james debate
james debate

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Developed by Rockstar San Diego
Published by Rockstar Games
Genre Sandbox, 3rd Person action adventure
Platform Xbox 360, PS3
Release date(s) Out Now

It's long since been taken for granted that any game released by Rockstar is going to be hyped as a contender for game of the year, especially when their last game GTA4 was widely praised by critics as one of the finest games ever created (not an opinion I share, though it is very good). Now they take the classic GTA formula and attempt to give it a WIld West twist with Red Dead Redemption. There will be spoilers.

red dead redemption

Many people probably won't remember, but Rockstar have actually tried this once before with Red Dead Revolver which came out 6 years ago to mixed success. Fortunately it seems that they have learned a lot since then.

Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, an ex criminal trying to go straight who is being coerced by the Government to track down some of his old gang mates in exchange for his freedom. In typical Rockstar fashion the story telling is engrossing and the writing of a uniquely high quality compared to other videogames and indeed compared to many films. You won't be disappointed as once again the Rockstar writers manage to deliver twists and emotion, purveyed by interesting characters and satirical observations.

In addition, the voice acting is top notch (with one major exception) and the musical score is probably the best I've ever heard in a game, including a track by none other than José Gonzalez, who you might remember from this. Honestly one of the best things about this game is that through the music, the visuals, the writing and the ambiance, they have really captured everything you love about the old west in a way that has rarely been done, especially in a videogame. And you will frequently see references and homages to classic Westerns and timeless films.

But in the end this amounts to very little unless the game itself lives up to expectations.

I'll begin by describing the activities of one of my early days in the game. Woke up at 9AM in MacFarlane Ranch (one of the earliest locations) and around me I see people going about their morning business; women are washing clothes, cattle are being herded, and one man is playing fetch with his dog. I unhitch my horse and ride over to the nearby town Armadillo through the morning sun.

Along the way I run into one of the game's many random encounters, in this case a shootout between rival treasure hunters in the middle of the dust choked desert. Upon my arrival some of them turn their guns on me and suddenly I'm drawn into the conflict, but in a matter of seconds I've dispatched all the remaining men. Rooting through the carnage for valuables I find a chest, which upon closer inspection contains a treasure map. Back at the town I head to the shop and sell some of the goods I've picked up and replenish my ammunition. I see one of the town deputies nailing a sign to the train station, upon closer inspection it's a wanted sign for a cattle rustler. I hunt him down, hogtie him, and bring him back to the authorities alive for extra pay.

I then retire to the saloon to spend my earnings, and after having a drink and winning a few hands of poker, I'm back off to the ranch. By the time I return it's the early evening, and being that the ranch is in need of a good night watchman, I help out for a little extra cash, in which I bring a man to justice before he is able to steal one of the ranch's prize stallions. Then, content with my day's work, I sleep.

The key thing here is that one can, and will, go through days like this without even touching the main part of the game, the missions. The brilliant thing about Red Dead Redemption is that there is so much to do that you can spend days at a time playing this game without progressing at all, and it won't get boring.

For starters, the game world is absolutely huge. It is divided into three regions, each of which is further subdivided. You begin the game playing in New Austin, a lazy, dusty region inspired by the American south-west with regions representing Texas and the deserts of California and New Mexico, complete with mines and ghost towns and ranches.

Then you head south across the river to Nuevo Paraiso in Mexico, a more lively and dangerous region filled with desperados and Latin passion, where you will frequently come into contact with the Mexican army and revolutionaries.

Finally you end up in West Elizabeth, a more civilised area which attempts to bring to life the more Eastern territories, with lands that vary from grassy plains and blossoming trees to thriving port-towns and snowy forested mountains. Needless to say this provided a great variation of scenery during the game.

One complaint that was commonly levelled at GTA San Andreas was that the wilderness which connected each town was too empty and lifeless, a complaint you won't hear with regards to Red Dead Redemption. This world is teeming with life, with many different locations, a variety of animal life (at least 34 different species), people going about their business, and many side missions.

But the real stroke of genius is the random encounter system. There are as many as 100 unique different random encounters which can be seen in various locations and random times. These encompass a variety of activities, such as breaking up fights, saving people in the wilderness from animal attacks, being challenged to a duel or hunting challenge, being mugged, catching criminals, or even just coming across other travellers who have set up camp and want to invite you to hang out for a while. And crucially, this system is balanced in such a way that these encounters occur often enough to keep the game lively, but not so often that they seem forced.

The developers have also added one of the key things that was missing from GTA4, a proper jobs system which enables you to keep earning money even after the main missions have ended. This includes night watch jobs, breaking horses at ranches and bounty hunter missions, all of which are pretty fun.

In addition you have what are called the "ambient" challenges. You see, in this game you can hunt all of the many species of animal life and then skin them in order to harvest hides, teeth, fur or what have you and sell it at shops. There are also a variety of herbs and plant life throughout the world which can be collected and sold. The game gives you a series of challenges for hunting, plant gathering, as well as sharpshooting and treasure hunting. Completion of these challenges will unlock certain secrets and abilities, for example finishing the hunting challenges gives you the ability to make meat vittles from animals you hunt which you can then use to replenish your health.

Then there are the mini-games. In towns all over the game you can join in on poker, blackjack, arm wrestling, liars dice and more. These are not just fun, but really addictive. I've wasted far too much time playing poker (partly why I took so long to review this game). These games vary from location to location as well, with more high class locales offering higher stakes tables and more intelligent gamblers.

A lot of work has been put into the horses in this game as well. Not just because the look amazing and are well animated, but there is a large number of different breeds, all of which have their own qualities and attributes. You can go out into the wild and attempt to tame undomesticated horses, or you can buy deeds at the local shop if you don't fancy the effort. The longer you ride with a single horse, the closer the "bond" you form with that horse, giving the horse greater stamina and making him more obedient.

And of course there are collectibles and unlockables in the game, including treasure, new outfits, safehouses, rare breeds of horses and rare weapons. There are also "legendary" animals you can hunt, and gang hideouts you can storm. As you can see there is a lot to do in this game.

What makes it especially amazing is that I haven't even mentioned the main part of the game! The missions follow a traditional GTA style, meet your contact, get a mission which generally involves either infiltration, escort, collection or straight up gun slinging. There are a few more unusual missions out there that I won't spoil here, particular among the side missions. One side mission in particular named "I Know You" is absolutely stunning once you get to the end and realise what was going on, one of those rare moments in a videogame that encourages you to actually think and use your imagination in wonderful ways.

There are also multiplayer modes, the pride and joy of which is the "free roam" mode. This is essentially the single player world, except populated by other human players, with it's own set of new challenges and activities.

So needless to say, this game is absolutely huge, with a potentially limitless lifespan. That is not something I've ever seen accomplished by another game. But how does it play?

The gameplay is generally pretty similar to GTA4, third person shooter with a cover system. It has been tweaked and refined and in most cases it works pretty well and is a lot of fun to play. It is especially satisfying that there is such a variety of weapon types and combat styles for you to play around with, keeping things fresh. The dead eye shooting mode (slow motion targeting) also allows for some pretty sweet gunfights. The jobs and mini-games and horse riding is all mostly well done as well.

But it is not perfect. For starters, the developers have brought in this "radial wheel" weapons selection menu where you hold a shoulder button and move the analog stick to choose a weapon, a bit like in Mass Effect 2. However whereas in Mass Effect the game would pause as you choose your weapon, this does not happen in Red Dead Redemption. This can be especially irritating as the game has a tendency to automatically select your lasso, so if you find yourself ambushed randomly in the desert, you have to faff around with radial menus for about 10 seconds in order to get the right gun and load it up to fire, by which point you're probably dead.

This issue is exacerbated by unnecessarily slow and clunky menus. The designers felt the need to add all kinds of cool dissolve and animation effects when you bring up a menu, which means a simple setting change which should take 2 seconds might take more like 20. It sounds slight, but trust me it gets very annoying after a while, especially in the middle of an intense part of play. Since the natural instinct will be to get through the menus as quickly as possible, you will invariably end up pressing the wrong button at one point or another while the game's lagging menus struggle to keep up with you, requiring you to faff about even more.

By far the biggest issue I have with the gameplay is the cover system. Sometimes it works just fine, other times it's completely and utterly moronic. For example it is often unclear as to what constitutes "cover" and you can spend a few seconds mashing the cover button only to find nothing happens. This is made even worse by the fact that the game is often quite picky about where you have to be standing in relation to an object in order to "activate" cover. This means that it can take far too long to get behind an object for cover, and a long time before you realise that you can't actually take cover behind this particular box which for some reason is so different to every other box lying around. In addition, this strange cover selection sometimes results in your character taking cover on the wrong side of an object in plain sight of bad guys.

It can also take an annoyingly long time to slip in and out of cover, often with drawn out animations and slow response time, which is particularly a problem when you want to quickly move from behind one cover to another since you have to "click in" and "click out" of cover repeatedly, and that's with the picky cover selection mechanic I've already mentioned. Lastly, let's say you take cover behind a box and you have enemies on the other side of the box (unable to shoot you because of your cover) and behind you (with a clear shot at you). If you try to turn and take a shot at the guy behind you, your character will strangely stand up and get out of cover, enabling the other enemies to kill you.

All in all, while the cover mechanism works fine a lot of the time, it also has a number of issues and design flaws that can make it quite frustrating. Other games (Mass Effect) have done cover systems far better than this, though one can probably chalk that up to this game still using the GTA4 engine, which is now a number of years old.

And of course then there is the ending of the game, which is something of a love it or hate it story. Turn away NOW if you don't want to see spoilers. At the end of the last mission of the game, the writers decided to kill off your character, and from that point on you play as the character's son. It seems like a bizarre decision, to kill off a character you have spent 20+ hours getting to know, getting attached to and replacing him with a completely unknown character who you are then stuck with. In addition, this new character has incredibly annoying and whiny voice acting, no story, and only one mission (a revenge mission). The whole thing seems pretty pointless and I can imagine a lot of people not wanting to play on with such an empty shallow character, especially after the character they actually built up over the course of the game has been cruelly killed off. The only way I can see this making sense is if they are planning to bring out DLC which expands this character's story. SPOILERS FINISHED.

So as many of you will know, I love to really analyse a game in depth and pretty much tear it apart. So even though there are a few things that annoy me about the design of this game, and the roughness of certain gameplay elements, the fact that I can only find these minor gameplay tweaks to complain about should tell you everything you need to know about how great this game is.

And it is great, The cover system might frustrate, the menus might be a bit clunky, but it will barely detract from the overall experience. There has never been such a full, well realised game world as this. This is a game you could spend absolutely ages in if you wanted to, and it is all carried off with such panache that we have come to expect from Rockstar. But this goes even further, it's the best game Rockstar has ever produced, even better than any GTA. Bravo.

Endless lifespan
Well written

Sloppy cover system
Clunky menus/weapon selection
I've spend far too much time playing

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