Five by Five – Red Dead Redemption

Quick-draw duels at high noon where life and death are decided in a heartbeat. Gunfights in adobe homesteads surrounded by blood and gunsmoke. Bullets flying in dramatic chases across the desert on horseback. It’s a wonder there aren’t more games set in the legendary wild west, a setting packed with dramatic stories and violent conflict. Rockstar seems a natural fit to bring the adventures of a wandering gunslinger to life in a free-roaming adventure game. Their flagship GTA series has had increasingly massive and detailed cities with each new iteration, but how will they handle the great open plains of the old west?

The Good

The Far Country – With Rockstar’s open-world games there’s always a tremendous effort to craft a great sweeping living world. The county of New Austin is vastly different from Liberty City or San Andreas, with rolling plains and rocky mesas only sporadically dotted with frontier towns. You would think something this big would be procedurally generated but as far as I can tell the madmen actually assembled this by hand. The world is somehow both large and small at the same time; the wilderness is massive enough that it could take several minutes to ride from one end to the other, but it’s also choc full of landmarks and recognizeable terrain. You never feel like you’re just riding through endless generic wilderness. When you get up on a peak and you look across a gorge and see another mesa on the other side, you can ride over and stand atop it. The immersion of the world is also quite impressive. The land and the people will soon have you with a hand on your gun whenever someone gets your attention (tangentially, I find it quite nifty that you can switch which weapon is equipped without having to draw it). Additionally, though not being a graphics guy myself I am quite impressed with the overall look of the world. Many times I’ve been distracted while riding between settlements and looking at the way the sun comes through the clouds and the cacti cast shadows and everything. There are a few uncanny potholes along the way of course; without great buildings to hide scenery behind the player can look over miles of terrain at a time and there’s clearly evident pop-in if you watch the horizon, but it’s easily ignored with the football-field’s-worth of ridiculously-detailed scenery in your immediate vicinity.

For A Few Dollars More – Though not quite perfect, the fame/honor system in RDR seems to me to be a step in the right direction for morality systems, not far removed from the endlessly diverse and adaptable faction systems found in many MMOGs. A higher fame rating will have more people asking you for help, but also more people looking to make a name for themselves by taking you down. You can even wear a bandanna if you want to be sneaky about your reputation. You can also perform various honorable or dishonorable actions, which in turn will affect how honorable and dishonorable people react to you. If you make yourself out to be a knight without armor in a savage land folks will give you a discount in shops and even give you the benefit of the doubt if you get into a little trouble with the law. If you make yourself a terror, however, you’ll find not only the law but wandering bounty hunters chasing you down.

Once Upon A Time In The West – Rockstar’s writing is top-tier as always, predictable at times but always entertaining and filled with interesting characters. While New Austin is set in the fictional and far more exciting version of the frontier popularized in italian westerns they do also take their usual social commentary jabs at the real prejudice and brutality of the time. The days of the free-riding cowboy deciding right and wrong with his gun are coming to a close as ‘civilization’ spreads from east to west. The frontier folk see it as trading one devil for another, and the gunslingers such as protagonist John Marsden are finding themselves without a place in the new order. The well-made cutscenes seem a bit shorter than they were in GTA4, possibly in an effort to minimize time you’re not personally at the reins and keep you immersed in your story.

How The West Was Won – The scripted events used to tell this story also appear greatly improved, though it may help that the environment makes it less likely for something to mess them up. I lost more than a few mission in GTA4 because after a cutscene the getaway car I brought with me (because it seems you always have to get away from something) was traded for a different slower car or disappeared altogether, or because the enemy the tutorial pop-ups claim I need to be chasing and shooting at is invincible until we reach the necessary checkpoint and equipped with Mario Kart technology to always be X distance ahead of you no matter how fast you drive (and will speed away beyond hope of catching if you take just one corner the wrong way). In RDR I’ve had some hectic chases and gotten shot down more than a few times, but thus far a vast majority of deaths and failures were because I made a bad decision or wasn’t fast enough on the draw, challenges of gunslinger vs outlaw rather than player vs programming. Near as I can tell they’re letting the Euphoria engine do more of the work for them, which I applaud.

The Quick And The Dead – The free roaming multiplayer has a pretty good swath of options. There’s a leveling system that gives XP for pretty much anything you choose to do and leads towards assorted fun unlockables. Up to eight people can form a posse in rooms of up to sixteen players and tear around the entire game world. There’s gang hideouts full of npcs to clear, hunting areas to patrol, and of course other players trying to shoot you in the face at random. You can also use markers in the towns to jump into the assorted multiplayer modes in that particular town, or just go to the menu to hit a game and town at random. The game modes are the the usual set of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and single- and two-flag versions of CTF (dressed up as shootout, gang shootout, grab the bag, and hold your own respectively). There’s also a fun hectic free for all version of grab the bag in which everyone is competing for randomly spawning bags of gold to be delivered to assorted drop-off points in the level. I played a round of this with a gang of nine in a village at night in the rain and lightning and it was intense. The improved cover system (now actually worth using) also helps the battles look more awesome. It’s slick enough now that I can run down an alley and as I round the corner pull the stick back and hit the cover button, and the game will be smart enough to understand that I want to take cover against the corner looking back down the alley I came from. Massive bonus coolness points are also in order for for also including a system link option, sadly lacking from GTA4. There are some hitches, however…

The Bad

Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy – Compared to GTA4 the multiplayer can be somewhat clunky and lacking in options. Everyone sets their own preferences for overhead icons and aim assist, and you can’t control what weapons are on the map nor npc density. I would have also liked to have seen more interesting and/or setting-specific multiplayer modes. DM/TDM/CTF is pretty standard fare, even with the added option of carrying two bags instead of one for slower movement but a greater score. I’m always more interested in the unique modes a game’s multiplayer has to offer. I would have loved to see a train robbery mode, or perhaps have two teams fighting over a carriage on the road between two towns, trying to get it back to their home base. Free DLC is on the horizon that may indeed add something like this, but I can’t give full marks for late arrivals. I also kinda wish the lasso was available in multiplayer, but I can forgive the decision because I imagine they tried it and found it to be extremely annoying to get lassoed and dragged around for miles. Still when in doubt I’d rather have the option to turn it off and on instead of it just not being in at all, and you could always let the player cut their way out with the knife. Furthermore, it’s highly vexing that you can’t specifically pick what sort of game mode you want to play, only whether you want it to be free for all or team based. Always always always let the players pick what they want to do. Leave an option in there if folks just want to use matchmaking but dangit if we want to play a particular mode let us go do it.

The Decoy – Random events crop up on the map as you travel and the first few times you see them they add a little nice flavor to the overall stew of immersion, but there’s kind of a small variety of them and often they mean trouble. The old ‘our stagecoach broke down please help us because we’re totally not an ambush’ gag seems to show up a lot for me, though it may just be memorable because despite claims to the contrary I have never seen a non-ambush version of it.

Find A Place To Die – Like GTA4 before it, the controls still don’t handle well in close quarters. Luckily this doens’t come up often in the wide open wilderness and when you’re in town it’s usually mitigated by the smartly improved cover system, but when it does mess up it will probably end with you getting ventilated. It also tends to have bouts of bugginess, strangely possibly more common after the patch. At time of writing I’ve died at least five times now due to Marsden suddenly becoming a man of peace and deciding he doesn’t want to fire his gun anymore, standing out in the open and getting shot to death.

Forbidden Trails – Rockstar continues to perfect their worlds like finely polished gems, and though it continues to shine brighter with fewer flaws the few that remain unfortunately stand out even more. At time of writing an early patch somehow seemed to add more bugs, characters occasionally turning invisible or being absorbed into geometry. We once had to finish a gang hideout by tossing dynamite on a hill because the last outlaw was underground (but still able to shoot and kill us). Luckily the splash damage got him. I’m also vexed by a small number of slopes that aren’t climbable even though they look less steep than other slopes that are climbable, especially when the impassable slopes are knee-high. Sometimes you can vault them with the jump button but usually not. We should really be past the age of impassable knee-high walls by now; if you don’t want me to go that way, use a nice tall rock wall that’s clearly impassable.

Old Gringo – Early on John Marsden may seem like a bit of a blank slate character akin to Solid Snake or Commander Shepard with the intention that the player imprints their own idea of the character rather than seeing a pre-made story play out. Some may find the character development lacking early on and indeed my first impression was that Marsden’s development was a little lacking, but about a third of the way in it actually really picks up.

The Final Word

Let’s be honest; this entire review could be replaced by the phrase, “The Grand Theft Auto guys made a western,” and you’d be in line to pick it up. The world is well designed, the story is interesting, the gunplay is dramatic and exciting, and for the most part everything fits together well. It’s got its small list of flaws, but it does more than enough right to excuse them. It may be just a little bit too short (I’m over a quarter of the way through at time of writing), but that could work in its advantage; with the fame/honor system and the less herculean effort of completing the game I may play it twice to see how the other half lives. Both the singleplayer and multiplayer games are strong enough that they could probably make it as stand-alone games at a lower price, and the complete package is a darn good deal. Between the two versions, the PS3 version only runs at 640p to 360’s 720p, but mechanically they play the same. This one is definitely worth owning, especially if you’ve got friends to jump into multiplayer with you. Saddle up.

Red Dead Redemption was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3. Initial and current retail price is $59.99. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs. Red Dead Redemption is developed and published by Rockstar Games. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

Review was edited on 5/25/10 to reflect a retraction of an earlier opinion regarding character development.

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