Review / Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD (PS3)

And now for something completely different…

It’s been a difficult year for shooters, one of short campaigns, tight corridors and overly-scripted sequences. Metacritic’s user score suggests that even the mighty Call of Duty can no longer hide behind the hand-holding single player offerings it’s been serving up for the past few years. What better way to bookend 2011, then, than with a game that completely bucks that trend.

Of course, as the HD in Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD suggests, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this FPS/platforming mash up. Originally landing on the first Xbox back in 2005, it famously undersold, making this update more of a necessity than a luxury.

Placed firmly in the boots of the titular Stranger, Wrath quickly establishes its own identity in terms of setting and mechanics. The Oddworld universe is a strange and fantastical place; a true fantasy setting that never falls back on the old archetypes of Elder Scrolls, injected with a black sense of humour and a strong environmental message within each of its four games. Wrath is the first game to deviate from Abe Mudoken’s path, and the most varied interpretation of the universe seen since the original Abe’s Odyssey back on PlayStation.

While it retains some elements of past games in its light platforming segments, Wrath sets itself apart with a shooting system unlike anything seen in games before. Stranger is a bounty hunter, and almost all of the enemies he comes across in his quest to raise mo’ Moolah (money) can be taken dead or alive, with the latter option churning out more cash. To do this, he relies on a trusty crossbow capable of firing a range of ammo types.

The clever bit? Everything you fire out of the crossbow is alive. Rapid-firing homing bees, puke-inducing stinkmucks and enemy-binding spiders are just some of the different creatures used as weapons. The crossbow holds two types at any one time, allowing for experimental combinations. Gathering ammo requires hunting it down in the environment and stunning it before scooping it up. Once a full sweep of ammo types is gathered tactics really open up. A full on assault with the machine gun-like bees gets the job done sharpish, but then less cash is made from a pile of dead bodies over alive ones. As you might expect, capturing enemies alive is riskier, but you’ll reap the rewards when heading to a store later on.

The game runs with this idea for its first two thirds, allowing Stranger to tackle major bounties that serve as level ending boss battles in any order. The sense of freedom you get from the battles to simply traversing the environment is crafted not only by the unique gunplay but also by the beautiful western and country settings that drown the action in a stunning sense of place. You almost feel privileged to finally be free to explore every nook and cranny of Oddworld after the previous games strong authority presence.

Stranger himself is one of gaming’s better protagonists. At first he lacks quirky nature of the fart-happy Abe, opting for a mysterious, calm demeanour. Until this point Oddworld’s characters, either hero or villain, have all been missing a few marbles. Stranger is the first to have a sense of control and structure about him, even when the other characters very much fall in line with what’s expected of the series.

It’s in the last third, after an unexpected twist that the game lets itself down. While its attempts to drive home a message about the evils of industrialisation are admirable and often effective, it sacrifices its open-ended gameplay for a linear affair that lessens the benefits of taking foes alive and finds itself conforming to the conventions that we’re growing tired of. It’s a shame that the constant action of this final act deprives players of the simple traversal and exploration that really give the game its own identity in the first part, instead feeling more like going from room to room and clearing enemies out.

Platforming is a forgivingly insignificant part of the game too, as the controls feel a little sluggish. Stranger’s double jump fails to give any real sense of power to leaping over gaps, but rarely is there a situation where life or death depends on well-executed platforming, so it never becomes much of an issue.

For those that have felt Stranger’s Wrath before there’s reason enough to revisit Oddworld if you’ve been dragged in by this generation’s previous HD updates. This is an upgrade that’s been well-loved; character and creature models, textures and animations have all been drastically improved, far beyond a simple HD upgrade, and voice work is remastered. It doesn’t stand up to disc-based offerings, rather sitting somewhere in the middle of the power gap between the Xbox and PS3.

Technical issues from the old days remain though; there’s still a touch of slowdown in some of the game’s bigger environments and talking to NPCs in one of the game’s three towns is a troublesome affair thanks to dialogue suddenly cutting out, usually before the information you’re after is divulged (though developer Just Add Water has said this will be fixed via a patch not released at the time of publishing). These bumps hold the game back from feeling truly current with recent entries into the genre, and keep it squarely as a last-generation game with updated looks. Not that that should hold anyone back from trying it out.

Stranger’s Wrath ends up being the perfect answer to those tired of the modern battlefield. At its core it’s a truly different style of shooter, dressed up in a universe that’s a perfect playpen for the unique gameplay. Rarely does such a well-realised world go hand-in-hand with a game of this type, and it explores that world through interactions that only video games can provide. It’s perfect proof that, while we may be bogged down in current conflicts and safe mechanics in today’s market, there’s still a lot of life left in the genre. 2011’s last shooter is also one of its best.