GamesTM: Oddworld: Stranger [2004]

Date: October 2004

Source: GamesTM, Issue 24, pp. 46-49

PREVIEW | ODDWORLD STRANGER | XBOX/MULTIFORMAT


DETAILS

FORMAT: Xbox, PS2
ORIGIN: US
PUBLISHER: Electronic Arts
DEVELOPER: Oddworld Inhabitants
RELEASE: Q1 ’05
GENRE: Adventure
PLAYERS: 1


CREATOR PROFILE

In his 15 years in the industry, Lorne Lanning has risen from being a lowly artist and animator to holding a position on the board of directors for The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and becoming president of Oddworld Inhabitants, one of the world’s most creative developers.

HISTORY

MUNCH’S ODDYSEE 2002 [Xbox]
ABE’S EXODDUS 1998 [PSone]
ABE’S ODDYSEE 1997 [PSone]


PUTTING THE ‘WILD’ BACK INTO WILD WEST

Odd: (adj) Unusual or unexpected; strange. It’s as though the dictionary knew what to expect of Stranger even before the gaming press got a glimpse of Oddworld Inhabitants’ fourth title. New settings, new characters and a factory-sized chunk of new ideas (as well as sizeable helpings of animal cruelty and humour) await those willing to disobey their parents and play with Stranger. Those in search of Mudokons to rescue or platforming thrills, on the other hand, need not apply…

At a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the headline on this page was perhaps a misprint – Stranger distances itself from its heritage visually as much as it does with a distinct lack of Mudokons. A shame, perhaps, but there’s only so many times you can hear the little guys mutter ‘follow me’ or ‘wait’ without thinking that maybe there’s more to Oddworld than Simon Says. “What we wanted was a break,” says Lorne Lanning, creator of the franchise, co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants and a man far more down to earth than his twisted visions may suggest. “We wanted a fresh start to pioneer some other territory on the planet of Oddworld.”

Taking us through the early stages of the game, Lanning reveals that if we dig a little deeper, the odd will out. The opening village has all the hallmarks of a traditional wild west settlement – until, that is, the townsfolk mosey on out to play. The chicken-like Clakkerz gibber away to themselves and each other relentlessly, but as you’re the stranger in town they don’t take kindly to you meddling in their affairs. “Any time you press the GameSpeak button, it’s all context sensitive,” explains Lanning, going on to demonstrate just how varied the reactions of villagers can be.

“One thing that’s really important to us is AI witnessing – we want the other characters to feel and act like you’re in that world and they’re aware of you,” he continues, making the chicken-like Clakkerz very aware of his presence by attacking them until they run into their homes and hide. Some even hurl obscenities out the window, coming out with gems like, “We’re coming out now so you be a good boy and behave yourself, you hear?” before returning to the streets, confirming beyond all doubt that the Oddworld spirit is alive and well. In fact, the Alive system (Aware Lifeforms In Virtual Entertainment) that’s at the core of each Oddworld title has never been so apparent as it is here. Sadly for some, this wanton chicken choking may not be the last of the RSPCA-baiting elements that Stranger offers…

“The main hook on this game is the live ammo,” Lanning tells us, and when he says ‘live’, he means it. “Your character has a bow – he doesn’t like guns, so what he does instead is use these little shockers.” The ‘shockers’ are Zappflies, a living and endless source of stun ammo, and while these aren’t the only form of weaponry you’ll get to use, they’re pivotal in catching the rest of your living projectiles. Each can be found in the wild, then stunned and used to tackle situations as you choose, catering for the stealthy, the gung-ho and even those who like to make a mess.


WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE

The first part of the game is entirely based around collecting bounties, and the underlying system that gorverns it is simple yet effective. Every enemy is worth a small sum of cash if you can suck them up into your Acme bounty vacuum thingy (a physics-mocking device that even Blinx would be proud to wield) and you’ll get more pennies if you bring the varmints in breathing. “The Alive value of a bounty is really their difficulty level and you’re encouraged to [collect] bounty alive rather than dead,” creator Lorne Lanning explains, though this only really applies to boss bounties as the difference for grunts is mere loose change. As the game progresses, however, there’ll be a slew of bounties to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.


“There are a number of hazards like these big industrial fans,” Lanning says, proceeding to lay down a trail of annoying Chip-punks that coax a clueless foe right to the edge of the death trap before a blast from a shotgun-esque ThudSlug sees him thrown in and torn to shreds. “Doesn’t it feel good to do that?” fellow Oddworld Inhabitant Dave Ross chips in, and much as our conscience may try to argue, he’s right. Unsurprisingly, claiming a bounty based on a bucket full of innards is not the done thing, but while it may leave you out of pocket the satisfaction of a well-planned execution is its own reward, much like in Midway’s Psi-Ops.

Without any preconceptions of realism, Stranger features a simple binary stealth system – long grass and similar environmental cover grant obvious and simple hiding places from which to rain down hot-blooded doom upon your unsuspecting foes, and you’re never in any doubt as to whether you can be seen thanks to a subtle on-screen display. As Lanning explains, keeping the HUD functional was a priority. “If you’re at full health, you won’t see a health bar. If you’re not around enemies then there’s no radar. When you need it, it comes on, but when you don’t it’s not there to always make it feel like a game. And we’re always trying to make it feel like more than a game.”

While a 2005 release date is a great excuse to keep lips at Oddworld Inhabitants tighter than those of a sewn-up Mudokon, details about the early stages of the game have been more than sufficient to get us excited. Stranger will travel from town to town, encountering new races and taking on more bounties in order to buy his way up to the mercenary food chain. We’re told that the story will later unfold beyond that of a simple bounty hunter and that freedom of play will be key.

“If two people in this room played this, they’d do things entirely differently,” says Lanning. “That was one of the feats that we really wanted to accomplish – it’s one of the reasons for developing the first- and third-person aspects and also the live ammo concept.” For such simple ideas, they work surprisingly well in realising multiple routes through areas and solutions to problems, and if the finished game can maintain the level of individual opportunity displayed so far, we’ll be giggling ourselves stupid for some time.


ODD ENOUGH TO EAT

We’ve only seen an early build of Stranger but already the dustier side of Oddworld is a very impressive place. As well rendered as it is designed, the Xbox version looks every bit as good as we had hoped and it’ll be interesting to see how the PlayStation2 version compares. Here’s hoping the developer has learned its way around the PS2 hardware since the cancellation of Munch’s Oddysee and the negative rumblings attached to it. Also noteworthy is the integration of first- and third-person elements – this seems to be very much the feature du jour but Stranger gives you more reason to enjoy a mix of the two viewpoints than just about any other similar title.


But of all the things that shocked, surprised and amazed us about Stranger, the crowd that amassed behind us as our time with the game drew to an end rates perhaps most highly. It was difficult to gauge the ratio of those clamouring for the controller and those mesmerised by the on-screen action – more testament to the game’s ease of play and entertaining nature than our gaming prowess, much as it pains us to confess.

But then it dawned on us why the watchful mob was so significant. Mere minutes ago, it was us who gazed in awe as Lanning walked us through his surreal creation whereas here, the world’s press were eating out of our hands as we showcased Stranger‘s many ingenious features and its dark, almost sadistic sense of humour. There was no will to show off, no need to play to impress – unlike poor old unemployed Abe, we didn’t even have to utter a ‘follow me’ to et the rabble to take to Stranger.


MUDOKON PROFILE

First introduced to the public in Abe’s Oddysee, Mudokons have a history of being mistreated at the hands of strange creatures twice their size. Characterised by their nasal voices, oversized hands and the ability to possess other creatures through mystic rituals, there can be no denying that Mudokons are really quite special.

HISTORY

MUNCH’S ODDYSEE 2002 [Xbox]
ABE’S EXODDUS 1998 [PSone]
ABE’S ODDYSEE 1997 [PSone]


VIDEOGAMES MATHS

“HI.” “HI.” “FOLLOW ME.” “OKAY.”

READ DEAD REVOLVER + MUNCH’S ODDYSEE + OFF-THE-WALL HUMOUR = ODDWORLD STRANGER