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Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath

The Oddworld setting has always had a unique visual appeal that blends the grotesque with the pathetic. The controlling motif is black humor, as misshapen creatures constantly suffer as victims of their circumstances in an Ashcan School vision of an alien world. That's still present in Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath; Witness the opening movie, in which a village of tiny, bug-eyed schleps haul their fishing net out of the river, only to come up with one scrawny fish with eyes much bigger than the rest of its body. In previous Oddworld games, you'd probably be playing as one of those ugly little fishermen, but in Stranger's Wrath, you control a more virile, Clint Eastwood-esque alien bounty hunter known only as The Stranger.

The Stranger must scratch together enough money to get an operation on his knee, which has something secret and sinister wrong with it, though he runs and jumps just fine. And running and jumping is a big part of the game, which aims to blend its predecessors' platform action with a little Halo-style first-person action. It succeeds more or less brilliantly, although scooping up outlaws with your high-tech bounty vacuum pulls you out of first-person view for no good reason, and doesn't even have the courtesy to put you back into it when you're done.

But Stranger's biggest mistake in trying to flavor Oddworld with Halo is that The Stranger himself is a pushover compared to Halo's Master Chief. Sure, The Stranger can just dust himself off and heal any damage he's taken, but it has to be done manually, and there's no audio cue to get your attention when you're about to die. Nor does The Stranger show any sign he's hurting: Players will likely end up constantly glancing up at the health bar and taking their eye off the action, effectively removing themselves from it. For all of The Stranger's spaghetti-Western machismo, it can feel a bit like babysitting.

Beyond the gameplay: Oddworld games have always had interesting stories and characters, along with fantastically detailed and varied settings, and Stranger's Wrath is no exception. The extended development time of the game (over three years) doesn't appear to have been a waste.

Worth playing for: The Stranger says in the opening movie that he "never liked guns." Instead, he uses a crossbow that launches a variety of critters which you pick up along the way, from spider-like creatures that tie up enemies in silk to wiseass little talking rodents called "chippunks," which taunt outlaws into position for springing an ambush. (Does PETA object to the hurling of made-up animals?)

Frustration sets in when: You die, because you had no idea you were about to die. For the umpteenth time.

Final judgment: It's hard to denigrate Oddworld for trying to incorporate some of Halo's action glamour, especially when for the most part, it works and avoids just cloning first-person gameplay. But in a few subtle yet important ways, it falls short of creating an intense action experience.