"I don't like guns," drawls the gravely-voiced Stranger as he snaps his enemy's favourite rifle in two. We're never sure exactly why, but it's a fact we have to take on board right from the start of Stranger's Wrath, Oddworld Inhabitant's three-year-in-the-making fusion of first-person combat and third-person action adventure. Maybe he's just pissed off with being shot all the time. Maybe his malformed hands just can't quite get on with the trigger mechanism. Maybe Oddworld was just really bored with the idea of making another game with traditional guns in it.
Whatever the thinking, Stranger has his ways and means for survival. He's a mysterious loner, a Bounty Hunter by profession, ever-prepared to put himself firmly in the firing line to bring in wrongdoers dead or alive - for Moolah, of course. Stranger prefers his crossbow to dish out pain, but bolts evidently don't quite do it for him. Instead, the grizzly, lizard-featured, behatted loner attaches compliant, but aggressive fuzzy wildlife to his crossbow, and uses them in a variety of combinations to get the job done. It's a two way deal; Stranger gets to hunt (literally) live ammo while his patient, doting 'pets' sit on his crossbow waiting for their turn to mete out justice on those who deserve to be hurt anyway.
Found myself in a strange town
But although Stranger can carry eight different (upgradable) species of fuzzy wonders in his Tardis napsack, there's only space for two of his little accomplices on his crossbow, which in Halo-land would means dual-wielding double firepower, but here is more of a measured tactical lure-'em-in-and-tear-'em-up kind of approach. Within the first couple of hours of Stranger's Wrath you'll have found all eight species lurking in nests and hives of the dusty arid town that kicks off your bounty hunting quest for Moolah.
Blessed with a Zapfly as a means for ensnaring your ammo, anything you see scurrying around its habitat can be stunned with a bolt of electricity and added to your collection for later use. But like every other type of 'ammo', it must first be selected via the D-pad, and assigned to either the left or right trigger of the pad, with a click on the left stick to bring you into and out of the first-person combat mode.
Soon enough, though, you'll have the full compliment, giving you an array of permutations to experiment with. One of the first you'll come across, the Chippunk, lures targets with its constant irritating chatter, causing foes to lose all sense of guard duty in order to stamp on their faces. Now, on their own, Chippunks are pretty useless as they cause no damage at all, but if you're hiding out it gives you the perfect opportunity to lure them towards a trap - for example a bunch of Fuzzles, which are 'living mines with teeth' and leap up with jaws snapping.
I bought an A to Z guide book
Others include the stinky Skunkbomb (causes targets to puke), the powerful bowling ball-style Thudslug, the explosive Boombats, the spider-like Bolanmite (who traps targets in a web) or the more traditional rapid-fire weapon of the Sting Bees, which sends a machinegun-esque barrage of angry insects into anyone in range.
In addition, Stranger's no mug in the hand-to-hand arena, with a nasty headbutt manoeuvre complimented by a spinning array of punches when in the default third-person view (although if you run out of ammo in first-person mode punches are automatically assigned). Combined with the lure 'em/whack 'em tactics, a quick finish off with a few punches (or even a sprinting full pelt into them) usually does enough to sending the stars spinning around enemy heads - and once three or more appear you're then in a position to bounty 'em up with a quick stab of the X button. Overcook the attack, though, and you'll end up killing your prey and getting half the cash reward, or wait too long and they'll wake up and carry on the attack. Just soften 'em up, soften 'em up.
And that's pretty much Stranger's Wrath's core gameplay in a nutshell: fuzzy double whammy combat with cute monsters with big eyes, leading to a big boss guy that's harder to pin down than the others (sometimes insanely), but ultimately falls prey to the same tactics as the sentry minions, albeit over a longer period. So what else is there to enjoy about Stranger's Wrath, other than cute fuzzy ammo and progressively harder bounty hunts? Well for a start the setting for the game is an immensely lavish one, sporting the kind of delightfully intricate and detailed environments we see far too rarely on the Xbox (no wonder the PS2 version was ditched). Kicking off in a low down brick red dusty Wild West town (the kind where giant cactuses are the only green plants you see) populated by what appears to be mutated redneck birdlife, Stranger's pursuit of wanted men takes him to the local Bounty Store, which effectively acts as the game's mission briefing.
They say 'don't know, don't care and I've gotta go, mate'
Sent off from the hub of the town, it's up to you to tool up on ammo, either buying from the town's General Store (replete with occasional armour, weapon and other upgrades as you progress), or hunting them down yourself for free (better in the long run if you want to be able to afford upgrades). Once you're ready, you can either chat to the locals for the odd useless but amusing bit of smack talk, or head off to your chosen destination and bounty the bad guys.
It's a fairly predictable, repetitive pattern of play, broken up by the odd bit of platform and rope negotiation, but one that's nevertheless satisfying for its slightly more methodical and unorthodox combat process. One of the central mechanics for making this work is how Oddworld has approached the health situation. In this case they went for the unusual approach of allowing your damage to be literally shaken off (imagine a dog shaking off water after being in the sea), depending on how much stamina you have left. Standing still recharges stamina, so in a sense Stranger can take an infinite amount of punishment - so long as you remember to leg it in time, find a quiet spot and have a good shake. Sounds dodgy, doesn't it? Well, at the very least it's an improbable way of getting around that old chestnut of 'do we use health packs or not?', but one that in the context of the game keeps the action flowing and makes it possible to survive even the toughest encounters.
On the other hand, such a health system, combined with the presence of quicksave, makes the game feel a mite less challenging than it possibly otherwise would be - and over-reliance on the latter means most encounters are over long before you've really needed to work out a strategy as you would do in, say, Metroid Prime's boss encounters. The frustration is certainly lessened, for sure, but along with that the satisfaction is as well. It's a tricky balancing act.
Be careful not to pick or scratch your nose
Having said that, at this stage we've only played through three of the game's towns, bagging about nine bounties along the way. The challenge is starting to ratchet up a few notches, and we're about to start enhancing the strength of our fuzzy ammo. We've seen, for example, how the Spark Skunkz pulls in multiple enemies into spinning floor mounted fans of death, as well as glimpses of the Rabid Fuzzle and Riot Slug in the attract sequence, but how this enhanced arsenal goes towards improving the game we've yet to find out.
Stranger's Wrath is certainly an interesting diversion for a genre that's rapidly burning itself out through repetition and it's good to see Oddworld trying something that's vastly different from anything it has done before. If it has anything in common with the previous Oddworld games then it's more down to the wry humour, the unique graphical style and tendency to look at common gameplay styles from their own twisted perspectives than anything that genuinely follows on. If anything those traits are the most attractive things about the game, and we look forward to continuing our adventures in the run up to the game's February release, when we'll have a clearer idea whether this is a game you should hunt down or leave for dead.