Ten Years

About a decade ago, back when I actually enjoyed my day job, I used to work as a contractor. I was good value for my employers, and I went out of my way to maintain a morally consistent stance when it came to the tools of the trade – the thing about contractors, I (and the tax office) argued, was that they provided their expertise and tools to their employers.

So I had all my own hardware, and bought all my own software. Anything that was required, I bought – that seemed completely logical to me. Someone wants money for something they made? Fair enough. Hell, I even bought WinZip once upon a time – and how many people can say that?

Anyway… at the time I programmed in Object Pascal, using a fantastic IDE called Delphi. The latest version, Delphi 7, had been released in August 2002, and I’d promptly upgraded through my usual software supplier, Microway. It was a great upgrade, and I fired it up every day in joyful anticipation of the development process.

But this post isn’t about programming, or my tools of choice… it’s about gaming.

And, at that stage of my life, gaming was a very sporadic pursuit – twice a year, a game would arrive with the purchase of a new piece of PC hardware (graphics card purchases presented me with Deus Ex and Soldier of Fortune, amongst others), and I was a big patron of the Quake series; whenever a new game was acquired, I would play it incessantly until completion (usually requiring a couple of non-working days)… but between those episodes, there was precious little gaming going on. And there was certainly no video game consoles in my house. Ever since I became a C64 owner at the age of thirteen, I was a PC snob: how could a console – a toy, emphasised by the departments in which they were found in stores – possibly compete on any term with a computer?

But then, on the 9th of October, 2002, I received a phone call that would change my attitude… and most likely changed my life.

“Pete… it’s Chris, from Microway,” was the response when I answered my mobile. Chris was my regular contact there.

“Chris! What’s up?”

“Good news! You remember that competition you entered a few months back?”

I did not. I had no idea what he was talking about, and relayed that to him.

“Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “…well, when you bought your copy of Delphi 7 you were entered into a sweepstake. And you won!”

“Great!” I said, still completely unaware of what he was talking about, but excited nonetheless. “So… what’d I win, then?”

“An Xbox console,” he replied.

Now, quite honestly, my heart sank a tiny little bit upon hearing that. My head had gone racing ahead with ideas like “ten year MSDN subscriptions!” and “a new monster PC workstation!”… so the reality felt a little less impressive. Still, the gears started grinding, and I figured I’d be able to sell the Xbox to one of those silly console “gamers” at work and pocket a couple of hundred bucks.

After a bit of stuffing around – Chris wanted me to clear the prize-winning with my manager, which wasn’t really a problem due to my self-employment – the Xbox was given an address, and dutifully shipped.

It came into my possession on Thursday, October 10, 2002. Ten years ago today.

I thought I’d give it a look, and unboxed it, hooking it up to my TV. The weight, the textures, the styling of the Xbox was fantastic – it felt significant, and the controller (an original Duke) felt like a weapon. The rumble of the Xbox boot sequence tantalised on a bass-rumbling level, too.

But… there was no game to play. I thought these things had always come with a pack-in game? So – off to the local video store, only to discover that they only stocked PS2 and N64(!) titles. Into the city I went, to the closest department store; their range was brash and colourful, and the names meant nothing to me. But then, at the bottom of one green-tinged case, I spied a logo: “Bungie,” it said.

Years earlier, I’d played a demo of Marathon on my Macintosh IIvx – I’d loved the tone and feel of it, but not enough to go out and buy it in the software-starved Mac market of the mid-nineties. But that flicker of recognition encouraged me to pick that game up, purchase it, and wander home, curious as to how one could possibly control an FPS with that massive controller.

By the end of that weekend, I was convinced: it was doable. In fact, it was more than doable… it was perfect.

I was not merely convinced… I was converted.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath

Stranger’s Wrath, another visitation into the Oddworld, is one of those anomalies in gaming that sadly transpire a little too often; despite being well received by critics and punters alike, precious few outside those that actually submitted their Metacritic reviews have ever heard of the game. And that’s a massive shame, because all those rave reviews are thoroughly deserved.

The player’s introduction to the game is a nice, gentle tutorial which still makes you feel like you’re involved in the action, and not just biding time until the game proper starts. The character of Stranger, a likable ornery bounty hunter who speaks more through gruff tone than words, uses the much-vaunted live ammo (critters collected from the environment) in both first- and third-person viewpoints. Progression is marked through the bountying of bosses, with a well pitched difficulty curve.

There’s not a whole lot of story behind the game, though the plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through is a corker. It’s at that point the game really opens up, too – whilst the perspective shifting boss rushes of the early game are satisfying enough (including some great on-rails shooting action, leaving the player prone in a rollicking mine cart), the end-game contains some glorious change-ups – there’s some sublime row-boat action, and a race-against-time that’s reminiscent of Halo‘s triumphant finale.

Everything about Stranger’s Wrath screams quality: visuals are almost without peer on the Xbox, there’s gorgeous voice acting and perfect mood-setting music, and the control of Stranger is perfect; he’s got a wonderful weight to him, and shaking off your damage to “recharge your shield” is a nice touch. The environments are also stunningly realised: it’s hard to think of a game with such a lavishly realised world that contains so much incidental stuff, so much detail that creates an utterly immersive environment. Trotting down to the waterfront in Mongo Valley for the first time yields a beautiful sight, all green foliage and blue skies reflecting off the river… it really made me ask myself why we needed a next generation at all.

In fact, there’s so much outside the linear “game” to see and do in Stranger’s Wrath that I played through it twice in close succession. I rubbernecked like a tourist, I herded the residents of Buzzarton into the sewers, I checked out the spaghetti-western inspired graphics filter, I went to key locations early to hear Stranger’s wry comments on what-was-to-come. But there came a point where the difficulty got to the stage where I wasn’t afforded my look-at-all-the-pretty-scenery-time; so out came the cheat codes (it was my second run through, so I didn’t feel too guilty about that).

And, whilst the cheat codes allowed me to explore the environments without fear of death, there’s one thing that they did not do – hinder the sheer fun provided by the game. Stranger’s Wrath encourages a sense of play that is rarely seen – far from holding your hand as you tackle a particularly tricky bounty mission, you’re left to flounder with little assistance. But this is nowhere near as frustrating as it may sound, such is the balance of the weaponry – there’s always an easier way to get the job done, a different tack that can be taken, more moolah to be earned. Replayability is assured, with the option to try and capture your bounties alive (rather than safely killing them from afar) or to leverage different weapons’ strengths.

If you hadn’t guessed yet, I loved Stranger’s Wrath. As mentioned before, it really makes me wonder why we needed the next-generation of gaming machines at all, and (along with Psychonauts) is an amazing example of why gameplay is king. It’s just a massive shame that it was missed by the vast majority.