Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee Preview
Abe's Oddysee has a few surprises in store for those willing to look beneath its simple, platform-hopper premise
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The development house called OddWorld Inhabitants is almost as strange as the universe of game products it proposes to bring to PCs and platforms. It's a renegade game company (under the GT umbrella) cobbled together from ex-film industry types who have waited ten years or more for technology to advance to the point where they could bring movie-quality plots, characters, transitions, and effects to a game industry mindset. Abe's Oddysee is the first installment in a "quintology" of games set in the decidedly odd world of, well, OddWorld. You play an optimistic but hapless alien creature (specifically, a Mudokon) named Abe - a lowly worker at the grim, dystopian Rupture Farms meatpacking plant - who blunders into a ghastly discovery: The prime ingredient of the plant's proposed new line of Meat Pop snack food products is his fellow coworkers! And thus begins our victim/hero's strange Oddysee - to get the hell out of Rupture Farms (taking as many of his endangered coworkers to safety with him as possible) before the endless security patrols of evil Sligs - insect-like stormtroopers - can hunt him down and a put a slug, or several thousand, in the back of his fish-eyed head.
At first glance, Abe's Oddysee appears deceptively simple, little more than a slow Genesis-era level-hopper. But Abe's Oddysee is an incredibly clever game which, among other accomplishments, uses an on-the-fly communication system (Gamespeak), which assigns various game controls to specific commands, such as "Hello," "Follow me," or "Wait here." When Abe approaches a coworker in need of rescue, he uses one of these commands to command him; it's Lemmings with half a brain. As Abe attempts to lead his charges through traps and past various dangers, he and the would-be rescuees are open to constant attack from patrolling Sligs. Although the majority of the action is X-Y side-scrolling, Z-axis entry into occasional doorways will allow Abe to reemerge way off in the background (with appropriate sound effect modification), a feature that gives the game a wonderful sense of environmental depth.
The loin-clothed and twitchy Abe, nobody's first choice for a hero, carries no weapons, but that doesn't mean he can't hurt his oppressors. Certain creatures of Abe's kind have the latent ability to chant into existence an energy field that is capable of possessing nearby Sligs. The upshot of this strange ability is that Abe can sneak within close range of an unsuspecting Slig, chant until possession is complete, and then move the armed Slig around from screen to screen as though its body were his own; he can consequently machine-gun other Sligs, detonate dangerous explosive devices or chant yet again, causing the possessed creature to mentally overload and self-destruct in a blast of noise and meat-chunks. After such remote-control mayhem, control reverts to Abe, wherever his physical self resides, and gameplay continues. Rupture Farms security, already hip to this kind of metaphysical meddling, installs the occasional anti-chant droid, which forces you to think more daringly from time to time. Abe's Oddysee is essentially a good-natured game, but there's something very satisfying about walking your body-snatched Slig into a secure area and opening up a clueless insect security guard like an overripe melon.
Which is precisely what you'll want to do; OddWorld Inhabitants has approached the game like a film project, with deep character and plot considerations, and a normal human's loyalties will be engaged almost at once. Abe is a lovable, skittish underdog protagonist. The cannon-packing Sligs are - to be perfectly frank - a pack of loathsome, cowardly, sadistic scumbags; if they can't get at you directly, they'll take out their frustration on the nearest innocent-bystander Mudokon employee, working him over with disturbing viciousness. Motivation is one of the things that great games are all about; if you're any kind of human being at all, you'll want to nail these oppressive onscreen oafs.
Abe's Oddysee is a shining example of the nonintrusive interface, which is to say, the interface ain't there. Nothing clutters the screen or takes away from the seamless, cinematic quality of the story's progression; no health meters, no ammo counters, no inventory bins, no remaining-life indicators. In-game tutorials and hints for the first handful of levels appear in the form of background control panels and scrolling monitor screens, which don't seem at all awkward or out of place in the mechanical hell that is Rupture Farms. Outside the horrible Rupture Farms plant lie beautiful, detailed, eye-goggling regions of forests, caverns, and far-off towers, and out in these less-oppressive regions you'll encounter somewhat more pleasant creatures with whom communication is only possible through the Gamespeak engine - mimic their musical tones, gestures, and bodily noises (whatever you're thinking about this, you're basically right), and you might just make a connection or gain a favor; blow this abstract conversational artform and your progress might be difficult or even impossible. And while your choices are left wide open (you can grind through your thankfully infinite lives in an attempt to liberate everyone or, if you like, you can simply waste those trapped Mudokon employees instead of ferrying them to safety), the game's QUARMA feature keeps track of the moral/ethical progress of tyour actions and deals with the situation accordingly.
Abe's Oddysee is an admirable step forward in gorgeous (but not overblown) presentation, and a heartening two-steps-back in the right direction, with simple but motivation-driven, back-to-basics gameplay (the lack of which alienates many first-time gamers from the Quakes and Duke Nukems of the game industry). And gosh, it's really cute, too... if you can overlook that nasty business of the Mudokon Meat Pops.
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