Next Generation: Munch’s Oddysee [2001]

Date: April, 2001

Author: Tom Russo

Source: Next Generation, Issue 76, pp. 40-43


Publisher: Microsoft Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants Release Date: Fall Origin: US

Now in vast 3D environments — it’s really an odd world after all

Those perceptive gamers who were able to look past the 2D graphics of Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus found themselves rewarded by a game series filled with interesting characters and often startlingly unique gameplay elements. With the advent of next-generation systems, developer Oddworld Inhabitants has spent the last two years crunching code to bring Abe to life in a 3D environment, all the while expanding on the unique concepts from the original two games with a design and story as ambitious as any title we’ve seen in recent years.

The game’s exquisitely rendered opening cut scene introduces Munch. He’s from an aquatic species, which has been fished to the point near-extinction — in fact, he’s the last of his kind. When he too is finally captured, a pair of corporate mad scientists (called Vykkers) experimentally fit him with a brain implant that gives him the power to control machinery. The game begins as Munch attempts to escape from the lab, with Abe along to help.

Setting the backstory aside, it’s always been a bit unclear as to how the game will actually play, even for those who have been following this title’s progress since its inception. But the mystery was solved when, upon our arrival at Oddworld Inhabitants’ office, the quick tour of the premises given by company Cofounder/President/visionary Lorne Lanning ended right in front of an Xbox dev kit with a functional game up and running. A detailed, realtime outdoor environment stretched across the monitor. Abe stood among green rolling hills and valleys, with other Mudokons visible in the background. Visually, the landscape is 100% Oddworld, but the game mechanics are not unlike Mario 64, with a camera that does a wonderful job taking care of itself.

Munch’s Oddysee
takes place in both indoor and outdoor environments, as players juggle between the roles of both Abe and Munch. The tasks players face are not unlike those from the first two games — friends need to be rescued, and through Oddworld’s innovative GameSpeak system, you’ll need to recruit and manage groups of NPCs to meet your objectives. Specifically, Abe will again have to help out his fellow Mudokons and get them to safety. Munch, on the other hand, must save a new species called Wuzzles — cute, furry little balls with eyes (cute, that is, until they show their teeth). In gameplay terms, Wuzzles function not unlike the power-ups in old shooters like LifeForce or Salamander in that the more you have with you, the more effective you become. Abe still has his special chanting power that enables him to possess enemy characters, which are altered slightly for a 3D environment such that now you need to guide a “possession bubble” into contact with the enemy you want to possess.

So what about the much touted “living world” aspects of the game? They’re still there, and in fact that’s where much of the resource collection comes into play. The game features two kinds of currency: Spooce, a natural resource, is a spiritual commodity that Abe can use to buy power-ups at vending machines; Moolah is the financial currency of the Sligs, Glukkons, Vykkers, and other enemies. (Collecting Moolah is of equal importance because when Abe possesses an enemy character, he can use it to upgrade weapons.)

Interestingly, the game’s world changes to reflect how well you perform. Lanning explains that the worse you do, the more enemies deplete the environment. A skilled player will ultimately bring about a beautiful, natural environment, while players barely hanging in there will watch as a wasteland spreads before their eyes.

Anyone who thinks that Oddworld is all about fancy artwork and story and not about gameplay would be completely off-base. Throughout our visit, Lanning was intently focused on discussing how the game plays. For example, he told us that when Abe possesses an enemy equipped with a gun, the design takes full advantage of Xbox’s dual analog controller, including its feature of buttons built into each analog stick. The left analog stick steers the character’s movement while the right directs its aim, and you only need to press down on the right stick to begin shooting. “It’s just like playing Robotron,” Lanning says.

Controlling Abe and Munch works in much the same way. Pressing down on the left analog stick puts Abe into “sneak” mode, and he can sneak faster or slower based on the degree to which the analog stick is moved. Lanning is also in the process of designing some new, unique modes of transportation within the game’s world, and even talks of adding a bit of Asteroids-style gameplay. But as the game has to be ready in time for the Xbox launch, he admits that he’s “not sure we’re going to get flying vehicles into this one.”

The partnership between Microsoft and Oddworld Inhabitants has proven to be extremely beneficial to the game’s development. Remember that Microsoft has been in the software business since 1975, and it’s learned a few things about making customers happy on the road to world domination. “We’ve gotten invaluable feedback from some of the focus testing Microsoft has done with Munch,” Lanning says. This focus testing, according to Lanning, has been an integral part of the process in streamlining a number of elements as they move toward completion for the fall launch. Much of what Lanning called the “high-minded concepts” of the game have been simplified, so as not confuse players or get in the way of the gameplay experience. For example, Abe was originally going to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons in both indoor and outdoor environments, but it became apparent through focus testing that players were confused about which Mudokons were already free, and which were still slaves. Subsequently, the design was simplified in order to make the distinction clear. “If Mudokons are inside they’re slaves,” Lanning explains. “If they’re outside, they’re free.” And this change was made even though it meant losing one in-game image Lanning was particularly fond of showing: enslaved Mudokons cutting down trees. “You need to be able to let go of the stuff you love if it isn’t working for everyone else,” he insists.

It’s a slow week if Lanning only works 70 hours — which is no surprise, given that in the course of more than two years, his game has jumped around among three different publishers and two systems. In the transition from PlayStation 2 to Xbox, the company had to scrap much of the specially developed graphics code Sony’s console requires. However, the loss was relatively painless because, as it turns out, the Xbox chipset can handle all those features itself.

Chances are you’ll never have the opportunity to meet Lorne Lanning or discuss his vision for his games. But you only need to spend a little time with his last two titles to understand why so much buzz was generated when Munch’s Oddysee defected to Xbox. Quite simply, few developers are capable of what Oddworld Inhabitants is building. Of those few, we have yet to find one that promises as dynamic a set of characters or as compelling, even morally significant, a story. Oddworld’s goals go beyond creating an incredibly enjoyable experience to kicking down the walls that keep this medium boxed in.