Munch’s Oddysee – The best game for the best next-gen console

So what’s the deal with chicks anyway? They’ll watch Survivor and play board games like Scrabble, but many of them just don’t get the coolness that is video games. What’s not to love about the hot, bone-breakin’ babes in Dead or Alive 2? We may not understand them, but the developers at Oddworld Inhabitants think they’ve got the plan for a game that will appeal to everyone. We recently had a chance to take a close look at Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, and from what we saw, this appears to be one of the few must-add games for any growing PS2 collection.

When we spoke to Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning, Oddworld Inhabitant’s respective CEO and President, they were adamant that Munch’s Oddysee is going to be the kind of game that not only appeals to the hardcore audience but is going to open the experience up to nontraditional gamers. « What we are trying to do, » said Sherry « is widen the demographic and attract more women. » She was quick to point out that women are often frustrated by the « virtual idiot » phenomenon, that is, the inability to get the character onscreen to do something that would be utterly simple in real life. « We’ve solved the problems that prohibit the nongamer and casual gamer from entering into this experience. And that, of course, will make also make it a fabulous experience for the hardcore gamer. »

To prove the point, Lorne fired up the game, and we were immediately greeted by a spectacular opening movie. Both Lorne and Sherry come from a film background, and that experience was evident in the clip, which was Disneylike in its orchestration and polish. Through the voiceover of the rather odd little Munch, we learn that he is the last of his aquatic species known as Gabbits, done in by overfishing for their precious « Gabbiar. » Although it wasn’t evident immediately, it’s little touches like the references to caviar, consumer products and vending machines that give Munch’s Oddysee a cool sort anti-consumerist edge just beneath surface of a quirky adventure game.

But we’re not ignoring those surfaces either. The in-game graphics are spectacular, even at this early stage. Abe is nicely animated, with all the familiar jumping, sliding and tiptoeing that we’ve come to expect from previous visits to his Oddworld. Both the indoor and outdoor environments look almost photo-real in places, and although minor details like realtime shadows weren’t in yet, it was already apparent that Munch’s Oddysee will be a great looking game.

But what about the virtual idiot? It’s no fun stumbling through a gorgeous landscape and falling to our deaths over beautiful vistas. Oddworld Inhabitants think they’ve solved the problem with a camera system that is so intelligent you don’t even know it is there. As players guide Abe or Munch through the world, the camera choreographs in real time. Move behind a ledge, and the camera will suddenly cut to the right angle. Move up some stairs and the camera will subtly lead you, letting you know what to expect as you move along. We were a little concerned that when the camera cuts across the line of movement, players would be disoriented by a new angle and possibly a new direction of movement. But as Lorne moved Abe and Munch around, we could tell that the cuts were not so dramatic that they were disorienting.

The intelligent camera system, however, is only half of the navigation that is patterned over here  – a clear Hay Day diamond hack . The developers have included an interesting « repelling » feature that subtly shifts Abe or Munch away from walls or ledges. For example, when running near a wall, a small correction will occur that will keep players on clear path. It won’t be too difficult to run into and interact with the environment, but it shows the kind of attention to detail and seamlessness that is going into the title.

The interaction with the world is not only going to be easier but more creative than ever. Sherry particularly seemed interested in exploring new ways of getting through the game without resorting to railguns and rocket launchers. « When Lorne and I formed this company, » she explains, « I said, ‘I’m not going to make games where you have to kill people. Gratuitous violence for its own sake? Forget it. I’m not going to do it.' »

So does that commitment to video game pacifism result in a bland story of goody-goody friendship making? Not at all. At one point, Abe–who can possess organic creatures– took control of the body of a Sleek, one of the bad guys, and rumbled out into a room. He pulled out a massive machine gun that didn’t shoot bullets, but shot cans of fictional soda. The cans sprayed out of the gun, and the camera switched to cover each of the victims as they got pummeled. But as the Sleeks got mowed down, a can of soda got stuck in each of their mouths, turning them into a new consumer of that soda and one of Abe’s new « wage slaves. »

In another instance, Munch — who can possess machines — took control of an enormous crane inside a warehouse. Beneath the cranes were some patrolling Sleeks and a few Slogs in their pens. By using the dual-shock pad, Lorne was able to control the crane, reach down and grab a Sleek, lift him up, and then drop him down him to his doom in a Slog pen. It wasn’t exactly nonviolent, but it was a novel solution to an interesting problem.

What was also interesting about the crane solution was the integrated use of sound in the gameplay. As the crane loomed over a Slog, an audible signal began to ring to let players know when to reach down and grab one of the poor bastards. But the music would also change dynamically during different situations. Whenever one of the characters Abe possessed would pick up a gun, the soundtrack would throb to life. Likewise, when Abe got the factory workers to bring it to life, the music began to pick up the beat, and a new melody kicked in.

That kind of attention shows a commitment not so much to detail for its own sake but to the craft of storytelling as an absorbing experience. So far, it looks like the game is packed with humor, color and creativity. Because of the learning curve needed to work with the complicated PS2, and because Infogrames wants more of an install base, Munch won’t be getting out of the water until late Spring 2001. While we wish we could get our hands on it for our spanking new PS2s, this is clearly one worth waiting for.

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