Gamers’ first next-gen taste of the Oddworld franchise came with Munch’s Oddysee, one of the most underrated and overlooked titles of the Xbox launch. The cute third-person platformer had elements of action and adventure, but by and large the game was a lever-pulling, puzzle-solving fest. The newest chapter in the franchise, Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath, takes the series in an entirely new direction, but the evolution into a mostly first-person-shooter has done nothing but great things for the land that Lorne Lanning built.
Where previous Oddworld games took place near water, Stranger’s Wrath takes place in a decidedly arid, Old West-style setting. Rather than play the role of a water-loving Munch or bumbling Abe, the game now features a Clint Eastwood-style toughie named Stranger. The game still includes natives and townsfolk, it still ultimately deals with water rights, and it certainly retains the trademark humor and moral messages associated with previous Oddworlds. But Stranger’s Wrath reinvents what people have come to expect from the franchise, in the process, delivering one of the most original, enjoyable and downright addictive games of 2005.
Stranger’s Wrath is essentially two games wrapped in one beautifully cohesive package. For the first half of the 20-hour game, players switch frequently between first- and third-person perspective while wandering from town to town collecting bounties. If players kill an outlaw (the objective of most first-person shooters), the bounty is considerably smaller than if the criminal is taken alive Ghostbusters-style. As a result, players switch between the two modes to strike a balance between stunning the enemy and capturing him (or her) alive and just blasting away until the cows come home.
These outlaw-hunting excursions feel like a series of about a dozen boss battles because, well, that’s basically what they are. The between-boss environments include their fair share of enemies, ranging from simple-minded gunslingers to dynamite-wrapped assassins, but the meat of each town is really its four or so bosses. With that in mind, the first half of the game does a fantastic job of capturing, then maintaining, what’s arguably the best part of any game: the boss battles. Finding patterns in their attacks and blasting away accordingly hasn’t been this fun in years.
The blasting involved in these battles, though, isn’t your the run-of-the-mill shooter fare. Rather than machine guns, rifles and shotguns, Stranger uses different types of “live ammo,” each of which has a different effect and results in a different gameplay strategy.
For example, you can fire obnoxious Chippunks to attract enemies, then wrap them up with the spider-like Bolamite. Or you can fire a few Stunks in their direction to cause them to vomit, and then while they’re stunned, capture them Ghostbusters-style. Or, if you’re fond of firepower rather than stealth, you can run in with your crossbow blazing, shooting either the shotgun-shell-like Thud Slugs or grenade-like Boombats. The choice is completely yours, and the variety lets you sample new strategies if you want a break from the norm halfway through.
Between bosses, the game provides a fair amount of platforming action, so old-school Oddworld fans need not fret. A few levers are still included, albeit much less frequently, several minor puzzles are tossed in for good measure, and there’s a goodly number of platforms to jump from while trying to elude the enemy.
With the plot twist in the second half of the game, though, comes a decidedly strong focus on first-person-shooter elements. A beach-storming scene a la Call of Duty? Yep, it’s included. A base-infiltration mission with powerful, robotic foes? Yep, it’s included. A tireless onslaught of ultra-equipped enemies with no end in sight? That, too, is part of the mix. The third-person action is still required and in some cases encouraged, but if the first half of Stranger’s Wrath felt somewhat skewed toward adventuring, the second half will change your mind entirely.
With these strong FPS elements, it’s imperative that the AI be as impressive as the scenarios, and for the most part it is. Enemies take cover, toss explosives as appropriate and will find shortcuts if necessary to hunt Stranger down. Every now and then an enemy will lose patience and be lulled into walking into a trap, but by and large the artificial intelligence is on par with the upper echelons of “traditional” first-person shooters.
So, too, are the graphics. Much like its Munch’s Oddysee predecessor, Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath takes what you thought was possible with Xbox and turns it on its ear. Where the lush environments in Munch’s Oddysee looked great but were sparse, the levels in Stranger’s Wrath are even prettier and considerably more active. Stranger’s Wrath may take place largely in the Old West, but these are most certainly not ghost towns. Character and environmental animations, too, are great, and even the “live ammo” fidgets while waiting to be fired. Add in a healthy dose of particle effects and real-time lighting, and you’ve got yourself a graphical showcase.
In spite of what you may have read elsewhere, the audio is also outstanding, especially the surround-sound effects of a gunfight. Remember the clang and whistle of bullets from old-west movies? They’re perfectly captured here, then doused with Oddworld flair. Each character in town also has his or her own dialogue, and although it can get repetitive at times, anyone who’s played a recent role-playing game will overlook the repetition entirely.
Tradition holds that single-player games don’t rank too highly on the replayability meter, but I’ve always believed that an engrossing single-player game with varying gameplay strategies can have just as much longevity as a multiplayer game. Stranger’s Wrath is just that type of game. With the various types of live ammo come various gameplay techniques, and I’m personally looking forward to playing through again with different strategies. Granted, the bosses’ patterns won’t change, nor will the location and number of enemies, but the ways in which to deal with them number in the dozens. This is one game that, even if it gathers dust for a few weeks, will be dusted off soon enough.
Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath provides a fresh look at the Oddworld universe. It provides a fresh look at the first-person shooter genre. It provides a fresh twist to the Old West storyline. But most important, it provides a fresh combination of gameplay elements that make you think about the game not just while you’re playing it, but while you’re away from it as well. If Stranger’s Wrath is any indication of what 2005 will hold for gamers, we all should prepare for an incredibly entertaining year.
- Gameplay: 9.5
- It captures the best of the boss battles, creates a great FPS/platformer hybrid and provides some serious gameplay variety.
- Graphics: 9.5
- Oddworld, and the Old West, never looked so good. A few minor camera snafus short of perfection.
- Sound: 9
- Great surround sound, great soundtrack and great voice acting. Occasionally repetitive dialogue, but it’s always sharp.
- Replay: 8.5
- You’ll almost certainly want to play it multiple times, but no multiplayer might eventually degrade its longevity.
- Overall: 9.5
- One of the most original games in recent memory, and among the best Xbox games of this generation.
— Jonas Allen