No strangers to subverting saturated and tired genres with their own brand of quirky humour and fondness for farting, burbling simpleton mutants as lead characters, Oddworld Inhabitants' well overdue return to the scene after three years in the wilderness is every bit as warped and unique as you could hope. Or is it?
At first glance Stranger's Wrath has true flashes of standout genius running through it. Take the art direction and technology: it's probably the Xbox's tour de force with a truly outstandingly picturesque engine that allows Oddworld's imagination to run riot and populate its immensely detailed worlds with the kind of character and attention to detail that we'd have been gasping at in rendered video form not that long ago.
I spy candy
Whether the grizzled lizard man Stranger is prowling through harsh desert scrubland, jumping and swimming through rancid sewers, smashing up unwary farms or stalking the more lush green environments it's an exquisite graphic whore's picture postcard paradise. With a world of smack talking redneck chickens to fight, capture and protect, there's almost too much to admire in the aesthetics. With the Xbox capable of churning out games that look this good it makes a total mockery of Microsoft's decision to abandon its console just four years into its lifespan. Most next-gen games will struggle to look as richly detailed and alive as this.
But I digress. Here's the deal: you basically play a lonesome bounty hunter, going from town to town hunting down all the wanted ne'er do wells for 'moolah'. The behatted gravel voiced Stranger doesn't like guns for reasons not fully explained, but is quite happy to nail whoever gets in his way with his crossbow and a fine selection of whatever creatures he can lay his hands on. As part of the game's off the wall appeal these creatures just happen to be the right size to mount side by side on the Stranger's crossbow and form the core of the game's combat dynamic.
Acting rather like the now-familiar Halo 2 dual-wielding dynamic you can fire two 'weapons', although not necessarily at the same time. No sir, the premise here is more to create a layer of strategy that largely consists of luring unsuspecting enemies (Chip Punks) then swiftly walloping or immobilising them (Thud Slug, Skunk Bomb, Boom Bats, Bolamite), shooting them (Zap Fly, Sting Bee), or setting a jaw-snapping trap (Fuzzles). But unlike Halo 2's more limited system, though, you're still given the ability to carry all eight of your weapon types in reserve, and swap them out at any time with a flick of the D-pad.
But with so many permutations available it often takes a fair bit of trial and error to get the balance right between luring, laying a trap and bagging them up before all hell breaks loose and half a dozen enemies descend upon you and finish you off with a few well placed shots. You see, although Stranger has the ability to literally shake off any damage he incurs, he's also a bit feeble and if you're not careful you'll be dead in a few seconds.
The dynamic becomes very much like a hunt; picking off the weak stragglers one by one, quickly stunning them in order to bounty more 'moolah' for them alive, or simply killing them to make sure - but for half the dosh. Trying to wade into practically any combat situation in the game is pure folly as you're so weak in relative terms. So although the quicksave mechanic in tandem with infinite health does cheapen the challenge somewhat, it's offset by making you quite a weakling to compensate.
Somewhat uniquely the game is split almost equally between third and first-person viewpoints, with first-person for crossbow combat and third to take into account the platform negotiation and melee combat. With a punch, headbutt and dual trigger spin attack at your disposal you're not afraid to get your hands dirty if it comes down to it, and if you take a run-up you can even bowl into opponents - but the usefulness of melee attacks lessens as the game wears on.
Fear me and my infinite ammo
Eventually once you've finished bagging up all the peripheral villains, the 'hunt' then boils down to a boss face-off with the main guy you're contracted to reel in. Some of these encounters are surprisingly easy, while others are alarmingly, disproportionately tough with lazily designed abilities to rain down infinite amounts of super destructive weaponry while you're left with tiny amounts of often fairly useless attacks. Sometimes life isn't fair; especially when the difficulty curve rises and falls quite dramatically, but seeing as the entire progress of the game hangs on these key boss encounters it's just a case of just hanging in there and plugging away until you find a chink in their armour and move onto the next bounty target.
After the first sets of bounties are nabbed it appears our Stranger's desire to carry on bringing in the villains is made all the more important thanks to needing $20,000 dollars for some sort of operation. Seems a bit silly considering he can just shake off his wounds, but that's just me being a pedant.
And so the game goes on, with a new town, a new set of bounties to choose from at your leisure, a new set of weapons, ammo and armour upgrades to purchase if you so choose, and the pattern goes on.
That's all, folks
Sadly after the first town you realise that's pretty much the whole game in a nutshell. Scenery changes, enemies come a little better armed and maybe a bit more ruthless, but to compensate your weapons, ammo and armour gradually get upgraded and it's as you were. There's little - if anything - in the way of puzzle solving or real narrative drive to really immerse the player in this deliciously rendered world. Walking up to the many NPC (non-player chickens) wandering around might elicit an amusing response the first or second time, but the low sample rate on the dialogue and generic Hicksville accent make them things you begin to ignore more and more as it begins to sink in that there's not much point them even being there.
On the whole, the towns provide a setting and context and look exceptional the first time you visit them, but it's the same deal with all of them. Visit the Bounty Store, accept contract, upgrade at the General Store, run off to the next town, and as a result the game mechanics get a little wearing after a while. The repetitive nature is fine if you split up each town over several weeks, but play the whole 15-hour show in a couple of days and the repetitive mechanics become slightly transparent.
Playing devil's advocate for a moment, the only clear explanation I can come up with for the team's unexpected desire to allow players to click into a first-person mode is to show off how well they can render your chosen creatures that sit obediently on the top of your crossbow looking absurdly pretty, cute and loveable. I strongly suspect the game could have been equally (if not more) playable in third-person all the way through, especially when in the heat of combat it's not the most natural thing in the world to click the right stick, fart about with which ammo duo you want with the D-pad and get back into the thick of it.
The whole 'critters combat' thing could have just as easily been pulled off in third-person with maybe a toggle button for melee combat and would have been far more intuitive. The point, really, is that Stranger's Wrath simply isn't a better game for having first-person mode, and many of us would have maybe preferred the choice. It's an undoubtedly prettier mode that lets you see all of their arty creations up close, but it's by no means more playable. It seems as if someone, somewhere realised the game was a bit 'ho-hum' in third-person as a spectacle and added first-person just to make the whole thing look more attractive and make it seem like it was two games in one. On a design and playability level it doesn't really add anything especially useful to the party, and once you realise that the game follows roughly the same path throughout its technical charms wear off fairly quickly.
Looking back, this combat-heavy direction doesn't really suit Oddworld's more aesthetic and humour-heavy past. The lack of discernable puzzles is a tad disappointing, and the lack of narrative hook reduces the experience to a series of tag and bag encounters. Although the whole package is stitched together marvellously, is slick, polished almost beyond belief and there's nothing necessarily bad about it, it's one of those games that simply lacks that crucial gameplay spark to elevate it to the top echelons. Even as a died in the wool shooter fan, I have to admit that Stranger's Wrath isn't on a par with most shooters for balls-out action and at the same time manages to lose some of the off-the-wall appeal that previous Oddworld games had in spades. As a tech demo it's astounding. As a game it's well above average in most senses. But would we recommend Xbox owners rush out and buy it for full price? Sadly not, unless you're fed up with a lack of exclusive titles, want something new and have money burning a hole in your pockets. We expected much bigger things and certainly never expected to urge you to rent it first.