Retrospective: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath • Page 3

The Weird West.

The live ammo - rather than bullets and shells, Stranger's crossbow fires a wriggling array of local critters - not only provides a kooky source of constant back-chat, but offers a range of tactical choices most games would kill for, from Chipunks, furry scamps that lure enemies off their paths with mindless yabbering, to Bolamites, bulbous - and frankly creepy - spiders which wrap baddies up in tight webbing, through to the astonishingly pleasing Boombats, a kind of squinty RPG with a leathery face and nasty splash damage.

It's a looker too. Oddworld had always provided a queasy puddle of surrealism in a videogame world dominated by shiny teeth and handsome jaw lines, but Stranger's Wrath, even now, provides a fascinating visual journey.

Fans were initially concerned that the whole thing was set on the other side of Oddworld, and with nothing much in common with the rest of the series except its political and ecological concerns (how often have you said that about the latest Doom or Crysis?) but that just left Stranger's designers free to compose a startling new suite of environments: an unbroken sweep of dunes, bluffs and crags, taking you from Old West dustbowls through lush national park prettiness, before ultimately restaging the D-Day landings against the backdrop of Sekto's massive mechanical dam.

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Wobbling freaks pore in from every tunnel opening and vantage point, while regularly spaced fortune-telling booths allow you a brief teaser of what's coming next (why don't more games do this kind of thing?). Crucially, it's always something different, always something new.

And we'd all been so worried. It's not rare to see populism associated with reduced expectations, but the rarified quirks of Oddworld survive their collision with the most popular of current genres in a way that surprised almost everyone who played it. The funny voices, rubbery jowls and free-floating environmental anxiety have made the transition intact, and seem very much at home in a world of sandbox set-pieces and twitchy reticules.

In many ways, the shift in game styles sees the developer reveling in something that feels like a holiday. Oddworld's always been about the weak, and there's an almost unseemly sense of designers relishing the chance to be powerful for a change. Stranger is certainly a magnificent beast - smashing through fences, clotheslining enemies, flattening, pulverizing and bellowing; perhaps the team would have needed to compensate by making him a victim via backstory even if the plot didn't genuinely require it in the first place.

Lorne Lanning, Oddworld Inhabitant's outspoken co-founder, may talk with a lofty confidence and look like game design's very own Errol Flynn, but here he's truly delivered on a mammoth experience: glorious combat and seductive stealth in a beautiful world that never breaks down on you.

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In many ways there's very little to say about Stranger's Wrath other than that it was unsurpassed on its home platform in almost every way, and we're all bastards for not making it a hit. Following disappointing sales, Oddworld has retreated to the world of cinema for the time being, and it's not hard to see why, really. The team created one of the landmark titles of a hardware generation not short on brilliance, and almost nobody ended up buying it.

Stranger's Wrath came out exclusively for the Xbox, and hasn't crawled onto the backwards compatible lists yet, an honour presumably reserved only for games as illustrious as Shrek Super Party and Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights (I know, a lot of it's down to friendly technology, but it still doesn't seem right), so even now if you want to play it you'll have to reach under the bed, or in the cupboard beneath the sink, or wherever it is you've managed to store Microsoft's chunky black console, and then of course you'll need the game itself, which means turning to Amazon, eBay, or the kindness of strangers.

It's worth the searching, though: worth it to explore such a weird, yet familiar world, worth it to shoot up the scenery with buzzing Zapflies and take on enemies who have names like Fatty McBoomBoom. Undersold and increasingly forgotten, Oddworld's most ambiguous hero may be retreating back into the mist and dust, but this particular bounty hunter is still well worth tracking down.

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