Oddworld Inhabitants—the developers, not the game characters—are pretty interesting people. Their projects have an extremely high artistic quotient and consistently contain themes and messages regarding conservation, consumerism, and other things actually relevant to society. It can also be said that their style of gameplay is most often something that cannot be easily categorized, though this might be a bit of a double-edged sword. Not really being a fan, I often found myself in the strange position of admiring their work for various reasons, yet not actually relishing the experiences each provided as a whole. This has now changed. I can honestly say that their latest effort, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is a product which incorporates all the qualities that I respect, while at the same time serving up the type of solid, well-constructed gameplay that I could really sink my teeth into.
Breaking away from the formulas previously established in the rest of the Oddworld series (Abe's Oddysee, Abe's Exoddus, Munch's Oddysee), Stranger's Wrath is essentially a first-person shooter that includes a third-person viewpoint for navigation and light platform elements. The option to switch is available at any time. The overall control scheme and seamlessness of the transition between views is excellent; it feels completely natural and effortless. The intuitive tactile sensation of controlling the Stranger while either cautiously shooting (in first) or wildly loping through the game's stunningly-crafted environments (in third) couldn't have been smoother.
The twist within Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath that raises its gunplay beyond being standard FPS action is the addition of "live ammo," giving extremely welcome depth to the Stranger's shooting. His wrist-mounted double crossbow can be loaded with an assortment of live creatures used to create a very strategic type of combat. The game's second act features a more traditional high adrenaline formula than the first half, but in both sections the variety and multiple strategies associated with each type of ammunition add greatly to the game's appeal. I don't get a lot of mileage out of blasting enemies in general, but my brain felt actively engaged while my adrenaline pumped—a rare combination.
For example, the trash-talking "Chippunk" deals no damage, but instead lures enemies into environmental traps when it's important to avoid direct confrontations. "Fuzzles" will do medium damage when going toe-to-toe, but are better used for making enemies fall from high ledges. Most of the ammo has at least two specific uses, so there are often multiple ways of getting through the game's challenges. This on-the-fly thinking connects with two other elements that set the game apart—its capture mechanic and health management.
With each enemy the Stranger comes across, he has the choice to capture them and bring them to the local bounty office alive. It takes more work and can mean substantially more difficult encounters with the boss outlaws, but this opportunity reinforces some of the themes present in the Oddworld games, as well as giving ambitious players a good workout. It's definitely easier to just kill everything and walk away, but the reward for being humane makes the extra effort worth it. I appreciated this sort of sophistication greatly.
The Stranger also has the ability to regain health at will, provided he has enough stamina to do so. With this in mind, the game takes on yet another level of elegant complexity— the balancing act between aggressive attack and cautious advancement. This concept is further reinforced by superb level design and segmented areas that facilitate both styles, though they greatly reward careful planning and judicious use of the live ammunition's capabilities. In my opinion, the thinking and implementation behind the gameplay of Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is of a superior nature, and easily earns it a spot near the front of the action crowd, being comparable even to the mighty Halo— perhaps not in terms of enemy intelligence, but certainly its equal in terms of weaponry, and undoubtedly better in terms of level design.
Structurally and technically speaking, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is an outstanding game that does not have any weaknesses. However, I do have two minor points to bring up. The first is that the game felt slightly limited in scope. What it does, it does extremely well, but there comes a point when the novelty and thrill of the combat loses a bit of its luster, though it may be due to the fact that the first-person shooting genre is not one of my personal favorites. It is worth noting that the developers did make many efforts to avoid this feeling of sameness, like including some on-rail sequences and a fierce attack canoe for waterborne assault in later areas.
The second issue was that I felt more care and effort should have been put into telling the story. It's impossible to discuss in depth without major spoilers, but I will say that rather than intriguing or thought-provoking, I found it to be slightly head-scratching. For example, the game's "big twist" was telegraphed hours before it was actually revealed, whereas the Stranger's driving motivations and relationships remained partially obscured all the way to the end. I kept waiting for the developers to hit me with a generous cutscene or some clear exposition, but neither ever happened. In fact, I would say that the story is the game's weakest point, though it's not really weak—it's just not as masterfully crafted as the other parts.
With those things noted, I want to be crystal clear in saying that I have nothing but the highest respect for Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath. The artistry and care put into designing its look and feel match the skill and precision put into the mechanics and balance. It's an admirable game and a clear asset to the Xbox library, somewhat ironic given the troubled history it had in finding a publisher. In any event, it adds a much-needed dose of the kind of quality that is not often seen in these days of safe sequels and formulaic products. To paraphrase the Stranger's own quasi-Western lingo: "The Oddworld Inhabitants done real good."