Reviews

Red Dead: Redemption

b

Developer: Rockstar San Diego

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Release Date: May 21st

b

Gun slinging and gold mining in the old west seems, on paper, like the perfect, and indeed, most obvious context for a staple video game setting or even an entire genre, yet despite a few admirable attempts in the past, developers have all but failed in creating an animate, engaging world, reminiscent of the classic western flicks which captured the imagination of Hollywood, and continues to do so for the younger generation. So enter Rockstar, who are synonymous with, if not the fathers of sandbox, with Red Dead: Redemption, the sequel to Red Dead: Revolver, but only by name, for the original, purchased from Capcom, was never Rockstar’s game in truth.

b

I’ll say this right off the bat: It’s a Rockstar game through and through; in its mission structure, characters, and even HUD, but thankfully, this doesn’t translate to some sort of lazily re-skinned or re-hashed GTA with horses (or should I say, Grand Theft Equine…probably not). No, quite the opposite, because aside from a few noticeable similarities due to sharing the same RAGE engine, RDR creates a much more focused experience, in which all the elements coalesce in an exceptionally satisfying fashion.

b

The narrative follows John Marston, a former outlaw, coerced by the government to kill a few of his former gang members, on fear of his family’s lives. And without wishing to be cryptic, it feels as though Marston’s character is familiar yet so unfamiliar. On one hand we’ve got the hardened criminal, resolved to turn his back on his past life whether by choice or circumstance, classic Rockstar character theme, yet on the other, we’re allowed to play this man who respectfully turns down the local prostitutes and endures his often frustrating employers. In essence, our protagonist is relatable, believable and down to earth, and though I cynically predicted that, in due course I would begin to disconnect and lose interest in the character on account of a lack of quirks or flaws, he remained remarkably endearing in manner that allowed me to enjoy the surrounding world without having to justify my character within it.

b

John Marston’s exploits occur at a fascinating time in America’s history, past the turn of the century, as civilization with all its advancements and attacks on civil liberty, begins to encroach on what was previously known as the ‘wild west’, with New Austin as the last faltering haven. As such, Rockstar use this evolution as a vehicle for RDR’s overarching plot, allowing them to dip their fingers into all the juicy bits of western clichés, strategically placing all the established action scenes imaginable, from train robberies to saloon shoot-outs, while maintaining a contrasting and fresh edge to proceedings; allowing us to indulge our childhood fantasies without coming across as overly banal. After all, that isn’t their style. But Rockstar have got something to say about more than just America, leading you into chaotic Mexico, where revolution is looming, and the chief contenders aren’t as clear-cut as an ideal world would permit. This type of context is home territory for Rockstar, and they do a good job at presenting us with an interesting subtext, making us go along with the courting of certain individuals and factions, as laid out by the narrative, with an uneasy compliance. So although there’s no particularly avant-garde storytelling here, in content or style, it’s an undeniably fun ride.

b

b

As you may well have expected, New Austin and below the border is replete with many a colourful individual as per Rockstar’s usual outings, with a few of their more eccentric characters providing some welcome comic relief. Unfortunately the appearances of some of the best acquaintances, who truly had me laughing my chaps off, seem to dissipate somewhat during the middle section of the game, which is a shame, but it doesn’t represent a lower quality of script or voice acting. In actuality almost every single character, from our protagonist to your roadside hobo is brilliantly voiced. Each performance captures the nuances and tones of language of the period, and appears to be well researched, at least to my pitiful knowledge. The scripting ranges from pure genius, with the swindling and swinish travelling salesman, West-Dickens, as my personal highlight (and no doubt, others will have their favourites), to perfectly acceptable, and denotes a great accomplishment all round, which really helps to bolster a plot that I wasn’t wholly convinced by to begin with.

b

RDR’s basic controls are fairly manageable and anyone who’s played GTA (so everyone and their mum) will find movement and actions natural. My only complaint lies in the weapon selection system, which can prove a little tricky at first, especially when travelling at speed on horseback, with the right analogue stick, which would otherwise direct the horse, needed to select your chosen weapon. Other than this, the more advanced features, lassoing and dead-eye (the slow-motion target placement system) are well balanced as to require enough spur of the moment skill to feel gratifying upon success, yet remain easy enough to pickup after a little practice.

b

No longer will you be forced to daydream yourself into a vast wilderness with just your horse for company, as all grown men surely do (right?), because RDR bestows upon you a great landscape to explore, beautifully rendered and lovingly sculpted, without the trappings of modern day civilisation. Crucially, it doesn’t feel unnecessarily large either, meaning you won’t see the same building or ranch every corner you turn: a long-established immersion-breaker some developers can’t seem avoid.

b

It’s evident Rockstar have realised that travelling needn’t be some arbitrary barrier put in place to stand in as content, and have consequently made travelling large distances simple through means of stage coach or setting up a camp and travelling to your waypoint. But neither is journeying on horseback tedious. Your given mount has a pre-determined amount of stamina depending on its type, relative loyalty to you and what sort of ground is underneath it, and so pressing A nudges it along, but consumes stamina. If you expend all of it before it recharges, he’ll teach you a ruddy good lesson and throw you off, and thus you have a simple mechanic to control the speed of your horse, for which you’ll swiftly find a comfortable rhythm, that incorporates a degree of interaction so it actually feels like a living creature, and a dynamic for racing, based on how well you can pace yourself.

b

b

The targeting system is adequate, allowing you to lock on with each initial press of your aim button and while the cover system may have you glued to the wrong side of the wall every now and then, it performs the job tolerably bearing in mind you’re in massive world, and not in tight, finicky corridors. The real highlight, in terms of combat however, is the dead-eye system that allows you to place shots in slow-mo and then subsequently reel them off in a gruesomely satisfying manner, perfect for horseback combat and handy in sticky situations. Aside from a duelling system, which is a more than a tad confusing at first, the basic mechanics work well and serve to give the more glitzy features of the game a sturdy support.

b

Read Dead openly flirts with RPG elements but has no misplaced aspirations of slipping into that genre, at least not to the excessive and ultimately pointless lengths of San Andreas. An honour and fame meter cause actions to have consequences, altering the way people and shopkeepers react towards you. This means instead of the customary disconnected GTA experience we’re used to, where you’re running pedestrians over like speed bumps one minute, then in some cutscene refusing an assassination on moral grounds, you’re identifying with your character, playing as John Marston all the time, which in turn affords the narrative greater impact.

b

General mission structure for the main story doesn’t really deviate a great deal from what you’d expect, but nonetheless, the vast majority of assignments are fun and engaging, employing various set pieces help to keep things fresh. A small but nice little feature, that won’t go unnoticed, is being able to match of the speed of an NPC on horseback during missions, often on the ride out, which is ordinarily bucked up by some filler conversation; I don’t wish to labour the point, but this sort of detail really helps to immerse the player in the world, demonstrating that story and dialogue need not be bound to cutscenes. Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, actually using a much-anticipated Gatling gun was perhaps the closest I came to be being disappointed in Red Dead, because the experience was more akin to firing some sort of rotten fruit roughly in the direction of my enemies, much more easily dispersed with my own trusty rifle. Nevertheless, the quests and the miscreants they ask you to terminate are just as good as any previous incarnation based on the same game engine.

b

Giving PETA aggressive diarrhoea is the ability to hunt, glorious in its simplicity, if not satisfying for its primal appeal. There’s no discrimination either, because New Austin is positively teaming with life, from great eagles to friendly (and soon to be splattered) skunks. Save for a skinning mini-game, that some part of me inexplicably wants, hunting is a basic pleasure that provides you with materials to sell, some more rare than others, along with herb and flower picking, so you can quickly go out and buy a large gun to make up for the manliness lost in floral matters. Now shooting things, homo-sapien or not, is great, but RDR refuses to quit there and gives you the full western experience, if you will, asking you to herd cattle, and capture and break-in horses. You yourself are eased into the process well, and now I come to think it, most of the game features are introduced smoothly and without feeling contrived, which again, helps to realise the world you’re in.

b

b

The central plot and nature trails aren’t the only way to get your kicks though, thanks to a number of ancillary missions and tasks, Rockstar have stretched your playing time generously and made damn sure the west doesn’t feel one bit static or dull. These quests and mini-games come in a number of forms, from a slew of card and chance games with which to fuel your gambling habits, to spontaneous roadside shenanigans and more unique stranger quests, all of which are optional, but feel worthwhile for the fame, honour and of course, hard cash.

b

Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted how well balanced and skilfully crafted the game world is. Speeds of travel have to be taken into account, animal population, dynamic missions, NPC road-farers; the list goes on, building layers of increasing complexity, which makes even getting it to function, tricky, let alone enjoyable to play in for long periods. However, despite huge efforts on the developers’ part, it has to be said that this seemingly polished world is crawling with bugs and glitches, a very few of which are most aggravating, necessitating restarts, but most of which are inconsequential, and occasionally chap-slappingly hilarious. Fortunately, it’s an issue most, if not all, will be willing to overlook.

b

Gameplay always comes first, and indeed it has done, but by Jove does this game look pretty considering its scope. New Austin and its Mexican neighbourland are shaped beautifully with glorious textures and host numerous different species of plants. And let alone the land, our equine friends are magnificently rendered, and animated equally so. Character models also share this level brilliance in movement and design, floundering only on facial expression, in spite of top-notch lip-syncing, and the acting that goes with it.

b

To soundtrack your own wild west wonderings, Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, amongst others, have written a fantastic score, full to the brim with all the eerie chords and bendy notes you could ask for. And although it would have been truly awesome to nab some of the famous film pieces or even imitate them, Read Dead Redemption’s musical accompaniment is a brilliant and fitting achievement that easily measures up to and surpasses GTA’s innovative radio stations.

b

b

It’s an odd feeling when my very brief list of complaints counts ‘so good that you can only help but want even more from it’. But this is the case in a strange way, because each element is handled so well, so that you begin to crave more depth in every system and mechanic once you become more involved in the game, not because it’s lacking, but because it’s difficult to think of anything existing, that needs to be fixed or changed. I found myself beginning all too many sentences with “they should do this or that” knowing, in reality, that what’s there already, has clearly taken a gargantuan effort and budget. So I reel myself back into the realist state of mind I like to inhabit, but I do think they could have just developed the way in which mounts work a little further, because a greater variance in speed, stamina and constitution, and the trade-offs they would demand, would undoubtedly improve upon the already great system in place.

b

As if this wealth of content wouldn’t suffice, the game gets the multiplayer it deserves, allowing you to compete with or against your friends online, or just fuck around, incentivized by achievements and rewards in the form of mounts, weapons and characters. I’d go so far as to say the online dimension warrants a good many evenings in itself, as such shoot outs rarely get old, and if they do, waltzing round, harassing anyone who wont join your posse is clean good fun and a great substitute.

b

Whatever criticisms you can conjure up about this game, we do have to remember that the market is hardly saturated with wild west cowboy games, and ergo we should consider ourselves lucky they’ve got it so right. It sounds, feels, looks and plays like the great western flicks we know; it’s all there, without feeling like a sterile checklist of old clichés. Red Dead Redemption lays down a stark portrayal of the west in its times, from beginning to end, with cynicism that has painted an unrelenting tale you’ll find difficult to mentally detach from, ensuring this is no spaghetti western. It also boasts an impressive aesthetic, which goes hand in hand with the predominantly realistic gameplay.

b

Rockstar are no strangers to ambition, and this time round it’s safe to say they’ve hit bull’s-eye thanks to a cavalcade of gratifying gameplay experiences backed by a great, and brilliantly bountiful narrative. Put simply, if you don’t go out and get this game, you’re doing it wrong.

b

June 2nd, 2010
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