Oddworld Stranger Impressions

EA shows off Oddworld's latest Western-themed action game.

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As with its enigmatic main character, much mystery has surrounded Oddworld Stranger, the latest game in the Oddworld milieu. At today's EA press event, we were among the first members of the media to peel back the iron curtain and see just what it is that Oddworld Inhabitants has been keeping under its cap all this time. Those who might have been anticipating another platforming puzzler are in for a huge surprise: Oddworld Stranger moves outside the legacy of Abe and his kin and instead puts forth an intriguing, rich-looking action game with a wholly other kind of Oddworld flavor. Set on the same world as the previous games, Stranger melds the feel of a classic old Western with the distinctly quirky, humorous nature of the existing universe in an appealing package.

Who needs platforming when you can hassle outlaws for money?
Who needs platforming when you can hassle outlaws for money?

Gone are the spindly, so-ugly-they're-cute characters from previous games. Stranger, the heroic figure in Oddworld Stranger, is a large, hulking humanoid beast-man with an assured, confident air about him. He's a bounty hunter by trade, but there's little else we know right now about this stoic figure, aside from the fact that he's trying to raise money for an operation to correct an undisclosed medical issue. The developers started off the game in a small town that looked like it was pulled right out of the Old West...aside from the fact that it was populated by clakkerz, a race of plump chicken-people.

While moving around town, the clakkerz would complain if Stranger happened to nudge them while running past; when spoken to, some would give him helpful information about how to proceed, and some would tell him to cheese off in varying degrees of annoyance. If you press the talk button without any non-player characters nearby to give you grief, Stranger will talk to himself with a reminder about the current objective. You will even be able to start up combat with the townspeople in an effort to make them drop some cash, but if you start getting too rough, they'll all flee into their homes and lock up tight. After some time has passed, they'll warn you to be nice and start to creep back into the streets once more. Apparently, if you engage in this kind of wanton violence enough, it will begin to have more severe repercussions down the road.

Grabbing a bounty from the bounty office will start up the meat of the game, which is going out and hunting down your bounties. The game can be played from both a first-person and a third-person perspective at all times, with free switching between the two modes. Stranger starts out with just his large fists, but you'll soon acquire a two-trigger crossbow, and it's around this weapon that the action centers and things start to get really interesting. The bow takes live ammo--literally. You'll be firing live ammunition in the form of the many small insects and critters that populate the world. You can stun these creatures in the field and then pick them up to use later; depending on which creature you use, the effect is different. If you fire a chipmunk, for example, the chittering little beast will draw enemy attention, enabling you to lure characters where you want them. Equipping a skunk creates a skunk bomb that, when fired at foes, explodes in stink and doubles them over with coughing. Fire a spider, and you can bind and gag an enemy in webbing. Fire a fuzzle--fans of Oddworld already know these creatures; think fluffy tribbles with teeth--and it serves as a sort of living land mine, chomping on adversaries as they walk over it. Equipping wasps will enable you to use a sort of rapid stinger-fire. If that weren't enough, you can also find upgrades scattered around the world that will give your various live ammo new abilities. For example, an upgraded chipmunk will be able to draw three foes instead of just one; an upgraded skunk will actually suck nearby enemies into it as it explodes, letting you draw enemies out of buildings.

While the bow is a powerful, versatile tool, Stranger won't be without any other recourse; he'll be able to go toe-to-toe with enemies as well. Besides using his fists, he'll be able to physically ram opponents after first racing around and gathering speed. Stranger drops to all fours when he runs, beastlike, and gradually gains quite a bit of steam, which will stun foes when he crashes into them (or break items in the environment). Stunning foes is useful for a couple of reasons--you can either set up additional attacks, or you can move in to capture them for a bounty. Stranger carries around with him an item, a sort of high-vacuum "bounty can" that will suck enemies inside. The bounties you will receive are highest when you bring them in alive, although you will still get something for a cold corpse--as you suck them up, the amount of money the bounty for that character is worth flashes on the screen. The big bounties, or boss characters, appear smart and ruthless and will be a tough fight. As you damage them, red stars will eventually appear above their heads. You'll be able to gauge things like how close a boss is to unconsciousness or death, and you'll be able to decide the right time to suck them up.

Stranger remains a mysterious figure--will he ever remove that hat?
Stranger remains a mysterious figure--will he ever remove that hat?

The game itself looks very rich, in detail as well as in setting. The world we saw was a Western, desertlike environment, with high rocky peaks, scraggly tumbleweeds, sparse vegetation, and lots of dust. We're told that the game will eventually range into a number of different environments, including a barren, snowy land with a Tibetan flavor. The characters all look distinctive and have a lot of personality, both in design and in voice. Stranger's voice is deep and gravelly, while the clukkerz have a variety of twangs. The sound effects also sound nice, down to the deep thump and faint jingle of Stranger's spurred boots.

Oddworld Stranger seems like a breath of fresh air for the series, and it's looking to be a welcome addition to the universe. Both existing fans of the Oddworld games and action game fans who are interested in some twists would do well to keep their eyes on this title. The game isn't set to hit store shelves until early in 2005, so definitely stay tuned for lots more coverage to come.

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