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4.0 out of 5 stars Oddworld Stranger's Wrath (Xbox), 27 April 2014
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This review is from: Oddworld Stranger's Wrath (Xbox) (Video Game)
I think Stranger's Wrath will go down in history as one of those benchmark games. One of those games that not only ventures into new territory, but makes it work. THAT is the main thing that is so great about this game: it works. Sure, not everything runs like a well oiled machine. There are hiccups here and there. But the simple fact that Oddworld Inhabitants was able to pull this game off is a huge accomplishment. In all areas--gameplay, graphics, story, control, and audio (for the most part)--it's brilliantly executed.

One thing I really like about Stranger's Wrath is the way the game evolves as you play it. I don't want to give anything away in this review, but I will tell you that there is much more to the game than you've seen in screen shots and read about in magazines. Some folks might have seen the wild west environments, and the Stranger acting all Clint Eastwood while he collects his bounties, and think "well, I'm just not into the wild west and cowboy heroes." Trust me, the game becomes much more than a wild west bounty collecting romp, and there is much more to our friend the Stranger than meets the eye. I reveled in joy as the game progressed and unfolded before me, becoming cooler and more engrossing as I played. The Oddworld team really outdid themselves this time with an awesome story, a complex and fascinating character, and gameplay that never lets up.

Graphically, the game is a stunner. It's hard to believe how much detail they were able to pack into the environments. The environments are absolutely enormous (they get larger as the game progresses) and the player has an incredible amount of freedom to explore. They are also quite beautiful. There are plenty of hidden goodies in these environments, so it pays to explore thoroughly. One thing I really liked is the great amount of variety the developer put into the different environments. It isn't all just desert themed wilderness with cacti and sagebrush. The environments get about as diverse as you can imagine. The game stays very interesting visually as you wander through one strangely beautiful area after another. And the draw distance is extremely long. Objects and critters retain their reality and their interactivity no matter how far away you are from them. This is another thing you don't see too often in games.

Another thing that impressed me about the game is the enemy AI. It's not always the brightest, but it's smart enough to seek cover when you get aggressive, and on the flip side, smart enough to get aggressive when you show cowardice and turn tail. At times it almost seemed as if my enemy was being controlled by an intelligent person. On the other hand, there are some truly hilarious moments when the outlaws will do some incredibly dumb things, like standing next to explosive barrels as they fire at you. It doesn't matter how many you blow up by shooting the barrel--their buddies will hold their ground right next to their own explosive barrels, just waiting for you to blow them to bits. Or you might use a Chippunk to lure an enemy underneath a heavy weight that you can drop on him by shooting a trigger, and his buddies will follow suit, one right after the other, even though they've just seen their buddies get squashed by your trap over and over again. It's funny stuff and makes for great gameplay, but you gotta have really, really dumb enemies to pull off stuff like this. The boss outlaws are where most of the really smart AI is showcased. Don't underestimate them even for a second.

Yet another thing that amazed me is how well they nailed the first person shooter aspect of the game. The game plays so well as a first person shooter, and the control is so effortless and perfect, that it called to mind comparisons with another little known shooter by the name of--yes, that's right--Halo. The calibration of the right analog stick for aiming is dead on. Your reticle doesn't move too slowly or too quickly. It's just right, and it makes aiming a breeze. Even getting a bead on the tiny critters that you hunt for ammo is effortless. Halo and Stranger's Wrath are the only first person shooters I've ever played that had such perfect movement for the aiming reticle. Another thing that led me to compare this game with Halo is the intelligence of the enemies and the intensity of the combat. These firefights are nasty, and you better have some strategy or tactics stowed away in that handbag of yours or you'll be pushin' up daisies real quick like. The areas in which the firefights take place, just like Halo, have plenty of opportunities for strategic cover. And also, just like Halo, enemies are not blind. If you step just a tiny bit into their line of sight, even from long range, they will see you, call an alarm, and sometimes begin pursuing you. This forces you to be smart about what cover you use and exactly what plan you have for advancing.

The game has a fascinating story that really pulls you into its world, and it comes with a couple of big shockers. I've never actually gasped at a video game story revelation before, but I did in this game. If you're halfway intelligent, the first big revelation probably won't come as much of a shock, but I tell you partner, the second one will. For about the first third of the game, you're just collecting bounties and leveling the Stranger up, but after that the story kicks in and it doesn't let go. The ending will have your jaw on the floor and wishing the sequel to the game was in your hands at that very moment, so you can find out more. The brilliant writing and excellent voice acting make for a wonderfully unique experience in this Oddworld. Although the game is filled with the trademark Oddworld quirkiness and humor, the story takes a decidedly more somber tone this time around, and I really liked that. We're dealing with some serious issues here: identity, environmentalism, cruelty against the weak, and the good ol' good vs. evil. But unlike previous Oddworld titles, in which evil takes the form of greedy corporations with little regard for their workers and the environmental impact of their industry, Stranger's Wrath introduces something much more sinister and much more purely evil. It's not your typical Oddworld plot, and I applaud the Oddworld team for taking this somewhat new direction.

Although Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is a game to be applauded in many respects, it does have its problems. For one, there is an odd ( he he ) problem with the combat that just doesn't sit right. When you begin the game, you're tempted to play it like a normal FPS, running around blasting the enemies just like Halo. But then you remind yourself the game isn't supposed to be played like a normal FPS. The idea is to lure enemies out of their stations, knock them out or wrap them up, then suck them into your Bounty Can, keeping them alive. The main problem is the act of sucking enemies into your Bounty Can usually leaves you exposed to other enemies, putting you into their line of sight and allowing them to fire at you. It's very difficult to lure an enemy behind cover, because the very second you are in their line of sight, they freak out, start firing at you, and stop following your Chippunks (small animals you use to lead outlaws from one place to another). So the only choice you have, more often than not, is to kill the enemy. Or keep wrapping them up with Bolamites while you concentrate on other enemies, which is a waste of ammo. This problem would not exist if enemies stayed knocked out or wrapped up forever. They don't. You have to get them into your Bounty Can quickly. In areas with multiple enemies, many of them have to be killed before any collection can be done.

Furthermore, the combat in the game isn't quite the glorious mix of first and third person fighting styles that it was promised to be. Third person definitely puts you at a disadvantage in big firefights. Enemies are dead shots with their weapons, and your health whittles away quickly when you take fire, so you're constantly having to seek out cover. While I would enjoy having a free-style melee in third person, the game simply doesn't allow this kind of approach unless you're only facing a couple of enemies. The only way I've found to dodge enemy weapons fire is to jump while running. But you can't bloody well evade and attack at the same time. So what combat boils down to is seeking cover, going into first person mode, and using your crossbow to either kill or knock enemies out while you pop in and out of cover. That's fine I guess, but the point is, the game promises a nice blend of third and first person combat styles that it doesn't quite deliver. Perhaps if the Stranger had the ability to block enemy weapons fire, third person combat would have been more enjoyable and more balanced in difficulty. Or if he had more than two attacks in third person, or a Master Chief-like shield, or temporary invisibility . . . cripes, anything to make third person fighting a little more fair. As it is, when the crap hits the fan, you'll almost always find yourself abandoning third person to use your live crossbow ammo in first person and whatever cover may be nearby.

Another little issue I have with the game has to do with capturing boss bounties alive. The game drives the message home to the player that capturing your bounties alive gets you a lot more moolah, and then it makes the boss outlaws impossible to capture alive. Or at least next to impossible. It can be done, but it's much more difficult than it needs to be and it involves a little random luck (like pushing that X button at exactly the right microsecond).

Where third person play really shines is in navigating the environments. I don't call it platforming, because Stranger's Wrath is not a platformer, but you'd swear it was by how effortless it is to move the Stranger around, do what you want to do and go where you want to go. I never once had one of those moments we all have in third person adventure games where we're screaming, "God!!! All I want to do is freakin' get up there!! Why can't I go there!!" The environments are effortless to navigate. The Stranger's running gallop, double jump, and ability to climb ropes pretty much take him anywhere. He can even swim, a luxury which was not allowed poor Abe in in Munch's Odyssey ("Help Munch, I'm takin' a beatin' out here!").

Perfectly in keeping with the Oddworld style, the Stranger has a health system unlike any game you've ever played. The Stranger's health is replenished from his Stamina bar, which slowly builds back up when it is depleted. As long as you have Stamina, you can transfer it to your health bar. The Stranger shakes off his wounds as his health bar fills up. Stamina is depleted by long falls, running, attacking, filling your health bar, and taking damage from powerful enemy weapons. Stamina doesn't take long to build up, but don't think that makes the game easy. Far from it, Stranger's Wrath leans to the difficult side. The boss battles in particular are especially brutal. Some of them are so merciless that you'll find yourself dead just a few seconds into the fight. And the first stage of the final boss battle? It redefines the terms difficult, frustrating, and merciless.

The game's audio is great, with the exception of one little matter that really bugged me. The voices used for the town citizens that the Stranger talks to are way too quiet. I had to constantly turn up the volume on my tv to hear what they were saying. I couldn't leave the volume at that level, because then the sound effects of playing the game were way too loud. So I was continually going up and down with the volume, which got to be a real pain. In a game like this where hearing what the local inhabitants have to say is important, the voices should have been given a much higher volume, and probably should have been recorded in higher quality. Their voices have an antique, sort of grainy effect, like you're listening to them on one of those old gramophones. Other than that, the sound in the game is great. Weapon sound effects are pretty cool, like when the Stranger lets loose with a round of Stingbees. One thing I really liked is the game gives you plenty of audio cues to let you know exactly what's going on with your crossbow and your ammo. The sound effects for reloading, for ammo powering up, and the constant chatter of your selected ammo will never leave you in doubt about what ammo you have selected, if it's ready to fire, or if it needs time to charge up or reload. I love a developer that recognizes the importance of strong audio cues in games. It's easy to overlook how important sound effects are in a game until you play a game that doesn't do them very well (like Snowblind). Another great audio gem in this game is the voice of the Stranger. His voice actor does an excellent job. But the voices of the tadpole-looking folks that the Stranger helps get really annoying.

There isn't much music in the game to speak of. I thought this was odd, since I'd heard that this game has a dynamic soundtrack that plays according to what you are doing in the game. I hardly ever noticed music, but I suspect the reason is that it too, like the townspeople voices, is simply too quiet. The game emphasises explosions and weapons sound effects over any other type of sound. I wish the overall sound in the game had been balanced a little better.

All things considered, Stranger's Wrath is an amazing game that simply must be played. It is the very epitome of high production value. For those wondering if it's better than Munch's Odyssey, well you can't really compare the two. They are two completely different types of games, with the only real link between them being the fact that they both take place in the Oddworld universe. The only returning character is the loveable little fuzzle, but you may have an occasional Slog sighting. Mudokons, Glukkons, Gabbits, Vykkers, Interns and Sligs are nowhere to be found. However, the game does give the highly speculative player a clue as to the possible origin of one of the species I have mentioned above.

I had a major "Ah HA!!" moment concerning a connection between Stranger's Wrath and Munch's Odyssey that I would so, so love to tell you about, but to do so would spoil one of the game's big secrets.
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