• Oddworld Stranger's Wrath Review - Microsoft Xbox

    Fans of previous Oddworld games have been nervously following this latest outing; Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. It seemed to be abandoning the quirky, charming style the series has become so loved for, instead dumbing-down in search of the mass market and with it the monetary rewards that follow. And, at first glance, what has been delivered is the most conventional game that fans could possibly fear, the genre de jour: an action adventure.

    But, from the first FMV introduction itís clear that, if nothing else, Strangerís Wrath will still play with the wit and style that previous visitors to Oddworld have come to know, love and expect. It takes just as fleeting a moment to realise how different this Oddworld experience will be. But itís when players experience the seamless jump from first- to third-person and back again, without any intrusion to gameplay, that the reality hits home (regardless of history, expectations and assumptions) of just how well crafted the game really is.

    With previous Oddworld heroes Abe and Munch allowed some respite, it has fallen on the shoulders of the Stranger to take the helm. A quiet, brooding creature with no name and no past (hence "Stranger"), arrives in a town full of dust, tumbleweeds and ever-gossiping locals, a town that lives in fear of the outlaw gangs who terrorise its every waking moment. In need of 20,000 moolah for a mysterious operation, Stranger is only too happy to assume the role of law enforcer. Itís one clichť after another, and all the better for it. Players yearning for a game that can deliver an experience worthy of the poncho-wearing anti-heroes of Sergio Leoneís westerns have had both Red Dead Revolver and Dead Manís Hand in recent months, but this bounty hunterís exploits utterly eclipse those earlier efforts.

    There are similarities to be drawn with many of the big releases of the last few months. If Strangerís rechargeable energy bar feels familiar to those who have experienced Halo 2, then his weapon of choice, the inspired Dual Crossbow will feel a world away and at the same time comforting to those who see no way back after Master Chiefís dual-wielding escapades.

    Stranger relies on the use of ďliveĒ ammunition; creatures that must first be found and then caught. From Bolamites (with their enemy-subduing web-tangling) through rapid-fire Stingbees and vomit-inducing Stunks, to the bait-like Chippunk that allows players with a stealth leaning to lull enemies away from their posts. Zapflies, ever present in their infinite supply, will likely be the staple ammunition of choice. Though limited in the damage they inflict, fully charged Zapflies trigger electrical equipment as well as detonate explosive items strewn across the land. As with Halo 2, itís the combination of ammo types that is a key element of the wonderfully balanced gameplay. Any number of combinations can be tried before players feel ready for the challenges lurking ahead. Stranger is equally happy dealing out pain with his fists and, in third person, his battle-hardened cranium, thanks to a powerful leaping headbutt.

    Stealth, a buzzword whose resurgence over the last few years has been attached to so many console titles regardless of its actual implementation, is bandied about here too. But Strangerís Wrath truly manages to offer players a choice as to how they wish to make their way through the levels. More, perhaps, than usual, and in no small part aided by the "save anywhere" ability, itís possible for more direct players to simply blast their way through the early stages, probing harder and more aggressively until the last batch of evil is dispatched.

    The bosses, all lovingly designed, beautifully manifested and oozing charm, quickly become more than simple cannon fodder. Treating each as a unique challenge reaps greater rewards. Careful consideration of their strengths and weaknesses not only allows players the opportunity to claim higher bounty for bringing them in alive, but the playing experience is all the richer too. The slightest tarnish appears on the game's shiny sheriff badge as some of the later bosses rely on set patterns compared to the toughest and most organic competitors mid-game. Regardless, they are almost always laugh-out-loud fun.

    With the first act tasking players with the simple matter of seeking out a stream of bounties, the second half sees a sizeable shift in gameplay. Gone is the sparse, arid western setting, replaced by lush jungles and breathtaking vistas flanking glistening rivers. Aided by powered-up weapons, evermore destructive ammunition and one of the greatest twists in a videogame, Stranger suddenly has to adapt from a moolah-earning bounty hunter to an all-out, one-creature war machine. The pace of the game changes too, losing the mission-like sections of the first half to become more of an action-based foray. Itís here, with an almost endless barrage of enemies, that the quicksave becomes the gameís saving grace. Without this, the second half of the game could become a combat treadmill. It's a pity, given the developer's obvious talents, not to see the creation of even more weird and wonderful fodder. The AI performs admirably however, and with the variety in opponents' arsenals, players need to be ready to switch strategies as they go.

    The implementation of the third-person mode aids players, with perfectly weighted and intuitive controls allowing Stranger to bound about the land with a total disregard for the limits other development teams seem to stumble upon so often. There are lessons to be learned from the close to flawless camera seen here.

    The design of this corner of Oddworld may not be the most revolutionary but its manifestation - from the almost non-existent load times and the lovingly crafted animations, through to the beautifully realised details, all delivered via a frame-rate that refuses to give even an inch - is stunning. The audio can seem sparse in comparison, but then Stranger, as with all great Western heroes, speaks little, with just a grunt here and an amusing put-down there. Only the adult expletives create a jarring distraction, forcing players back in to the real world unnecessarily.

    All of this, along with an amusing and twist-laden story, delivered through beautifully choreographed FMVs and equally well-conceived in-game cutscenes, comes together in one of the most visually impressive games with some of the finest gaming moments that gamers are likely to experience during this generation of consoles.

    A review by Gareth C