanced, imaginative, charming, challenging and engaging, with an unforgettable cast of characters. When the time eventually comes for you to leave Oddworld, you won’t want to go home.
You’ll want to play through sections again, knowing you really should have captured certain bounties instead of killing them, or just for the sheer thrill of the experience that Stranger's Wrath delivers. It's one of the pinnacles of this generation, without a doubt, and deserves to be remembered as one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of the last few years.
It came dangerously close to receiving a 10, in fact. In the end, sadly, a couple of very minor gameplay faults will annoy some people, and while unstoppably fun, Stranger isn’t exactly revolutionary. So, raking at the gates of full marks, Stranger is an unmissable title. It’s been a very long time since I’ve enjoyed a videogame so much, and I feel that every gamer owes it to themselves to plough into Stranger's Odd adventure.
It'll never sell as much as the likes of Halo 2 or San Andreas, and that's a terrible shame, because the wonderful experience that this game delivers elevates it to the top of the Xbox’s portfolio, and as a reviewer I can honestly say that this is the best money I have spent in a long time. Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath comes very, very highly recommended.