Closer Look: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath [2005]

Closer Look: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath [Hosted by]

Date: 29/01/2005

Author: Mike Leonard


Closer Look: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

You might think that someone who worked with the U.S. military on the Strategic Defense Initiative (you probably know it better as the ‘Star Wars’ Program) and then went into video game design would create something a little more . . . well, war-like . . . than Oddworld, but then, Lorne Lanning isn’t your typical game designer.

Lorne was inspired partly by his father’s passion for electronics and technology while a Navy technician working on nuclear submarines, the elder Lanning would eventually take a job working for Coleco, who – not so ironically, as it turns out – made a video game console of their own. Lorne claims that as soon as he saw computer graphics for the first time, he knew that was exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but it would take him from a roundabout ten-year-path of graduating from Cal Arts, going to work for TRW on a SDI-related project, and finally ending up at a California ad agency, before finally deciding to do what he really wanted to do: make a video game.

After teaming with Sherry McKenna, an award-winning film and commercial producer, Lanning set up Oddworld Inhabitants and published their first game, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee in 1997 on the PC and PlayStation. Between Abe’s Oddysee and a 1998 sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, Lanning sold three million copies of his games – a unique hybrid of a puzzle game and platformer that featured stellar art design, Hollywood-quality CGI cinematics, and a storyline that presented real-world politically-charged topics in the allegory of a comically unusual and strange alien world that was at once cute but a little on the occasionally gross side (Lanning had, at one point, publicly admitted he was embarrassed at what he called ‘shallow’ storytelling in video games) but his publisher, GT Interactive, was struggling financially.

GT would eventually be bought out by Infogrames (now known as Atari), but Lanning had bigger problems, wanting to make a next-generation Oddworld game but unhappy with the only next-gen console that had been formally announced, the PS2. Lanning thought the machine was too time-consuming and difficult to work with, Sony hadn’t been supportive enough of developers struggling with the learning curve, and he ultimately felt it couldn’t produce the results he wanted, in any case.

Just as Lanning was consigning himself to the fact that the next Oddworld game would likely be PC-only, Microsoft began to speak with developers about the Xbox, and after much negotiations, Munch’s Oddysee was made an Xbox launch title to be published by Microsoft itself as an Xbox-exclusive and shipped alongside the console in November, 2001, giving Microsoft’s new console one of its few familiar, pre-established faces.

Munch introduced a new lead character – the titular Munch (although former star protagonist Abe the Mudokan still featured prominently in the game), and made the jump forward from 2D to 3D gameplay. Munch’s Oddysee was quickly overshadowed by titles like Halo and Dead or Alive 3, despite being every bit of a showcase of the Xbox’s graphical capacities as they were, and received only lukewarm reviews. Munch and Abe had been early favorites to fill a mascot role for the Xbox, a duty that eventually fell on the armored green shoulders of Halo’s Master Chief.

Tensions had reportedly been mounting between Oddworld Inhabitants and Microsoft leading up to the launch, with MS not providing final details of the hardware until very late in the development process, a decision that was rumored to have Lanning and his team a little on the irritable side, since they knew they had a very ambitious game and needed to know just what they’d be able to accomplish on the Xbox hardware before fully committing to some elements in the game design. (Personally, I think Munch is a really cool and unusual game, well worth diving through a bargain bin for a copy, if you like platformers.)

For the follow-up to Munch’s Oddysee, Oddworld Inhabitants decided to go in a slightly different direction, adding a heavy element of a first-person shooter and a more prominent accent on action rather than puzzle-solving, but for reasons that have yet to be revealed, Microsoft Game Studios, the Xbox’s first-party publisher, decided to let Oddworld Inhabitants out of their publishing deal for the new game – originally titled Oddworld: Stranger – early in 2004. It was an unusual decision, particularly since Lanning had publicly been very supportive of the Xbox as a developer, but no one seemed too concerned that a franchise as interesting and well-liked as Oddworld would have a rough time finding a home.

And it didn’t, as Lanning quickly signed a deal with Electronic Arts to publish Stranger, but with a twist – a PS2 version of the game had been announced to go along with the Xbox one. Sony fanboys howled, with one of the PS2’s more vocal detractors finally ‘giving in’, but Microsoft may have the last laugh – initially it appeared that the PS2 version of the game (now known as Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath after a bit of last-minute title editing by EA), wouldn’t be made available until well after the nearly-completed Xbox one, and more recent reports are that the PS2 Wrath has been indefinitely postponed, making the game EA’s sole Xbox-exclusive title.

The newest Oddworld protagonist is known simply as the ‘Stranger’, a bounty hunter of few words, clearly evocative of Clint Eastwood’s squinting heroes in the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, which fits the old West-meets-Oddworld setting of the game perfectly. The Stranger needs to amass a considerable amount of money by Oddworld standards for a mysterious, life-saving operation, and you, as the player, are going to do so by helping him round up some of Mongo Valley’s most nefarious miscreants.

Unlike Abe and Munch, who relied more on brains than brawn, the Stranger packs a considerable punch of his own, from a dual-firing crossbow that uses live ammo – live as in small breathing creatures you’ll have to locate and collect. Several distinct types of ammo make up the Stranger’s arsenal, each with their own distinct abilities: Zapflies are your basic, plain ‘bullets’; Bolamites are spider-like creatures that can entwine and immobilize an enemy, while Thudslugs provide extra blunt damage and concussive force to stun and knock enemies back – not to be confused with Boombats, who explode on contact. More unique are the Fuzzles, vicious little furballs who appeared in Munch’s Oddysee and will attack anything that comes near them (think of them as land mines with nasty, sharp teeth), the Stunkz, mutant skunks who will release a toxic cloud causing any bad guys within range to literally lose their lunch, and my personal favorite, the Chippunks, miniature rodents with chattering cut-downs that are so annoying, enemies will immediately stop whatever they’re doing to chase and try to destroy them.

Each type of ammo can be upgraded – for instance, hilariously, the Chippunks can be upgraded with a microphone and loudspeakers, increasing their range of influence – and the Stranger can load two different types of ammo in his crossbow for simultaneous use. And figuring out how to most effectively use ammo is one of the main focuses of Stranger’s Wrath’s gameplay, replacing the old GameSpeak elements where Abe and Munch would have to issue simple verbal commands to other willing creatures nearby. Not only can the ammo be used in tandem for particular effects, but it can also interact with parts of the environment. It’s an interesting take on a well-worn (especially on Xbox) genre, a shooter that’s more than just twitch.

Shooting in Wrath is done in the standard first-person viewpoint, but you’re not locked into the view for the entire game – outside of combat, you’ve got a more traditional third-person view to tackle the platformer-like obstacles in the environments.

EA and Oddworld Inhabitants have been fairly mum about Stranger’s overall story – the only real known facts are that early on bounty hunting is the focus, as a way to introduce and familiarize the player to the gameplay mechanics before moving forward, but even though plot is initially light, a full-fledged story does kick in. You’ll be able to pick and choose which bounties you want to attempt to collect – some have particular things you’ll need to gather or do before getting a crack at the bad guy in question: for instance, before you can take on poacher Lefty Lugnutz, you’ll need to acquire a rare Sleg call to lure him out of his hiding place in the swamp. Bounties aren’t as easy to collect as simply finding the ugly mug on the wanted posters – each villain’s got himself a small army of henchmen and minions Stranger will have to contend with, which come in five basic varieties – nailers, shooters, mortars, cutters, and suicide bombers, each with their own style of offense and defense.

Since collecting the most cash is the object of the game, you can maximize your profits by bringing in the miscreants alive rather than dead, which adds an additional challenge, since you’re not shooting to kill, but rather to immobilize. Stranger can capture defeated enemies by sucking them up in a Ghostbusters-like vacuum for storage until they can be deposited back at the ‘Bounty Store’ in town. Catching bosses will require the ultimate in finesse and patience from a player, as boss battles in Wrath are said to be very much an old-school-tough flavor, but will force you to use alternate tactics beyond just evaporating the life bar down to zero; you need to whittle the boss down enough to attempt a capture, but just because you and the Stranger are going non-lethal doesn’t mean the bosses are obliged to follow suit.

Stranger’s Wrath is an Oddworld game, so you can expect the same top-notch attention to detail and presentation as the three previous installments: lush environments with a unique sense of style, CGI animation that goes well beyond most games – not to mention Hollywood blockbusters – in the terms of quality (in my opinion, Shrek looks like a bunch of Crayola scribbles compared to even the earliest Oddworld cutscenes), and of course, the endearing characters and offbeat humor. Lorne Lanning has a background in animation and it clearly shows: there’s more to that word, ‘animation’, than just making the characters cartoonish.

With gameplay that’s both new to the series and a nice twist on the concept of a shooter as a whole, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath should be well-worth checking out when it ships on January 25, 2005.