Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: RockStar Games
Though it was Halo that made Bungie famous among console gamers worldwide, the team had been trailblazing on Mac and PC since the early Nineties with terrific games that included Pathways Into Darkness, Marathon and Myth.
Bungie surprised many of its fans during E3 2000 by showing the studio’s latest creation exclusively on banks of PlayStation 2 consoles. Not only that, but Oni was an action-shooter aimed at a much younger audience than previously. Stylistically it resided several store-shelves below the gore soaked fields of medieval Myth and the Doom-inspired splatter of first-person shooter Marathon.
Oni was the first, and last, game to come from Bungie West, before Bungie was acquired by Microsoft in June 2000. Bungie West created the PC and Mac versions, while the PS2 port was handled by Rockstar Toronto.
What’s interesting for fans of Bungie’s output since Oni is that many of the Bungie West team joined their Redmond buddies to work on the Halo series and beyond. Despite first appearances, this kung-fu-kicking adventure has more in common with the Master Chiefs, ODSTs and Guardians than you’d think. If you’re Bungie bananas, here’s why you need to own Oni…
Confession time: our only interest in Oni is because it’s a Bungie game. That being said, we’re glad such a blinkered view turned our heads toward something very special. Here is a complex combat-oriented game that incorporates gunplay and sandbox strategy. Though Oni predates super-powered hero quest inFamous from Sony and Activision’s Prototype by almost a decade, the core mechanics are arguably deeper and consequently more expressive but, most importantly, fun.
Our protagonist, code-named Konoko, is a super soldier for the Technological Crimes Task Force (TCTF) who we soon discover has enhanced abilities owing to a secret experiment. There’s a twist to the tale, as Konoko – real name Mai Hasegawa – turns rogue, investigating her past and her role in the future.
While Oni looks fairly bland alongside contemporaries Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III this is mostly a design decision as everything else is slick as can be. A short tutorial provides insight into Konoko’s manoeuvrability and combat smarts, but it’s not until you start landing punches and kicks in the game proper that the range of approaches starts to impress.
Opponents are disarmed, thrown and stomped into the ground with stunning prowess. Gunplay isn’t quite as accomplished, but the range of weapons and tools are entertaining, including plasma rifles, energy shields and invisibility cloaking to suit your play style. Oni is not a button-mashing frenzy – indeed you can only succeed throughout the bulk of the game by thinking ahead.
The most Bungie-like trait is the sandbox approach to level design, in which enemies start out roughly in the same locations but Konoko’s actions prompt them into finding alternative ways to overwhelm her. The AI isn’t amazing as enemies are a poor shot, tend to get bunched up and are prone to be thrown point-blank. However, enemy types combined with basic attack patterns give players plenty to think about.
Also Bungie-esque is the presence of friendly NPCs in some levels, similar to how the marines give support to Master Chief in Halo. They acknowledge Konoko and provide assistance by handing over useful health boosts or ammo clips, sometimes responding in humorous ways such as when Konoko over-stimulates her health with hyposprays, activating enhanced combat powers.
Though the anime approach is said to be influenced by Ghost In The Shell, there’s a much goofier side to Konoko and her support team than Major Kusanagi and Public Security Section 9. Hit the Action button out of context and Konoko randomly taunts her enemies with “You’re going to be beaten by a girl, HAHAHAH!” etc. Quips from Konoko’s Cortana-like ‘Simulated Life Doll’ Shinatama are initially hilarious and cute.
Oni falls short of true greatness owing to its lock-and-key progression combined with samey combat routines throughout mostly industrial facilities. It was criticised for not having its promised multiplayer mode, and the concept of an online beat-’em-up with weapons and arena agility could’ve been awesome. In all other respects, though, Bungie hallmarks are unmistakable.
Why It’s A Future Classic
From recognising the voice of Jacob Keyes to hearing familiar sound effects – and some claim, animations – from the world of Halo, Oni is a geek-out opportunity at the very least for Bungie aficionados.
Overall it’s the typically understated though satisfying visual effects, sound design and narrative approach that proves so satisfying from Bungie old-timers. Programmer Chris Butcher (now technical director on Destiny), designer Hardy LeBel (lead on Halo: CE) and writer Hamilton ‘Hambone’ Chu (lead producer of Halo: CE) all leave their metaphorical calling cards throughout Oni. You also get a terrific musical score from no less than Martin O’Donnel, Michael Salvatori and Paul Sebastien, which for some could be worth the price of admission alone. On a serious note though, Oni truly is an important part of Bungie history that cannot be ignored.