29th May 2010 - Saddle up, lock and load and get into your posse. It’s time to ride out and meet Rockstars’ latest sensation: Red Dead Redemption, in all it’s glory. AAG is bringing you all the good, the bad and the ugly truths as we dust off our boots and prepare to head down south, towards Mexico way. Does this slightly glitchy addition live up to the hype or ride off into the sunset? Un-holster the six-shooter and spur the horse to find out…
Cowboy puns aside, the critics are lauding the new sandbox open world ‘western’ from Rockstar Games Studio. Stepping into the titular shoes of John Marston, you assume the identity of a reformed outlaw who’s left his family, heading south towards Mexico on a personal mission of vengeance. The kicker is that Red Dead Redemption is set during the nebulous, turbulent time just after the American Civil War (1911), where the ‘west has been won’ and High-rollers from eastern New York State are reclaiming the land in the name of automobiles and steam trains. There are highfaluting outlaws to capture, duels to be won, damsels to rescue from those wiley coyotes and horses to round up and break in. Sick of the City life; head to the plains to try your hand at hunting birds, cougars, boars, bears, skunks, rabbits, wolves, coyotes, cows, horses, deer and any other number of critters. Back in town try your luck at poker, blackjack, horseshoes, liars dice or five finger fillets.
If Red Dead is sounding more like Fable and less like Rockstars’ previous entries in Grand Theft Auto, it’s because this high noon adventure has more in common with Rockstars’ other game Bully than it does with any gang-banging, car driving adventure. No doubt upon loading the game, there is the trademark touch of GTA IV all over but at its core, Red Dead is a slow meandering game of not much more than a lot of micro-managed tasks, randomly generated events and grinding. A lot of grinding. Surprisingly though, it is both very fun and just a little addictive to take to the prairie and spend hours just hunting and skinning said animals. In this fashion Red Dead Redemption plays very much like a ‘wild west’ Monster Hunter, the popular game of just roaming, hunting, fishing and collecting meat.
Part simulation, part role playing, part action-adventure, there is something for everyone within the context of the proverbial state of New Austin (Texas). Across the land various areas will unlock including gold mining towns, Mexican villas, high country mountains and lowland plains. John Marston will be able to visit them all, and rather quickly too, with the aid of a rather large variety of horses from Palomino to donkey and the titular ‘War’ horse. End to end, the whole map seems just a bit smaller than GTA, even if it isn’t and this might just be due to the lack of verticality and openness. There is not a lot to get in the way between waypoints and Rockstar is betting on both some random encounters and a lot of procrastination to fill in the gaps. In a slight step backwards, John Marston can’t swim and almost all waters spell instant death, to our rugged explorer. New areas are locked out via train tracks that will not be accessible until the story had progressed, which can also seem restricting at times (in single player).
The actual story, takes around 20 hours to complete and will see John Marston round up a sorry bunch of characters to assault the fortress of an old friend, enter more civilized territories and generally blow things up. Truth be told as good as the story is, it comes second this time to the environment around you and the activities on offer.
Anyone familiar with even the earliest 3D GTA entry to consoles; GTA III will recognize Rockstars’ patented formula for making games, HUD, map and menu systems. Take a story; break it into 3 arcs each with its own bunch of characters and climax and slowly drip feed the player new tasks and tools as the game unlocks. Starting off at a cattle ranch, you can buy property with a bed and clothing options and save points. New property is available around the map and for once missions saves are included, eliminating the annoying need to re-do whole missions in GTA IV. Bully was perhaps the epitome of stat tracking with game tracking of how many balls were kicked, how many girls kissed, how many different vehicles had driven X miles. GTA IV hid most of this away, but once again, front and centre, Red Dead will offer challenge for: rolling in the dirt, killing X number of bird, collecting flowers and herbs and shooting off hats. These challenges are a large part of both the fun in Red Dead and the core gameplay, as without them, despite good looking graphics, the game would lack depth.
Pro Tip: Read the manual!
‘Dead eye’ is basically a slow motion or bullet time solution to shooting similar to VATS in Fallout 3. It upgrades over time and will allow players to paint many targets on enemy to instant kill as well as head shot hostage takers or whore assaulting hoodlums. It is necessary in such open areas where the cover mechanic of GTA IV has been appropriated but ultimately used less due to the general lack of walls, cars and other flat surfaces.
What can’t be expressed in words is the variety of context sensitive things Rockstar have continued to build into their games. Walk up to someone without a weapon and then whip it out and watch as a unique kill event is triggered, gun in gut- close quarter execution. Evade the law and become ‘WANTED’ with a bounty or do well and gain larger reward per territory. Don’t want to fight; lasso instead for a family friendly take-down that sees you ride back into town with the bandit on your back.
At any one time on the way to a mission, you will be sidelined and sidetracked by random women being attacked by dogs, random women being attacked by gangs, random women being assaulted as whores and random women being attacked by missing horses. Sometimes they are men, but the screams can be heard from one side of the map to the other and if ignored a body to loot will surely result. Oh, and FYI; you can’t skin people.
Red Dead, graphically, picks up where GTA IV and Midnight club left off for Rockstar and improves across the board in everyway. The weather changes naturally and dynamically and the draw distance across such a flat expanse can not be underestimated. For a large world not largely populated by buildings it comes as a welcome shock the first time you pull up on the ridge and survey the plains below. For all intents and purposes it looks like a lush backdrop with a nice background and many many cacti, bushes shrubs and rocks. Your thoughts drift to actually going down there, amongst it all, wondering if you could, just to try. Then the truth sets in: you are actually viewing the rest of the map, and the world and everything you see you can visit, all the way to horizon. Rockstar, in a single brush-stroke have captured the lone gunman feel of riding along the ridge at sunset. Compared to previous efforts the sky is sharp and the clouds ridiculously detailed. As rain sets in the air becomes yellow the shadows deepen and the rain hits the screen. Little touches, like blood splatter on the screen and rain drop when you look up make it as if the player is removed, looking through a camera into this wondrous land.
To be fair, the rest of the game is a little at odds with the exceptional sky and backdrops, weather and animal animations that dot the land. Characters are well modeled but animated but not overly realistic compared to GTA. Apart from John Marston they are larger than life with excellent cut scenes but only good animation. There are a lot less people than other R* games but this is more than made up for with both the Euphoria engine and animals.
For the most part, the game is brown, green and yellow with muted colors and some muddy textures. It all seamlessly blends together and yet up close can looks less detailed or plain. Shadows though are brilliant especially at ‘high noon’ stretching out toward the distance as you ride on your horse.
A Horse by any other name
Once again, it can not be understated, just how seamless the technology is used here, both the Euphoria Physics engine and the animal ‘animations’. These days it is taken for granted a certain amount of context sensitivity, but without Euphoria underlying it, the animals and horses in particular would simply not run as well, over rocks around corners and across different surfaces.
Unlike the otherwise smooth roads of Liberty City, there is a large variety of terrain and those off road the horse handles is exceptionally. They will canter, kick and run while cows and bulls charge and any single bird in the sky can be literally shot to fall down in the game. An animal death animation is all together ‘realistic’ and skinning them, really does give them as another skin as their pink fleshy carcass is left to rot in the sun. The heavy weight of your main character seems to be lifted a bit since GTA IV allowing some easier movement but not without some glitches.
You alone will die
Apart from its more casual gameplay and easier access to younger people, Red Dead is still a mature game but let down by a number of glitches. Again, standing on its previous success, the lack of some fine tuning in the graphical area lets Rockstar down, for failing to address some key glitches that at times can break the game. Not a deal breaker by any means, they include bugging the player into the ground, into the sky and generally mixing up animals with people, or people and animals in some terrible combinations. On top of which heed the following warning: You will die! And you won’t be able to save everyone or do anything about it.
With the more advanced physics here, horses will fall down cliffs or slide off, and you will die. Horses will run over people mid-mission and you will fail. The horse will ‘attack’ people mid-mission and you will fail. Bounties will die leaving some missions un-compliable and just in general, unless you are super quick on the draw there is no way you can rescue every single, damsel, whore, housewife and cow-person in distress who just happens to pop up on your map at the most inconvenient moment of time. And so it seems to be in the game: People die, the sun sets and you live to fight another day.
In a perfect world Rockstar really would have created an MMO, for every person to populate, roaming free around the land and game world. As is, this is not what multiplayer offers. Simply put, the plain black lobby of GTA IV is replaced with the more dynamic map of the game world. All the animals have been left in as have a number of gang hideouts. Entering multiplayer throws you into a standard lobby of people, whereby you are free to run around and never even start a match. It is a novel idea, and one which games should have started implementing years ago. Saints row actually offered similar fare 4 years earlier with the ability to form ‘gangs’ and create private lobbies of friends to roam warehouses and fight before initiating matches.
Forming posses is also a nice idea in that not everyone in the lobby has to be playing the same game or activity. By creating a posse from the menu you can find friends easily and then ride off to start matches, either from the menu or triggered at points around the map. To be fair, the free roam mode is good, but things to do are few and far apart. Leveling your cowboy character is easy and rewards and money come thick and fast. Again, in response to GTA IV there are many more characters from the game to unlock and many different rides from horses to bulls, buffalo and the proverbial ‘golden donkey’. Red Dead Redemption takes an ‘every one wins’ mentality whereby you can gain a large amount of XP just by being on the winning team. There is in game chat and a plethora of personal challenges, although ‘rolling on the ground 100 times’ is not the highlight.
Actual multiplayer matches are standard fair with a ‘western’ theme of capture the flag, death match and other types. Co-op is an obvious choice here and Rockstar are rolling out free co-op missions ASAP but these came standard with GTAIV, which is essentially exactly what the multiplayer is, but in a new skin.
From the sound of lightning cracking across the plains, rain and thunder or just the thud of hooves on the ground, environmental sounds for Red Dead Redemption are exceptional. These are tempered though by some annoying dialogue, less than serious characters and bad ‘accents’. Perhaps because of the period, Red Dead seems like less of a serious affair than GTA and the voices and supporting cast add to that. Leading man John Marston is voiced though by Rob Wiethoff and really drives home some old-world charm to the ladies of New Austin. The continual and unending talking during traveling is back though from GTA IV and characters will talk, always and endlessly about everything, on top of cut scenes.
If you have some good speakers though the ambient and surround features really get a notice here as you will hear people well off in the distance or even as you drive pass. Hardly ever will you miss someone because you can’t hear them and usually, with animals it’s a case of hearing them first before seeing them. To rescue most people, even from the edge of town, all you have to do is follow the screams.
Another small concession is that at times, due to the nature of the game, dialogue can seem forced or overly dramatic and formal. It can actually be rather tedious to hear “ Yes, Mr. Marston”,” No, Mr. Marston”, “sorry, Mr. Marston”, “please, Mr. Marston”, “Mr. Marston”, “Mr. Marston” over and again in the same cut scene.
Overall, there is some lovely backing music to the free roaming backdrop. Similar to Oblivion or Fallout 3 it is soft, unobtrusive but will change depending on the location and time of day. No radio stations, but matches the pace of the game perfectly.
This is one of the finest examples of this type of game on the market at the moment. It delivers everything different people could want, and wraps it up in a sprawling relaxing civil war era saga. Rockstar have tried a few new things here, in particular realistic animals, ecosystems and environments.
There is a competent multiplayer, which is more addictive than it should be, and too many challenges, achievements and awards to count. Support for Avatar achievements is welcome and free DLC is on its way.
For fans of Rockstars’ work, some signs are showing that things are slipping just a bit. The game is toned down as in many aspects it is aimed at a broader or slightly younger audience. There are a number of glitches within the game and network support for Multiplayer is laggy. Connecting to servers can be hard and at the end of the day, Cowboys and Mexicans just may not be for you.
This reviewer can still not figure out how to ‘download’ the ‘limited edition’ soundtrack (as GAME swears they received no extra CD and it must be DLC) and some of the extras like the golden guns are mute. The War horse is excellent as you will never need another horse again, as is the Deadly Assassin outfit.
AAG SCORE: 9.5/10
- The single best game of this genre to date
- Drawdistance allows for some amazing views
- Skinning and hunting animals
- Game not quite as big as you would expect
- Not an MMO
- Buggy with glitches and network connection issues
Reviewed and Written By Ian Crane