ODDWORLD: STRANGER'S WRATH, Electronic Arts
Stranger's Wrath leaves the Oddworld formula -- puzzle-solving games featuring a crew of grotesque yet cute creatures -- far behind. It doesn't play or look like any other Oddworld game, or almost any other game, period.
The stranger of the title is a bounty hunter who strolls into town in search of purpose, as well as the $20,000 in cash he needs for a "special" operation. (That isn't explained until about halfway through the game.) Stranger may not be as quirkily lovable as Oddworld regulars Abe or Munch, but he is one cool character. Each of his missions starts with a visit to the Bounty Store, where you choose an outlaw to hunt down.
That hunt plays out in a fast but otherwise typical third-person-perspective mode -- lots of jumping, climbing ropes and melee combat -- as well as a far more interesting first-person mode. In this phase, Stranger only has one weapon, a double-barreled crossbow that shoots live ammo. That's "live" as in alive -- you can capture nine types of creatures throughout the game and load them into your bow. For example, Chippunks, when fired into the open, will distract enemies, Boombats explode like grenades on impact, and Thudslugs knock down charging opponents. Watching these critters fidget on your crossbow is a hoot.
As with all Oddworld games, this one has its own characteristic look. Here it's all Wild West, drawn in first-rate detail from distant mountain ranges up to the beat-up shacks in dilapidated towns. -- Tom Ham
PLAYBOY: THE MANSION, Arush Entertainment/Cyberlore Studios
Some teenage boys might envy the chance to slip into Hugh Hefner's smoking jacket and slippers, but when Maxim magazine outsells Playboy, this new game's name can't ensure its success. Its content certainly won't -- the game is plagued with dated graphics, poor animation and glitches that have characters randomly levitating and walking through furniture.
Playboy is essentially a poor copy of the Sims but without blotchiness covering up its partial nudity (the Mature-rated game features virtual toplessness and pictures from past Playboy mags, plus couplings that somehow always take place with underwear on). Just as in the far superior Sims, you spend much of your time furnishing your abode and interacting with people to make new friends. Here, you have parties to host and a series of increasingly challenging dating goals -- first you're supposed to keep one girlfriend happy, then four. That aspect, however, does provide much of a challenge, as the game's look-alike women all jump at the chance to hook up with Hef.
The one part of Playboy that is fun is its simulation of the publishing business. You start from the ground up, hiring amateur writers and photographers (or doing the photo shoots yourself); if things go well, you can turn your magazine into a media empire. But odds are most of the guys buying this game aren't angling to replay that part of Hef's career.