Reviews

Red Dead: Redemption

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Developer: Rockstar San Diego

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Release Date: May 21st

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 like AR 15 which needs you to carry upper parts for AR-15’s 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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June 2nd, 2010
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News

Weekly News Round-Up 23/3/10

I’m a tad behind on the latest news since my last full article about GDC ’10, which had a record breaking 18,000 attendees, having had a recent power outage, but fear not! The gaming goodness is now here and fit for consumption!

Heavy Rain's DLC features Madison Paige

On the DL

A number of released and unreleased games are getting the DLC treatment – it seems it’s the only way forward for any half-worthy franchise. Peter Johansson, lead designer on Just Cause 2 announced forthcoming DLC, following the game’s release on March 23rd, yet he insisted the content already existent in the game is, to say the least, extensive, he qualified this, in an interview with Eurogamer, by bragging he’d completed only 60% of the game, but had racked up 55 hours. Modern Warfare 2 is getting it’s first “stimulus package” to cure sufferers of Mapathy on March 30th for Xbox Live, at a whopping 1200MS – unfortunately healthcare insurance doesn’t cover this one. The map pack includes Crash and Overgrown from CoD4 so you can relive the glory days/nights! And to top it off, a double XP system will be put in place the following weekend April 2nd – 5th. Dragon Age: Origins has a new expansion out titled Awakening and Bioware teased, that in theory, they could release infinite DLC packs like this. Finally, Quantic Dream’s interactive depression title, Heavy Rain, is receiving its first DLC, named The Taxidermist. The content revolves around Madison Paige, and acts as a short prequel story for the character.

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Gaming Blues

Unfortunately the recession is still rearing its ugly head and indeed, backhand, as the recent weeks have seen a number of layoffs – our thoughts go out to them. Rebellion, perhaps most famous for its recent Alien Vs Predator, handed pink slips to around 20 of its staff in Oxford, UK and IGN has reportedly also, been forced to let a number of its junior members ago, despite recent financial success for the media company. However there is one man we’re not sorry to see the back of , Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, famous in the Australian gaming community for his refusal to allow a R18+ game certificate, and vehement battle against video games. Fortunately the over-sensitive Atkinson has stepped down.

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360 Degrees worth of Xbox-ness

Microsoft are always looking for ways to fiddle with Xbox and thereby make more cash and occasionally, genuinely improve our experience, so here are a few rumours/updates. According to a report by Joystiq, the 360 will be receiving a firmware update this spring. The document they claim to have a hold of states “USB Mass Storage Device Support on the Xbox 360” so be sure to check back here for updates on that. In addition, Microsoft are releasing a 250GB standalone 360 HDD, as advertised on the Xbox Dashboard.

Send off your 360 with dignity

A patent, filed by Microsoft back in 2008, for a streamlined DLC system for Xbox Live, has now been approved. The system apparently lets you download available content without having to leave your game lobby, so you can jump in with friends even if you don’t have the content prior to joining the lobby. Presumably this will be pushed out the doors fairly quick now the patent’s approved. Also, the Xbox Live Marketplace release schedule for the next week or so has been revealed and is here.

Finally, Daniel Ek of Spotify, the music service, reportedly told SXSW goers that he’d like to see Spotify on the 360. Granted this is not news, really, or even a rumour – but I signifies that there’s a good chance of this becoming a reality. Ek said that he wants to make music like water, and though personally I’m not keen on it being sole reason the human race and life exists on earth, but you get his meaning.

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DRM Woes

Steam UK is now without the friendly Italian assassin we know and love, as a number of Ubisoft’s main titles that use the much-maligned DRM software, including Assassin’s Creed 2, have been removed. Despite speculations that this decision was taken by Valve due to the controversial DRM, and Gabe Newell’s stance on the subject, Ubisoft told VG247 that it has “nothing to do” with the DRM issues and is simply a business decision, that only applies to the UK.

Command & Conquer 4: Tiberium Wars was released last week, and it was proudly announced it had, in fact, no DRM – fantastic you’re thinking, however it does require an Internet connection to play at all times. It’s a shame to see any franchise follow in the steps of Ubisoft, as this software is damaging to the market; pirating is a problem, but other large companies like Valve manage to get along alright – in fact if every company could be something like Valve we’d live in a better, albeit quirky world.

We do have one partial victory though – in Battlefield: Bad Company 2’s most recent patch, all DRM was dropped from Steam-purchased copies, in DICE’s ever increasing effort to impress the cool kids (and it’s working).

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Bad Company Fights Back

So speaking of Bad Company 2, although it’s nothing like Modern Warfare 2, it seems to have pitted itself against it. The first person shooter, having sold 2.3 million units, and topped March sales records in Europe and North America, released a public service announcement video the other day:

In case you missed it, the video pokes fun at Modern Warfare 2’s original video F.A.G.S. PSA, which was pulled after complaints over the obvious. On top of this, DICE plan to release a playlist update for all original owners of the game free of charge (part of Project Ten Dollar) on March 30th in direct (and fierce) competition with Modern Warfare 2’s exorbitant map pack, and plan to release paid DLC in the near future. I thought DICE’s decision to release Bad Company 2 in March when MW2 was beginning to become a tad samey, was a savvy decision, but you’ve got to respect them for going up against the behemoth this month – courage or stupidity? Either way it’ll be interesting to see how the two battle it out.

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BioWare

My beloved BioWare are now busy at work extending Mass Effect 2’s universe and experiences with DLC and after having seen what Greg Zeschuk had to say at GDC, that, as he put it, “It’s [DLC] not like a piece of lunch meat”, but rather part of a long term vision, to extend the lifetime of the game for consumers and publisher alike, after having put so much work into the original game – I’m fairly confident we’ve got some galactic delights in store. First up is Firewalker hitting tomorrow, March 23rd, on the Cerberus Network with the new Hammerhead Tank and 5 accompanying missions, then there’s a character appearance package for Thane, Jack and Garrus on the same day but (unfortunately) for $2 and finally Kasumi’s Stolen Memory on April 6th, for a modest 560MS. Additionally, if you’re interested in some input from BioWare about how Mass Effect 3 will shape up, there are a couple of articles here and here, thanks to VG247, explaining the company’s development and teasing their approach to the final instalment.

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For Your Consideration

There are a number of high profile games in development due for release this year or early next year, and GDC brought the chance to get a better idea of how each developer is tackling their game, so here’s some updates and articles, mainly thanks to VG247, again.

–> Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor, EA’s answer to Call of Duty, despite lacking a much-needed “u” in it’s title, is under full-swing development at the moment and apparently has “cool toys” and aims to portray a number of different viewpoints in the Afghanistan war.

–> Killzone 3

Guerrilla Games, creators of Killzone, are convinced they haven’t pushed the PS3 to its limits yet, in terms of graphics, and presumably mean to implement said visuals in Killzone 3 which has been promised by Jack Tretton, though release date rumours range from April to 2011.

–> Halo: Reach

Bungie recently released some details on Halo’s swan song, Halo: Reach, in regards to matchmaking – undoubtedly fans will be obsessing over each scrap of information as we speak, such are that strange breed.

–> Fable 3

Peter Molyneux, aside from other daily activities such as proclaiming the rise of the PC again, praising Quantic Dream and promising the first thing that enters his mind, has recently tweeted that he’s worried about the first 30 minutes of Fable 3 due to a lack of combat. In other Fable 3 news there will be twitter support, episodic content and one last “big” reveal at E3 (I ask to readers, for sanity’s sake to take “big” with a large handful of salt, due to source material).

–> Rockstar

Rockstar co-president Dan Houser, in the most recent issue of GamesTM, stated that developing Red Dead: Redemption has been “challenging”, despite the company’s vast experience. Additionally, speaking to Edge, Rockstar has said that LA Noire is taking a different approach to the usual Rockstar open-world game, relying less on action and more on interaction other subtleties. It’s fantastic to see Rockstar pushing itself, to be original but also build off of it’s unique and unquestionably brilliant sandbox-gaming heritage.

–> Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare, regardless of its other strong franchises, are taking on what is clearly it’s biggest undertaking, (its first MMO) Star Wars: The Old Republic. EA aim to secure 2 million subscriptions for the game due to be release in a year’s time, though I suspect, if VG247’s early preview is anything to go by, it’ll be a lot more than that and may rival World of Warcraft. CEO Ray Muzyka, teased that TOR will have some “twists” regarding payments, but added that it will mostly follow the traditional business model of MMORPGs, and the twists will be well integrated into the story and mechanics. With things like micro-payments being a contentious issue for many hardcore MMO players, who makeup a large percentage of the market, BioWare will have to be careful about how they handle this – lets hope their passion for story and great gameplay will makeup for lack of experience in this particular genre.

–> Sega

The once great Sega are apparently announcing a Natal Project at E3. Its unkown with it will be a new IP or whether they will bring back a much-loved story from the many in the depths of their games history. And Lastly, creators of the upcoming third-person shooter, Vanquish, Platinum Games of Sega, are to make a PS3 version first, before the 360, because the Playstation 3 is untrodden territory for Sega, and thus they want to avoid a “shoddy” port.

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Odds & Sods

Every week there are a number of odd bits of news I can’t justify a whole section on nor think of a brilliantly unfunny title for. Try to read the following as TV news headlines with epic music in the background.

  • According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Microsoft is already developing a Natal 2. [This probably isn’t as surprising as it sounds, if it is true, as it’s most likely internal development that’s taking place all the time at the company’s headquarters – it’s unlikely to stay stagnant just because the Natal’s almost ready.]
  • Game Informer have yet more scoops on the Portal 2 world, now with new characters, including new loveable sentry bots.
  • The movie adaptation of Kane & Lynch is to star none other than Bruce Willis (that sounds about right) and Jamie Foxx (wait, what?), respectively.
  • GameStop will reportedly have shortages of Wiis and PS3s until the summer, according to the company’s Executive VP of merchandising, Tony Bartel.
  • Nintendo have are due to release the 3DS in March next year, to support 3D gaming, with a sharp screen and analogue sticks.
  • Vice President of Epic Games, has confirmed there will be no Gears of War this year, in order to stay out of the way of blockbuster titles and the Natal. [When questioned on the April 2011 rumour he answered, “you’re kidding right?” – take what you will from that]
  • The Playstation 3 is the heaviest console of all time.
March 23rd, 2010
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