Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath was, if you asked the right people, the “secret best” Xbox game. In the day when first person shooters were Halo, Half-Life, and Call of Duty clones, Stranger etched out his own unique gameplay, with an eclectic mixture of platforming, shooting, and exploration, all set in the backdrop of an alien wild west. It had the unfortunate luck of hitting right before being swallowed up by the looming shadow of the Xbox 360; a game seemingly lost to the ages, not supported by the Xbox’s backwards compatibility because by the time that became a “thing”, Oddworld Inhabitants’ own Lorne Lanning had washed his hands of the videogame industry. Stranger’s Wrath was his swan song, and with Oddworld Inhabitants having closed shop, any hope of Stranger appearing on any console but the original Xbox was basically impossible. Almost immediately, the Xbox was pushed in to a shallow grave and summarily buried - and so too was Stranger’s Wrath, albeit unintentionally.
That was going to change, when in 2009, a company based out of England called “Just Add Water Developments” (or JAW for short) announced they had acquired the rights to port Stranger’s Wrath not only to the Playstation 3, but most importantly the PC, as well. Their port would feature upgraded, modern graphics, achievements and other amenities. Stranger was given a second lease on life - and I viewed this as my opportunity to finally see what Stranger’s Wrath was for myself. What felt like years went by, with only a few concept renders being released, showing that their new Stranger’s Wrath HD assets not only matched, but possibly even surpassed the visual quality seen in Stranger’s pre-rendered full motion video. Nothing. No gameplay footage, no screenshots. Nothing at all.
Sometime in 2010, it was finally revealed that not only would Stranger’s Wrath be coming to the PC, but that JAW would be also bringing with it a first-time port of Munch’s Oddysee. Both Stranger and Munch would be bundled together with the previous two PC releases of Abe’s Oddysee and Exodus, forming the four-game “Oddbox”. In addition to all of that, JAW was now apparently the sole proprietor of the entire Oddworld franchise, and would be making announcements for a brand new Oddworld game “soon”. I had owned Abe’s Oddysee on the Playstation in my younger days but found the game too difficult and sold it to buy Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It was one of the only times in my entire life I had actually took some games in to a used game place and got cash for it, and it very quickly taught me that despite walking in there with like six or seven Playstation and Saturn games, I would barely get enough money to cover the purchase of one (heavily discounted and pre-owned!) game in return. That was fine, I was at an age where I saw games like Abe’s Oddysee (and other games broken from the Prince of Persia mold) as being archaic and busted in the face of much easier to control platformers like Super Mario Bros. Being rid of it was no skin off my back, though as I grew older, I really began to wish I could go back and revisit the game. With the Oddbox, I could kill four birds with one stone and be caught up on the entire Oddworld legacy. The Oddbox finally dropped just before Christmas 2010, and sight unseen, I not only bought a copy for myself, but even gifted Stranger’s Wrath to a couple of friends. This, I thought, was going to be awesome.
And then it wasn’t.
The first and most immediate problem was that of performance. Despite being a five year old console game, Just Add Water’s port of Stranger’s Wrath was not friendly to aging PCs. My PC hardware at the time wasn’t exactly the greatest - I was poking along with a 3.2ghz Intel Celeron processor and a GeForce 6600, and at the game’s default resolution (640x480), I was getting single digit framerates. The game was simply unplayable. To put this in perspective, however, the Xbox was running hardware from 2001 - while the PC I was running was dated by 2010 standards, it was at least five times more powerful than the system that Stranger’s Wrath originally launched on in 2005, and I was getting single digit framerates. No graphical options were available to tweak, save for one single variable upon starting up the game that let you set the game’s resolution (with only three settings: “Low”, “Medium”, “High” and “Ultra”, with no indication as to what resolutions those options corresponded to). JAW sounded off, stating that their in-office testing PC, a dual-core system with a GeForce 8600, could run the game in 1024x768 at 30fps, and they felt that was more than adequate, even smugly noting that there were those on Youtube that were “jumping to their defense”.
Obviously, others didn’t. After many complaints and patches, Stranger’s Wrath finally had a proper menu for setting the game’s resolution and a moderate boost in performance. As it turned out, the entire problem was something endemic to the Xbox hardware. You see, the first Xbox was basically just a bunch of off-the-shelf PC hardware thrown in to a box and called a videogame console. Games on the Xbox even ran on a specialized version of Direct X - one that was similar, but not identical, to the one being used by Windows at the time. Thinking they were similar enough that it wouldn’t matter, JAW made the boneheaded decision of porting Stranger’s Wrath over more or less verbatim, with much of the original Xbox shader code still intact. When that shader code began looking for specific functionality that existed on the nearly decade-old Xbox hardware but was no longer available on modern-day PCs, the game began to suffer from crippling, unplayable slowdown. A few of the worst offending shaders were identified and summarily re-written, and the game’s framerate more than doubled. Stranger’s Wrath still wasn’t running as smoothly as one would expect a five year old game to, but it was running well enough for most.
Unless you were on Radeon hardware. When I upgraded my PC hardware in April 2011, I switched from nVidia’s GeForce to an AMD Radeon.
Just Add Water had ported Stranger’s Wrath to OpenGL. In recent years, OpenGL has fallen out of favor with some; there were questions as to whether or not it would even be supported in Windows Vista, as Direct X was primarily the 3D rendering solution supported by that operating system. Still, some held on to OpenGL, and the graphics rendering format is still popular enough that iD Software’s Rage displays using OpenGL. But if there was somebody out there who really did not like meeting OpenGL standards, it was AMD. AMD’s Radeon graphics cards have had issues rendering OpenGL for years, and despite cries from consumers and developers alike to get their act together and fix it, they refuse to stick to the OpenGL specification. This causes incompatibility problems with some games - Rage launched more or less broken on Radeon hardware, and given that Stranger’s Wrath was ported to OpenGL, it too was basically unplayable on Radeon graphics cards. When confronted about this issue, JAW stated they got in contact with the Radeon tech team about the matter, pointed out what exactly was wrong with their OpenGL support, and were summarily given the cold shoulder. Rather than go in and write specific compatibility for Radeon graphics hardware, JAW opted to let their game stay broken, citing Rage’s example and how id Software apparently never patched their game to work Radeon hardware either (see this NeoGAF post by the JAW CEO under the name “GoldenHelmet”).
Except Rage was eventually patched to work on Radeon hardware.
Stranger’s Wrath wasn’t.
You’d never know it judging by the Just Add Water twitter account, which very quickly shifted gears to talk about other subjects. JAW also took it upon themselves to handle tech support for an equally botched PC release of Munch’s Oddysee (so botched that the initial release even contained menus prompting users to “Exit to Xbox Dashboard”). JAW would eventually vow to do an HD touch-up for Munch’s Oddysee, much like the one they were doing for Stranger, and on top of that, their promise of a “New Oddworld Game” would be fulfilled with the announcement of a full HD reboot for Abe’s Oddysee at some point in the indeterminate future. Stranger’s Wrath HD was released on the Playstation 3 to critical acclaim, something JAW celebrated on their twitter account for months after release. A Vita version of Stranger was announced. Supposedly, the PC update that would enable all of the Playstation 3’s HD remastered visuals would come with a complete Direct X re-write of the game, fixing the previously noted OpenGL graphics corruption. But when would that be? Days passed. Weeks passed. Months passed. No update on the PC version.
But there was still hope. A tweet revealed JAW had an announcement to make on Wednesday. Yesterday. Stranger’s Wrath’s long-awaited update would, just five months shy of two years, be finally coming to the PC. Right? Maybe?
At 10:32pm Wednesday night in England, the JAW twitter account updated to say that there would be no announcement made on account of the staff being overcome with “illness”. What exactly would this announcement have entailed, production-wise, that would be so stressful on potentially sick staffers? And if they were so sick as to delay this announcement, what were they doing on twitter at 10:30 at night? Wouldn’t it have been prudent to send a “sorry, not today” message out before it was approaching midnight if you knew ahead of time that you would be too ill to push out the announcement? And are you seriously going to tell me that this sickness has seriously laid out every single person on staff at JAW to such a degree that nobody could make the announcement? Somebody over there was well enough to be using Twitter. Was nothing prepared ahead of time?
While I’ve spent the majority of this blog talking about Stranger’s Wrath being busted all of this time, it’s also worth mentioning that both Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exodus also immediately crash on start up, likely because they are 15 year old PC games and were never updated to run on anything newer than Windows 98. Despite this, they continue to be sold for cash money on Steam despite the fact they are totally and completely unplayable without installing some kind of unsanctioned, third-party hack that forces them to run in windowed mode. This isn’t even considering Munch’s Oddysee, which due to the frustration I’ve experienced with the whole rest of the “Oddbox” package, I haven’t even bothered to try and install because I’m pretty sure that it also will not work.
I’m usually a pretty patient guy - especially when it comes to hassling companies and corporations; I just don’t usually care enough to deal with the zombie trapped in a phone tree maze just so my complaints can get ignored by somebody who doesn’t see my problem in his binder full of pre-scripted solutions and therefore does not care. But my patience is gone. I paid for four games almost two years ago, and 3/4 of those games don’t work, and have never worked. It is patently ridiculous. At this point, I legitimately feel like JAW owes me a lot more than simply a stupid patch, because they have wasted both my money and a staggeringly massive amount of my time. In the time it has taken them to make this Stranger’s Wrath PC patch, studios have developed and released whole entire games from scratch. When put in that perspective, I am flabbergasted.
I advise you to think twice before you dare buy anything that features the “Just Add Water LTD” logo.