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Game of the Week: Stranger's Wrath HD

Odd one's out.

Maybe I'm being wilfully perverse. It wouldn't be the first time. If the game of the week were determined by buzz or importance or sheer weight of numbers - of players, of man-years of effort, of many millions of dollars in budget, of hours of queuing for a precious spot on a live server - then this week it would unquestionably belong to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

BioWare's behemoth isn't just (very likely) the most expensive game ever made, it's the most challenging online game launch ever - and that from a developer with limited experience in the field. Hats off to the studio and its partners, then, because this titanic construction has slipped from the dockyard into the waters with grace and ease. Those queues and a certain bureaucratic fussiness about access are really the only things to complain about.

It's a totally solid, smooth-running and full-featured game, an unprecedented achievement in online world launches. By comparison, its inspiration and rival World of Warcraft stumbled badly at birth, and that game's North American and European release dates were months apart. But that was before it had redefined everyone's expectations of the demand for a new MMO. Of course, it went on to redefine our expectations of just about everything else to do with the genre as well. That's one of many reasons why it will take a while to review The Old Republic, and why I don't want to pre-empt that judgement here.

As a work of game art and design, and as a new standard-bearer for a genre that has been all but crushed under WOW's heel, The Old Republic has still got a lot to prove. It will continue to long after I manage to stick a score out of ten on it. But as a work of engineering, online logistics and commercial enterprise, it's off to a terrific start and has erased at least one of the black marks against MMOs' name. Congratulations to all involved.

Conversely, our actual game of the week is one that, thanks to a friendly developer, we managed to review several weeks before its release.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD

In a tough market, an interesting new avenue for revenue for a small indie developer lies in becoming a remaster specialist. That's the route taken by Yorkshire's Just Add Water with this superlative version of an obscure modern classic.

It doesn't have the same cachet as developing your own original game, of course, but as work-for-hire jobs go, it probably beats churning out a licensed game in six months to a spec you don't like and a quality you're not happy with. You also get the privilege of taking truly great work apart to see what makes it tick, before carefully polishing and greasing it all and putting it back together.

I imagine you experience the same satisfaction as a museum archaeologist, an antique furniture restorer, or a hobbyist rebuilding a classic car: pride in preservation, celebration and curation. The great thing is that, in the download age, you're also making something that might have become obscure or hard to find easily available to all. Whilst I see Martin's point that a remaster isn't the same thing as a preserved original - you only need to look at George Lucas' revisionism of the early Star Wars films to see the danger there - I also agree with Dan that making old games into viable commercial products is vital for the health of the medium.

Sensitive porting and HD remastering of past masters is not glamorous work, but it's noble work. So let's salute the a roll call of 2011 heroes that probably won't be recognised anywhere else: Just Add Water; Bluepoint Games (Ico & Shaodw of the Colossus Collection, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection); Ready at Dawn (reworking their own games in God of War Collection Volume 2); Grezzo (Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D); Christian Whitehead (not the mutant offspring of Donlan and Dan, but the fan who showed Sega how to do Sonic CD); Iron Galaxy (Street Fighter 3: Third Strike); the guy at Treasure who made the XBLA version of Guardian Heroes all on his lonesome (sorry, Martin knows his name and he's left the office to buy Christmas whisky now). There are many more, but these are the people who went the extra mile in their efforts.

The lakes of Wrath.

Now that they've had their moment, let's turn the spotlight back where they'd want it - on the original game in question. Stranger's Wrath is an extraordinary combination of Halo's organically balanced firefights with a politically conscious Western on a slapstick, cartoon alien world. Keeping up? EA couldn't, and the game disappeared on its original Xbox release, so it's great to have it back on PS3.

"It's an example of what happens when a clever developer explores the cracks between genres and when established franchises are allowed to drift into bizarre new territory," wrote Christian in our Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD review. "Best of all, it shows you the kind of things that video games can do when their narratives are powered by characters rather than set-pieces.

"Without Stranger, there would be no plot. He is the plot, really, and while it's unfair to spoil any of the astonishing surprises that lurk in wait for newcomers, it's safe to say that this is an uncommonly rich adventure, revealing subtext and emotion as elegantly and effortlessly as it unleashes its brutal twists and its devastating reversals. It has both a theme and a message - it's a game that's unashamedly about something. And although it toys with standard beats like betrayal and redemption, the redemption is delivered with real moral force for once, while the betrayal arrives from an angle you'd never have suspected."

If you don't know what your Christmas game is yet - if you're not tempted by The Old Republic's busy servers or plotting your second hundred hours in Skyrim or eyeing a wrapped-up Skyward Sword under the tree - consider making it this one. It's a time for parables, after all, and the moral of this story is that the story, for once, has a moral.

But whatever you choose to play - whether you choose to play at all - have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. See you on the other side.