Bungie are known for one thing and one thing alone: Halo. Sure, Destiny looks like it may well change their, erm, destiny, but Bungie will forever be linked with Master Chief and his endeavours. Thing is, Chief wasn’t the only iconic lead character that Bungie created – and he’s far from their most original.
The third-person-shooter genre is now a mainstay of the release calendar with heavyweights such as Uncharted and Gears Of War rubbing shoulders with the big-boys of FPS. But it wasn’t always so: others had to lead the way and Oni was a landmark title. In 2001, no-one had blended accomplished third-person-shooting with complex hand-to-hand combat and yet Oni managed both masterfully. Even today it holds its own alongside contemporary efforts, outshining them in certain places.
Not sure a special move’s going to get me out of this!
Set in the not-too-distant future, there are overtones of Judge Dredd and Highlander woven into Oni’s plot. The world is now a single, police-state with its citizens living in fear of the toxic, outside environment. A perfect setting for a journey of self-discovery as you battle both the oppressive state and the nut-job terrorists. Throw in a few bizarre, playable dream sequences and you’ve got a ride that’s compelling and entertaining throughout. You even manage to save half of humanity: not bad for an afternoon’s work,
The game’s presentation was way ahead of the curve for its time and stands up remarkably well today. Bungie had a real talent for working the minimal aesthetic into their early titles to fool the eye into thinking that it was seeing something more impressive than it really was. This is especially so with Oni. Today, it feels like a minimalist, art-house downloadable title with a beautiful, Tron-esque feel to everything.
That’s going to leave a mark…
Combat is the game’s real strength with a near perfect balance of weapons and martial arts. This feels like an accomplished 2D fighter from today mixed with a side-scrolling beat-em-up of the 80s – all thrown into a third-person action-adventure for good measure. If that sounds like a tall order: it is. Yet Oni strikes a confident pose and is never anything less than supremely satisfying. Moves are extremely varied and context-sensitive so it takes some time to fully master Oni’s physical arsenal. Discovering how to pull-off a move that you happened to stumble upon a few hours before is extremely satisfying.
Genius little touches such as combat impact markers that gradually change from green to amber and finally red provide key visual feedback without tearing your eyes away from the carnage. A nod to it’s side-scrolling roots: enemies are colour-coded and reasonably limited in classes so you feel as though you know what’s coming and adjust your style accordingly – a trick that Bungie carried over into their stellar work on Halo. It’s also one of those games that, like Halo, is immensely re-playable thanks to its challenging, adaptive and engaging mechanics.
On reflection, Master Chief owes a lot of his success to the lessons that Bungie learned, and indeed mastered, with Oni. Without doubt, a significantly more ground-breaking and unique experience; this is a franchise that’s in desperate need of a re-boot. Its just a shame that Take Two presently own the rights to the IP.