Real craftsmanship isn't as appreciated as much as it should be in games, certainly not when you compare it to other art forms. This is nothing new, but it really jars when a game comes along that you know won't get the wide spread acclaim it truly deserves. In fact, looking back a few weeks, to when channel 4 decided to show 'The 100 Greatest Cartoons', something became immediately apparent: Stranger's Wrath's FMV scenes, in terms of character, looks and animation, were easily the equal to so much on offer there. When it's taken into account that the FMV represents just one component of another delicately crafted masterpiece by Oddworld Inhabitants, it makes you very sad that this isn't hung in some kind of digital gallery. It's a game that not only does a great job of turning the FPS genre on his head, but is a truly legitimate work of art deserves to be on everyone's shopping list.
I apologise for gushing about the game so early on in this review, but Stranger's Wrath is very important, no question about it. In terms of gameplay, it may not be as big a revolution as previews have led us to believe, but it shows a level of development and character that is sorely missing in many games today. The Oddworld games have always had a reputation for being quirky and original, with a unique sense of style. Indeed, Oddworld Inhabitants' original mission was to turn gaming on its head by blending traditional genres within their Oddworld universe. In a way, this was undone by the success of their Abe character, resulting in them developing a series of Abe games in a similar style. Stranger's Wrath is the first Oddworld game to completely leave Abe out and to give a totally new concept a chance.
It's very different too, putting us in the shoes of titular hero Stranger as he collects bounties around a western themed area of Oddworld. The main inhabitants of the towns you frequent are the 'Clackers', a weird chicken hybrid race that seem to be fairly rubbish at defending themselves. So, it's down to you to clean up the place, all for a nice lump of cash (or Mulah as Stranger likes to call it), of course. The problem is that our Stranger doesn't like guns. Not to worry, as he has an interesting solution in the form of a double-barrelled crossbow that fires live ammunition. It could be argued that the game revolves around the need to bounty bad guys, but in reality, the crossbow and its ammunition are the stars; it really is a superb weapon
Live ammunition really changes the entire feel of the game. Aesthetically, they look fantastic and have animation routines that can't fail to bring a smile to your face. The Chip Punks, in particular, are hilarious, always giving you a hard time as you walk along. However, it's how the different ammo works that is the real masterstroke. By thinking about the ammo as live animals, rather than as weapons, Oddworld Inhabitants have developed some ingenious ways to take out your foes. Certainly, there are types that imitate standard weapons - such as the Sting Bees, which work like a machine gun -, but most are an interesting new spin on old ideas. The Fuzzles are a great addition, for example, as they are used to latch onto your foe, making them drop off cliffs or into a unfortunately placed meat grinder. Very satisfying. They can also be attached to the ground as a nasty trap. It's this use of environment, and the ability to always find new ways to inventively use this arsenal that keeps things fresh. It also helps that each ammo type can be upgraded as the game goes on.
So far we've largely been describing the game as an FPS, but this is only half the story. The game makes excellent use of a first-person and third person viewpoint. The latter is largely used to traverse around Stranger's world and for some melee combat, but the real fun is to be had in first person, launching critters at people. It needs to be said, however, that the two views compliment each other very well, and the transition is very smooth. It's another attempt at refreshing the FPS genre that really works and is an excellent piece of design by team at Oddworld Inhabitants.
As mentioned earlier, bounties are the key to the game, with your combat style being affected by how you want to take your bounty: Dead or Alive. Basically, you get more for them alive than dead and it's always a worthwhile strategy to stun your victims rather than killing them outright. This is made even more difficult as the Stranger isn't that difficult to kill; a group of six or more can polish him off with ease, so standing around while you suck your bounty up with your vacuum isn't a good idea. It, therefore, becomes necessary to pick people off one by one, luring them away, taking care of them and then going back for more. This tends to become the main playing style throughout the game, with the radar used to see your enemies' level of awareness and what they are looking at; a bit like Metal Gear Solid's radar to be honest, though it works just as well in this context.
The only time this really changes is with the main bounty at the end of each stage. It tends to be a much more traditional boss encounter, and to be honest, these sections aren't as much fun as the rest of the combat. Some of the bosses are far too tough as well, often requiring a frustrating number of re-tries. It's this one area of Stranger's Wrath that doesn't feel as consistent as it perhaps should, with the difficulty differing wildly.
Later on the game does change a great deal, becoming something different altogether, and taking the focus off the bounty aspect. Unfortunately, it's difficult to say more without ruining the game, but this second half feels much more focused and complete than the first. It's also in this section that you often need a second to take stock of how beautiful the game world really is. As much as you've seen before, some of the later stages are truly epic in scale.
As with a lot of great games, the biggest problem is the length, and the 'half time' change only serves to highlight that, making it feel like two short games rather than one complete task. At perhaps only 10 hours (give or take a bit depending on how you play), it compares to Prince of Persia and Chronicles of Riddick, however, unlike those games, it leaves you slightly un-fulfilled. It doesn't feel like a complete gaming experience and ends a little more abruptly than perhaps it should have.
As a work of art then, Stranger's Wrath is almost perfect. It looks stunning, with probably the best graphics we'll ever see on the Xbox. The characterization is incredible: voices and sounds only complement one of the most detailed worlds we've ever seen. The inventiveness in the weapons and combat is also a breath of fresh air, but there are missteps, such as the erratic difficulty and disappointing game length.
Stranger's Wrath is undeniably a great game and one that any self-respecting FPS fan should own, but it feels like so much time was spent on the look and the mechanics of the game that the structure fell to the wayside. Having said this, Stranger's Wrath is still so far ahead of the majority of the dross that's out there, it's untrue. Besides, it's a great ride while it lasts and is without question one of the most refreshing and truly inventive games to ever appear on the Xbox. It'll be a hard-hearted person who doesn't get some enjoyment out of what should rightly be regarded as a modern work of art.