Howdy, Reader*. Welcome back to the Cave of Assessment. Pardon my groans and farts – I have some indigestion from gorging myself on the fatty carcass of another freshly-killed game. Here, skooch closer to the campfire, sit on this inflated boar bladder and sip some peyote juice while I tell you about my meal.
Rockstar San Diego has gone and made a cowboy game, Red Dead Redemption (RDR), in which you play as gunslinger John Marston during the dying days of the mythical Western frontier of America in 1910. You don’t need to know much more than that right now, as the game will ram its story down your throat anyways.
It’s real purdy
Let’s start with the game’s strengths. Rockstar understood that the West was as much about place as people, and the true star of this game is its environment.
The areas you can visit are a grab bag of Western generica – you start out in a standard “prairie-a”, move on to the red, rocky, Wile E Coyote landscapes of Mexico and end up in the forested and snowy mountains of West Elizabeth. Like in Fallout 3, the terrain has oodles of cliffs, bluffs, crevices and plateaus to navigate if you go off the beaten path.
The beauty of the landscape goes a long way to prevent Open World Travel Fatigue as you grind through the game’s story. I’m a sucker for in-game sunsets done well and they are done very well here, enough to make you stop and take in the view before you ride off into them. RDR also has some of the best virtual weather I’ve experienced … ride through a thunderstorm and you’ll get some great lightning effects with none of the real life dampness.
Not only is the environment pretty, it is populated with distractions. RDR makes a little hat tip to RPGs like Oblivion by including flowers to pick and wildlife to kill. There’s a whole ecosystem going on here with birds, little varmints like armadillos and skunks, game animals such as deer and larger predators like coyotes ad bears. There is also a variety of randomly generated encounters with humans, including bandits, treasure hunters, lawmen chasing an outlaw, a feller who’s had his horse stolen, and more besides. It’s entirely up to you whether you intervene in these vignettes. A few other traces of RPG can be found – you have an inventory, whereby you can skin dead animals and sell their bits in town, and you can loot bodies for cash and find chests.
Together with the visuals, the sound engineering makes the environment come alive.
The sound is not only good, it’s useful. I haven’t relied on sound so much for finding my way around. Many times you will hear shots ring out before you see anything and use that to locate the commotion. When hunting, you will be able to tell what wildlife is around, and where, from the noises they make. I never saw a rattler before I heard it, but I sure as shit shot it when I did.
The musical soundtrack is a minimalist blend of Westerny riffs, with some guitars, bass, whistling and the odd Morricone-ish “Boinggg”. The tone and style of music changes as you move between areas – you’ll notice Mexico is decidedly trumpety – and these changes really add to a sense of place. The music doesn’t get in the way but accentuates your experience.
It’s refreshing to have wide open spaces to roam around in – it puts the “open” back into open world. RDR strikes a balance between feeling alone on the range and having enough stuff to do.
Speaking of stuff to do, for once in a Rockstar game, I dug some of the minigames. Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em), Blackjack, and Liars Dice were good, whereas I didn’t so much get into arm wrestling, Five Finger Fillet or horsehoes. I had to force myself to leave the card tables and get on with the main game. The best bit is that they are optional – It’s weird how much you can enjoy minigames when you aren’t forced to play them.
Errand quests aren’t very fetching
So that’s the environment and side activities. What about the main story? Thinking back to Rockstar’s other work, the Grand Theft Auto series (you may have heard of it) – if the characters and missions in GTA were cribbed from gangster movies, the same approach has been taken here, except with Western movies. In this regard, RDR is like a speaking cockatoo; it doesn’t say anything new about the West and what it does say has been said better by those that it is imitating.
The plot is dragged down by the dissonance between John Marston’s general badassery and the game’s lame attempts to justify sending him on petty errands for deadbeat side characters.
Typically, Marston will meet a new character and tell them “I’m lookin for McGuffin.” New character will reply, “I know where he is, but I need you to do somethin fer me first” and will string Marston along for five or so missions and Marston goes along with it. It doesn’t wash–why doesn’t Marston just hog-tie the dude and drag him behind his horse until he gives Marston the information? This shtick is tired from the get-go and is repeated for nearly every two-bit character Marston meets.
I wanna hold your hand
The main missions contain some great action set pieces: train heists, shootouts, saving folks from hanging and the like. However, often RDR is so keen for you to have the OMG moment that it holds your hand too tightly, at the cost of feeling you are working stuff out for yourself. It’s like an overprotective Dad pushing you along on a bike with training wheels saying “See! You’re riding! Wheeee!” compared to opening up your Suzuki on the highway … what sounds like more fun to you?
The weird part is, RDR shows itself up because you have more freedom in the non-compulsory side missions. In bounty hunting missions, you can take the target alive or dead and how you deal with his cronies is up to you. A number of the missions you get from strangers allow you a choice as to how to complete them, and there are many ways to hunt a cougar (but only one way to skin it, as it happens).
The old grey mare she ain’t what she used to be
While I’ve got my grumblin’ boots on, it was disappointing that RDR retained some of the more cumbersome GTA controls. Rockstar may have got away with this when they were the only game in the open world town, but that ain’t so anymore.
Here are some of the hangovers:
- Tap X to go faster? We’re still doing that? You have to do this whether on foot or on a horse and it sucks, because it uses the thumb of the right hand, which should be solely for aiming with right joystick.
- Auto-aim. You have to be facing your target for the auto-aim to snap to it. This makes it hard to aim while galloping on horseback, especially if enemies are at right angles or behind you, as you have to move the camera with your right joystick while steering the horse with your left. When you auto-aim from cover, it can be a lucky dip as to where the game decides you are facing.
- Mini-map – the world is beautiful, so don’t make me look at one corner of the screen so much. Surely we can find a way to show on-screen navigational prompts? It also felt a little anachronistic, like having a DeLorean in 1880.
- No strafing? C’mon!
The new fast travel system was a step in the right direction but still clunky – why can’t I just fact travel from the map screen? – and menu navigation was also clumsy, due to there being one button to press to pull up inventory and another to pull up map, journal and everything else.
It ain’t all bad, I’m just real ornery
Apart from the scourge of Tap X, the horses handle better than most cars in open world games. Generally, they won’t careen off cliffs, they prefer to stay on roads and they corner better. There is also a handy “match speed” function to keep up with riding companions. However, mistreat your horse it will buck you off. Also you can whistle for your horse and it will come running to you, which emphasises a bond with your steed and will get you out of many a scrape. If you stick with a horse it becomes loyal and gets more stamina, which makes it really sad if it later gets mauled by wolves while you are hunting cougar.
To make you the fastest gun in the West, Rockstar slows everyone else down through Dead Eye, which you may remember from such previous game mechanics as “Bullet Time”. Entering Dead Eye slows time, which lets you line up your shots, and the shots are executed when you exit. This makes you look cool.
While Dead Eye is great and all, it almost feels as if they had to throw this in to compensate for the shonky aiming mechanics. Mastery of Dead Eye is essential for horseback gunplay and to handle what the game throws at you in its latter half.
Dead Eye is also used in duels, which are so central to the Western mythos, but RDR never really explains how to go about them, so I tended to mash buttons and came out with about a 60/40 win/loss ratio.
Karma systems in games are so hot right now! RDR jumps on the bandwagon with its Honour/Fame system, which creates consequences for your actions beyond merely evading the wanted circle when you do wrong. Your level of Honour and Fame translates to in-game bonuses and will make you think twice before shooting prostitutes in town, unless you want to be a villain. Once I came across 3 guys shooting at another guy on the prairie and figured the honourable thing would be to take out the 3 guys, only to be docked some Honour points when I did because they were actually a posse trying to apprehend a bandit. I liked this ambiguity, it illustrates that when bullets are flying and you have a split second to decide what to do, you don’t always make the right choice.
OK pardner, time to saddle up and mosey
I may have harped on the negatives of RDR but there’s a lot of joy to be had with it. I poured just over 50 hours into it, including 13 hours of poker.
Ultimately I came to regard the story missions as a distraction from the handy little career I had carved out as a card player, property owner and hunter of man and beast. I got on with the story because of the rewards for doing so, being new weapons, inventory items and areas to explore (which in turn meant higher stakes poker tables and different animals to hunt). As much as this is a weakness of RDR’s main plot, it is also a strength of the world that the game is set in.
I recently criticised Just Cause 2 for having not enough story missions at 7. RDR has over 50 – I submit that there is a happy medium between these two. Just Cause 2 left me wanting more, whereas in the final third of RDR I was pushing through in a bloody minded haze, like Swearingen when he passes his kidney stone. This is a shame, because RDR’s ending is one of the better game endings I have experienced; it just takes too long to get there.
One of the Western themes that RDR borrows is that the relentless march of technology renders the old ways obsolete. This notion seems to have percolated into Rockstar’s design philosophy as it clings to old control mechanisms, mission design and storytelling techniques, while simultaneously delivering a world that hints at how great games could be if the old ways were jettisoned altogether.
The final reckoning
* That’d be me.