Oddworld Stranger's Wrath Preview
Oddworld Inhabitants' latest game is set in its own wacky universe and it isn't afraid to get with the times. We went hands-on and came away quite amused.
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The folks at Oddworld Inhabitants have a reputation to maintain. Since 1997, the quirky developer has used its Oddworld games to establish a particular tone--a particularly wacky tone--while managing to portray serious issues, such as oppression and the defilement of the environment, in a humorous but thoughtful light. Mechanically, the previous three Oddworld games have focused on thoughtful puzzle-solving with only light action elements, but the leaders of the company will be the first to admit that the industry is changing as a reflection of audiences' maturing tastes. In that light, Oddworld's newest game, Stranger's Wrath, is heading in an action-oriented direction that the developer hasn't previously explored. But don't worry, Oddworld fans--that endearingly crazy sense of humor is still intact.
To be clear, this is indeed the game you've heard of previously as Oddworld Stranger. Oddworld (the company) has since decided to rechristen its new baby as Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, first to avoid any pesky copyright conflicts, and more importantly to bring it in line with previous games' titles, such as Abe's Exoddus and Munch's Oddysee. And from our initial experience, it does seem that Stranger is indeed a wrathful character. This game is much more action-oriented than previous Oddworld titles, with serious shooting and melee combat elements in addition to some good, old-fashioned platforming.
Stranger's Wrath takes place in an entirely different part of Oddworld than we've seen before, and Stranger himself is a totally new kind of protagonist for the series, too. He's a rough-and-tumble sort, even a bit of an antihero; he's a bounty hunter who, it seems, is mostly just in it for the money. At the outset, Stranger is a mysterious figure, one whose motivations and background are not entirely clear--and Oddworld wants to keep him that way until you've played the whole game and had a chance to experience the storyline in its entirety. There are only a few things we know for sure about Stranger. For one, he doesn't seem to take any crap from anybody. For another, he dislikes guns, preferring instead to combat his enemies with some truly live ammo (more on that later). And finally, according to Oddworld Inhabitants founder and evangelist Lorne Lanning, he may not be who he appears to be. The plot thickens!
Apparently, the plot will thicken even further as you progress through the game, but we didn't get any details about how exactly that will happen. We were told to expect at least one major plot twist well past the halfway mark. Without giving too much away, we did see some brief footage of action occurring in environments that looked radically different from the dusty, Wild West-themed towns and canyons in the playable section of the game we got to try out.
We've come to expect a lot of personality and weird humor in the Oddworld games, and Stranger's Wrath seems not to disappoint in this regard. As a bounty hunter, you'll travel from town to town in order to interact with the locals and find out what kind of jobs need to be taken care of. In the demo we tried, we got to run Stranger around in a town populated by anthropomorphized chickens called clakkerz, who babbled incessantly to each other in the same amusingly nasal, high-strung voice. Stranger's baritone provided an amusing contrast to the clakkerz's speech, and we were able to make him speak to any nearby residents at the touch of a button. The game will contain a whopping 5,000 lines of dialogue, and much of it is both hilarious and relevant to the current task at hand.
The first thing you'll want to do when you hit a new town in Stranger's Wrath is look around for the bounty store, which has a listing of all the current jobs up for grabs. The owner of the local bounty store will tell you about the vicious varmints who are terrorizing the populace. You'll find out who they are, what they've done, and most importantly, how much you'll be paid to bring in their no-good hides. But in keeping with Oddworld's views on gratuitous violence (and Stranger's as-yet-unexplained dislike of guns), you won't have to kill your bounties. In fact, most bounties will have two reward amounts: one if you bring them in dead and one if you bring them in alive. You'll be able to blast all your bounties to kingdom come and just bring them all in dead if you want. However, it'll be in the best interest of both your ethical standing and your pocketbook to find nonlethal ways to apprehend your marks.
In fact, Oddworld's goal with Stranger's Wrath is to give you as many options as possible for playing the game in the way that best suits you. Toward that end, the game has been made with both a third-person platformer and a first-person shooter at the same time, and you'll be free to switch between viewpoints at will depending on the situation. The game will present scenarios that lean toward one view or the other; platforming will be much easier in third person, of course, while fighting multiple enemies will be easier in shooting mode by using your myriad weapon types than it will by simply fighting with your fists in third person. Going from third person to first person and back again is as quick as clicking the thumbstick, and it became second nature for us to do so within minutes of first picking up the controller.
In addition to the increased field of view, which will make things like jumping puzzles easier, third-person mode will confer a couple of specific advantages. When you run for more than a few feet in this mode, you'll drop to all fours and begin to pick up a great deal of speed, which lets you get places much faster and also allows you to bowl over enemies that get in your way. Third-person view will also give Stranger a handful of melee attacks that pack a pretty hefty punch and can come in handy when Oddworld's frontier pests get in your way. According to Oddworld, one early tester who preferred the third-person gameplay to the shooting option managed to get a surprising number of hours into the game without ever dropping into first-person mode, relying entirely on melee attacks and jumping to combat enemies instead.
Ammo That Talks
After the time we spent with the game, we felt that Oddworld would still have a decent game on its hands if it had left Stranger's Wrath with just the third-person gameplay, but the first-person shooting mechanics lend the game an entirely new level of depth. As mentioned, Stranger abhors guns--so what does he shoot with? The simple and strange answer is a crossbow loaded with real, live animal ammunition. You'll be able to load your crossbow with two different animals at a time, and each of the many live ammo types has a wildly different function. The surgebug acts as a basic peashooter, letting you fire weak pulses of electricity (or a more-powerful charged shot). You can also equip a rapid-fire wasp launcher that acts as a machine gun of sorts, while explosive bats perform the function of the traditional rocket launcher.
Some of Stranger's live ammo has more unusual and comical uses, however. For instance, the chippunk is a small rodent that really lives up to its name by talking a colossal amount of trash to anyone within earshot. The smug little bastard will even spit the occasional insult at Stranger himself while mounted on the crossbow. Once you fire the chippunk, any nearby enemies will become so enraged that they'll come over and stomp on it, which allows you to lure foes out into the open to deal with them more easily. The skunkbomb is another live ammo type that creates an enormously noxious cloud, causing any enemies caught inside it to heave uncontrollably for a few seconds. Incidentally, the skunkbomb serves as one of the easier ways to incapacitate a bounty and bring it in alive. You'll receive upgrades for your live ammo types as you move through the game. The chippunk, for instance, is equipped with a PA system, increasing its radius of annoyance, while the skunkbomb gets a gas mask that lets it increase its stink output by a ludicrous degree. The cloud smells so bad, in fact, that it creates a vacuum that literally sucks nearby enemies right into its epicenter.
On top of all this gameplay, Stranger's Wrath will incorporate a full (though optional) stealth model that will let you sneak through enemy strongholds rather than taking the run-and-gun approach. We got to see a rolling demo of one level being played two entirely different ways. The first time around, the player used live ammo like the chippunk and skunkbomb to methodically take out enemies one by one without actually alerting any others, eventually clearing out the entire fort without ever raising an alarm. The second time, the player just ran right in the front door and started shooting, relying on more typical shooting ammo like the wasps and surgebugs to kill everything in sight. This approach will offer a more visceral sort of satisfaction, though you obviously won't collect nearly as much bounty money by killing every foe you encounter.
Stranger's Wrath was originally conceived as an Xbox-exclusive game, and Oddworld Inhabitants has crafted a robust new engine from the ground up to take advantage of Microsoft's powerful console. As a result, Stranger's Wrath is easily the best-looking game the company has produced yet. We got a detailed look at the early part of the game, which was set in a traditional Wild West environment, and these arid areas were full of small details like desert grass and other parched flora, decrepit old shacks, and tiny wildlife (such as the live ammo you'll collect as you play). The characters are also quite detailed, especially Stranger himself, who has a Clint Eastwood-like design with a wide-brimmed hat and gruff demeanor.
Oddworld's trademark artistic influence seems to be blended in well with this technical upgrade, from the wacky designs and expressive animations of your friends and enemies to the uniquely Oddworld signage you'll see posted above everything, from the bounty store to a sewer entrance. Finally, we noticed a smattering of visual effects that will help bring the world to life, from a nice depth-of-field softening effect while using binoculars to a light bloom that makes the daylight appear extra bright while you're exiting through a building's saloon-style doors.
Oddworld Inhabitants places a lot of emphasis on characterization, and in the interest of maintaining full control over the development of the personalities in Stranger's Wrath, all of the dialogue is once again being performed and recorded in-house. Series creator and Oddworld mastermind Lorne Lanning will even provide a large percentage of the voice work, as he has in past games, and series fans should find that the acting has a similarly unique and bizarre feel to it. We especially enjoyed the occasional mutterings of the live ammo types as they sat ready to do battle on Stranger's crossbow, and the panicky small talk made by the clakkerz as they roamed around their small town.
To be honest, we didn't know what to expect when we went in to see Stranger's Wrath. The game was only announced earlier this year, and Oddworld Inhabitants has been pretty mum on specific gameplay details until recently, even though it has been working on the game on the sly for a good two years now. We came away from the demo extremely impressed by the seamless fusion of the first- and third-person gameplay types, not to mention the way Oddworld has managed to bring its distinctive sense of humor and social relevance to what is admittedly a new sort of game for the company. The release date for Stranger's Wrath was recently moved up to late January, so Oddworld fans won't have long to wait to see how the latest installment in this unique franchise has turned out. But from what we played, the game may just snag the attention of more than the typical Oddworld fan.