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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Red Dead Redemption (9.7/10)

As gamers we’ve played everywhere from wild fantasy worlds full of wizards and warlocks to realistic recreations of famous battles in both the recent and distant past to fun and wacky worlds where the laws of nature don’t apply and the biggest concerns revolve around rescuing princesses from psychotic turtles. But a fairly obvious locale has been conspicuously absent: the Old West. Sure, a few decent titles have been born from the genre, but none were particularly memorable… until Rockstar came along and gave us Red Dead Redemption. And let me tell you, the famed developers of the Grand Theft Auto series have done it yet again. Red Dead Redemption is nothing short of a masterpiece; a brilliant tale expertly told with all the trappings of the turn of the century American frontier for the player to explore and experience.

John Marston is a former outlaw who renounced his lawless ways. He had settled down with his family intent on living a quiet and peaceful life. But the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him, he has been pulled back into the world he left behind. An 'Agency' within the federal government has come calling demanding Marston's help in tracking down and taking out his former brothers in arms. Only then will he be allowed to reunite with his family. It's a suicide mission and Marston knows it, but he also knows he has no choice.

So Marston follows the trail of one Bill Williamson, a member of his former gang... but when he tracks him down he promptly gets shot and left for dead. Fortunately for him (and us) along comes Bonnie McFarlane who nurses him back to health. To repay her kindness John offers to help around the ranch. These initial missions teach you the basics. Practicing your marksmanship involves shooting those waskawee wabbids that are eating all the vegetables. You learn how to ride a horse by herding cattle and racing Bonnie.

If you know Rockstar's games, you know their unique mission structure. To progress through the story you must complete missions in order to open new strands and new areas. Soon Marston leaves the ranch in pursuit of Williamson but encounters a distinct lack of assistance from the locals. No one will give something for nothing... to get the information he needs, John gets caught up in all sorts of crazy situations. Read Dead is full of memorable characters who require Marston's help first in order to help him in return.

But throughout all the shenanigans, Marston never loses sight of his goal... to get back to his family. He is simply doing what he must. As the story plays out you learn more of Marston and his past... about why he is the man he is. Let me tell you, it's a truly compelling tale and a testament to how far our favorite medium has come that we can enjoy a story such as this... it's fantastic.

In true Rockstar fashion you are given a massive world to explore. Notorious for making the 'sandbox' game part of the modern lexicon, they've really outdone themselves. Your playground stretches from the scrubby prairie of fictitious New Austin (read Texas) across the border into Mexico and then back up into the plains and mountains of the Southern Rockies. That desolation is impressively captured, you really feel like your stuck out in the "Old West." From the stunning vistas to the small, iconic, "one-horse" towns, the environments are phenomenally well realized.

But don't worry, you'll meet many a colorful stranger as you travel the barren landscape. But there are strangers, and then there are 'Strangers.' The former are random "Help, he stoled me horse!" or some poor sod getting mauled by the local wildlife. You can help if you so choose. The proper 'Stranger' missions are side quests that, while optional, are much more involved with the world at large. These have cutscenes and dialogue. Be it running opium to the tired train workers in Northern Mexico, or getting a nice bouquet of flowers for an old man to give his wife on their anniversary (that one was interesting...) these are clever and worth taking the time to complete.

The sheer size of Marston's world means that accordingly much of the game is spend on horseback. Riding on horse is well done in Red Dead, but just like on a real horse it takes some getting used to... riding a horse, it turns out, is not like driving a car... cornering can be difficult!

The gun play is fun, and there is a 'snap-on' aiming assist that makes things a little more manageable (or you can turn it off if you want the extra challenge). But I love the 'Dead Eye' mechanic. It's great. Activating it sends everything into sepia tinted slow motion. You can then 'paint' multiple targets or line up headshots. Pulling the trigger returns to real time, or in Marston's case, seemingly superhuman speed and accuracy. It does take a bit of practice to really get down, but once you do it's like watching gunslingers in the old westerns... BAM BAM BAM BAM, and a quick spin of the pistol into the holster as their hats are still floating to the ground!

Graphically, Read Dead is very impressive. The environments in particular are stunning. As I rode through the prairie towards the setting sun I was surprised how isolated I felt; how alone. It’s impressive when a game can elicit such a primal response simply through its graphical prowess. The characters themselves also look good, if a little blocky up close (a complaint I’ve had with other Rockstar games). That said, the facial animations are very good, allowing the excellent voice work to really convey a wide range of emotions.

There is a lot of dialogue in Read Dead, and the voice acting is absolutely fantastic. The sound effects are great as well, although the sparse soundtrack did get a bit recycled after a while. But then, there doesn’t really need to be much of a soundtrack… the use of silence enhances that pervading sense of isolation.

Read Dead is a big game… it takes a while to get around. Fortunately Rockstar built in a ‘fast travel’ mechanic. Once you are out of a town you can then setup a campfire. Here you can save your game, change outfits or travel to any previously discovered location or a waypoint you designate on your map. It’s an invaluable tool... otherwise you’ll end up pretty saddle sore.

My biggest issue with Red Dead, and it's not really an issue, is that there is too much to do. Apart from from the main story missions, numerous 'Stranger' tasks and random NPC encounters, there is a ton of optional side content.

There are 'Challenges' and 'Costume' sidequests that you can complete as you play through the game. The Survivalist Challenge might have you collect a certain type of flower, or the Sharpshooter wants you to hit five birds in flight from a moving train. To earn part of a costume you might need to clear out a gang stronghold or even buy a swatch of cloth from the local tailor. Completing these earn you in-game bonuses like an increased Dead-Eye meter or an outfit that dresses Marston up like a bandit so other bandits won't bother him.

They are interesting little diversions, although if you are a bit OCD like I am, you'll start spending most of your time on these rather than the story. This ends up elongating the game significantly! Oh, and these challenges are... challenging. Trying to kill two cougars with your melee knife is a pain in the ass (literally, those buggers are fast and like to sneak up from behind) and trying to disarm six guys without reloading...

There are also bounties. You can collect a bounty poster, and ride off to deal with the scum. Take out all his lackeys then the mark himself. If you shoot him, no worries, just take proof off the corpse and return it to the local sheriff. Of course, you can lasso and hogtie him, put him on your horse and get him back alive for a bigger reward. But be wary, as you are riding back more of his outlaw friends may show up to try and get him back.

But it’s not all about shooting bad guys and dangerous (and delicious) animals. There are plenty of other minigames to occupy your attention. You can do everything from playing cards like blackjack and poker, to five fingered fillet or horseshoes. Hell, you can even arm-wrestle!

And what would the 'Wild West' be without dueling? The little dueling mini-game is well good, but it does take practice... you may think that getting your gun out as fast as possible is the thing to do, but if you go too early your accuracy will suffer. Even if you have your gun out first, if you are busy trying to aim your opponent might beat you to the trigger! Took me quite a few deaths at lunch to figure that out... but that said, gunning down some fool for talkin' sh*t in the middle of the street is one of the more satisfying experiences I've had with a game:^)

In my opinion Red Dead falls just short of gaming perfection. There's a definite learning curve to the controls. It's annoying when you don't realize that you still have your knife or lasso equipped when the bullets start flying. Controlling horses take some practice. Wild animals are annoying, especially those intent on eating you. Cougars suck... don't even get me started on grizzly bears!

Then there is the mission structure: it's standard Rockstar... and while some people hate it I think it's okay. Even if you stick to the plot points alone there is a still a lot to do. Some of those missions are less interesting than others; some go on too long. Also, the pacing is a bit off. It takes a while to get going, and it definitely drags a bit in the middle. The world is so big, with so much to do and so many places to discover, that it's easy to get lost in the wilderness if you'll forgive the bad pun. But all in all, these don't hamper the experience... the breadth of Rockstar's vision trumps these minor concerns.

Oh, I'd better mention the online components. I don’t play games online much, but Read Dead sounds like it would be pretty cool. I imagine getting together with some friends to raid gang hideouts would be a good laugh, not to mention challenging someone to a duel at high noon…

There have been a lot of great "stories" to come out of the gaming medium in the last 10 years. Rockstar had set the bar pretty high with some of their previous work, but the tale of John Marston sets a new standard. To my mind it is as gritty and relatable as anything we have seen in this medium. In my opinion Red Dead Redemption should go down in the annals of the Old West along with the other great titles in the genre... from classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or even Unforgiven. And John Marston should be remembered as a flawed but ultimately redeemed character alongside John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. You might think that's a bit of hyperbole, but the fact is that this is a game. By its very nature it allows a level of immersion that you simply cannot achieve with a movie. And that’s just it. Red Dead Redemption begs not just to be played, but to be experienced.


Score = 9.7 / 10

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