OniFor a fleeting moment at the beginning of Oni's development, the game was deemed a Macintosh exclusive. While Mac gamers missed out on a chance to be smug about our new toy (PC and PlayStation2 users will be playing this game at the same time as we are), Oni has that distinctive Bungie-Mac feel and has been a long time coming. The result was well worth the wait, and it might just tide you over until Halo, Bungie's next blockbuster game, arrives.
Oni features a central female character with perfectly normal physical proportions who wears modest, even practical outfits. This jarring departure from the norms of video gaming is as refreshing as it is unexpected. Our heroine must rely on her wits, marksmanship, and martial arts skill. But this game isn't simply a sexless redux of Tomb Raider, it's a rich and full experience that innovates as well as borrows from other genres.
The plot—though we don't want to give away too much—startlingly resembles Fox's Dark Angel TV series in some respects, though Oni has actually been in the works longer than that show (and the theme is hardly unique). A young woman named Konoko, struggling with fragmented memories and gifted with genetically enhanced abilities, finds herself at the center of a conspiracy. Anime-style cut scenes and incoming messages make up the stories, which play out between and during missions. Though occasionally trite, the plot is engrossing enough and vaguely relevant to the action.
The most important innovation is the game's remarkable control system. Watching players struggle with the mouse, you might ask, "Why not use a joypad?" After all, the game's arcade nature would seem to fit console-style controls. On closer inspection, however, you'll find that Oni's control method is one of its major attractions. Using Quake-style mouselook in a third-person perspective works wonderfully, even for the twitchy close-combat mode. (What's mouselook? See "Control Freak," p47, for the answer.) A laser sight pops up when you have a loaded weapon, and the mouselook allows for pinpoint accuracy. The keyboard controls are well placed and intuitive, but a three-button mouse makes life easier by providing more control over movement than a one-button mouse can.
The weapons are split into two distinct categories, as is the conveniently located ammo. You have your choice of energy weapons and regular old ballistic guns, and finding the wrong ammo for your gun when you're in a tight spot is not funny. But the precise aim of these weapons is pure joy (although we'd expect a bolt of stellar-hot plasma to do a little more damage than making an ordinary footsoldier go "Ow"). The ballistic guns also feature realistic recoil, which causes some weapons to drift as you shoot—so you have to steady your aim on the fly.
The hand-to-hand combat is hugely enjoyable. Konoko strings together combinations of kicks, throws, and punches, and she can pick up new techniques as the game progresses. She learns these techniques from her opponents—a nice touch. The weapons strewn throughout the game make for quicker progress through the levels, but stealth and brains are frequently required. Konoko can creep silently and hide when necessary. The puzzles in each level are hardly mind bending, which is good when you want to concentrate on kicking butt. However, the too-similar look of a few levels can make it easy to get lost or confused. The game designers employed the services of an architect who obviously came straight out of Orange County, California—this is Blandsville.
The character graphics and animation are excellent, and the game runs very smoothly and quickly, perhaps a payoff. Oni cleverly eliminates clipping—a problem in many 3D games where walls and objects occasionally obscure your view—by making said obstacles transparent when they come between you and the action. It's a cool, slick, well-designed approach.
Throughout the game, your progress is saved automatically, and the designated save points are among the most convenient we've seen—although the points do make some levels a little easier than they ought to be. But for the most part, after death you pop back to the last save point with all the stuff, weapons, and energy you had before you bought the farm. You can also heal yourself with hypo sprays, found on the floor or occasionally offered by grateful civilians; this gives you a degree of impunity.
From the arcade and console world, Oni borrows end-of-level bosses—bigger, stronger bad guys whom you must defeat to progress to the next level. These guys have weapons and superb martial arts skills, and battling them in a free-roaming 3D environment requires strategy as well as timing. It's one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, but some opponents are tough enough so frustration may creep in. However, the 3D universe lets you use architecture to avoid, confuse, and trick the bad guys—for example, you can lead them into traps or perform a flying kick from a handy ledge.
The plot affects how you play the game. As Konoko learns more about her past, she also learns more about her abilities, and she gets pretty darned tough toward the end. Pay attention to the cut scenes, which provide mission hints. You can make poor choices—one really big example comes up at the end of the game—but if you choose carefully, you should do well.
We encountered some weird bugs and glitches. A couple of times the game simply refused to recognize mouse buttons, and the graphic mode change rearranges your desktop when you quit. It's wise to follow the cool instruction mode—the very first level you'll encounter—to the letter. If you try to get ahead of what Oni tells you to do, the game forgets what the heck is going on and won't allow further progress. Restarting the software solves all of these problems.
The final product is a gem—fun, rich, and hopelessly addictive. Sharp, smooth graphics assist the rapid-fire gameplay, and the cool control scheme makes the game a joy to play. Oni is a brilliant title and an instant Mac classic.