Odd By Name
No console launch line-up would be complete without some form of platform game, and the Xbox's arrival in Europe is no exception. Enter Oddworld : Munch's Oddysee, a 3D sequel to side-scrolling platformers Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exxodus. For those of you not familiar with the series, Munch's Oddysee includes a handy option to show you the story so far, told through cutscenes from the previous games. The short version is that the evil Glukkons (environment-destroying industrialists) and Vykkers (mad scientists with a penchant for experimenting on live animals) have been defeated in their scheme to turn the incredibly ugly but apparently quite tasty Mudokon into canned meat by Abe, who is now living as a hero amongst his people. The game proper begins in the oceans of Oddworld though, introducing a new (and equally unattractive) character called Munch - a one-footed bug-eyed amphibian whose fellow Gabbits have been hunted to extinction for their lungs (used for transplants) and eggs (sold as Gabbiar). Unfortunately Munch isn't incredibly bright, and having walked into a trap he starts the game strapped to a chair in a Vykkers lab with a tracking device bolted to his head. The good news is that he can use this bizarre cranial implant to activate machinery and give off electric shocks. Before long he's loose in the lab with a bunch of furry little animals called Fuzzles, which look incredibly cute .. until they bare their teeth and try to bite someone's leg off in a furball frenzy.
Odd By Nature
This latest Oddysee is unusual in that it allows you to control both Abe and Munch, sometimes working seperately but often side by side in the same level. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique special abilities that give you several different ways of approaching most puzzles. For example, Abe can pick up and throw objects, which is handy for getting other characters over obstacles or dropping bombs on your enemies. He can also call on the services of any Mudokon you encounter, greeting them with a cheerful "hello fellow chumps" when you press the Y button, or gathering all the Mudokon in an area by holding it down. Once you have a group of natives under your command you can use them to chant, pull levers and attack nearby enemies, although they're not the sharpest tools in the shed. What little AI the game's characters have is truly pitiful, and sometimes one of your followers will get lost or caught on a sharp corner, or just stand around scratching his ugly behind while his friends get beaten up by guards and you frantically press down on the B button to try and convince him to get on with it. If your Mudokon get slaughtered you can at least resurrect them in many of the levels by finding the appropriate totem, where you hand over spooce to bring your dead back to life. Spooce is a green ball-shaped plant which you will find scattered throughout most levels, and it's also used by Abe's most amusing special power - possession. By chanting for a few seconds and expending some spooce you can create a glowing ball which you then steer towards another character to take control of them. Rampaging around the map as a heavily armed big bro slig can be a welcome change of pace and a good way of letting off steam, although the controls are rather awkward. Trying to steer with the left analogue pad, point its gun with the right and fire by holding down the right pad is a bit of a handful.
Indeed, the controls in general are a little awkward and took some getting used to. The easiest buttons to reach are often wasted on functions which you hardly ever need to use, while vital commands are assigned to out-of-the-way buttons. For example, the camera is controlled with the D-pad located just beneath the left analogue pad, which you use to move your character around. Needless to say this makes it unnecessarily hard to adjust your view and move at the same time, and you have to wonder why they didn't go for the more usual control system of moving your character with one analogue pad and using the other for the camera. This wouldn't be such a big issue if it wasn't for the fact that the camera frequently manages to end up jammed up close behind your character or hidden behind an obstacle. Whether or not it's getting in your way, the scenery is something of a disappointment. The outdoors areas are reasonably impressive (if a little over reliant on distance fogging) and the water effects are nice, but some of the interiors are made up almost entirely of bland featureless box-like rooms. Other sections, particularly in the later stages of the game, are more detailed, with huge machinery and stained glass windows casting rays of light into the hall. The various hideous looking characters are nicely modelled and animated as well, but you could hardly accuse Munch's Oddysee of stretching the Xbox's capabilities.
Odd Moments Of Genius
The gameplay can get a little repetitive in places as well, with some sections relying very much on trial and error. Allowing Abe and Munch to interact is a nice touch, but often levels devolve into clambering over an obstacle with Abe, opening a door to let Munch reach a piece of machinery, using it to unlock another door for Abe, and so on for another half hour. Munch does open up some new possibilities for the game though, such as the ability to operate cranes. There's a certain satisfaction to be had from picking up a savage slog from its cage and dropping it in the middle of a group of guards, or feeding someone into a recycling machine, producing a shower of meaty chunks. Although Munch's Oddysee scores high on cuteness, there's plenty of dark humour there as well, and if you're feeling evil you can get up to all sorts of mischief what with Abe's possession globes and Munch's crane operating skills. Jumping into cannons to get hurled into a new part of the level or bombing around in Munch's little wheelchair can be strangely amusing as well, although the squeaky wheel starts to grate after a while. Ultimately then Munch's Oddysee is something of a mixed bag. It has some highly entertaining and at times hilarious moments, but personally I found the humour very hit and miss. The voice acting is superb, but there isn't enough variety and the two or three comments which each of the characters will make in any given situation soon become grating. If I hear "hey it's Abe" one more time I'm going to drop someone into a scrab pen. Add to that poorly thought out controls and a camera which can leave you staring at a blank wall at the most inconvenient of moments and things can get rather frustrating.