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TVG takes an early look at Rockstar's majestic return tot he Wild West...
Rockstar Games takes a trip back to the Wild West with the recently announced (and slightly delayed) Red Dead Redemption, and from what we've seen things are already looking considerably different from the adventures of 'Red' back in 2004.
Following a montage of clips from a range of Western movies to give an indication of the style and influences Rockstar San Diego are drawing upon, we got our first glimpse of the game in action. Now we're not exactly Western movie buffs (we didn't notice Clint Eastwood or John Wayne if that's worth anything), but we do feel that the Wild West provides the perfect setting for an enjoyable video game: guns, lawlessness, saloons, what more could you want? The original, Red Dead Revolver, was an enjoyable blast, but never intended to be more then that, whilst the less said about Activision's Gun the better. With the sequel Rockstar are not only taking a switch to their favoured sandbox genre, but also a darker story with richer characters that will lift Red Dead Redemption closer to its masterpiece, GTA IV. Niko's adventures in Liberty City set a new benchmark for what's possible with the highly versatile RAGE game engine, a standard that Rockstar is hoping to eclipse with Red Dead Redemption.
Set approximately 50 years after the events of Red Dead Revolver at the turn of the 19th century, Redemption takes place during a pivotal time in American history. The onslaught of the industrial revolution and the establishment of a federal government has put the squeeze on the Wild West, establishing a setting that should provide for plenty of uncertainty and dramatic opportunities. The star of the game, John Marston, is a character who shares much in common with Niko Bellic. A partially reformed outlaw, who seeks to ditch his background in a ruthless gang and begin a new life with his young family. Things are never so simple in a Rockstar title. When posed with a horrific ultimatum by the Bureau (the origins of the FBI), Marston is pulled back into action. Rockstar refused to elaborate beyond that, but we should expect considerably more depth than its predecessor's deliberate one-dimensional characters and spaghetti western aspirations.
Split into three different areas - Frontier, Plains, and Mexico - we're told that Red Dead Redemption is possibly the largest game Rockstar has ever undertaken; quite a statement when you consider the vastness of San Andreas. But from our first glimpse we're inclined to believe them, it's certainly far larger and grander than GTA IV's Liberty City. Despite the game being at a considerably early stage, we were instantly impressed by the visual style and presentation. The sense of a vast game world is portrayed with beautiful vistas and embellished with numerous little details: heat haze creates the timeless Western feel as tumbleweed rolls across the barren landscape. Cliffs looming on the distant horizon are there to be discovered, presenting a game world that almost begs to be explored. Obviously there are no cars, helicopters, or planes to get from A to B, but we can expect plenty of horses, stagecoaches, and wagons as methods of transport to cross such epic landscapes. Striving for such a vast game world is commendable, though it brings potential pitfalls, which fortunately Rockstar appears to be well on top of. A beautiful, epic game world is one thing, but it's the turn of the 20th century, and if there's nothing but tumbleweed in between then it's not going to make for a very satisfying experience. Rockstar San Diego is hoping to address such a potential dilemma with a couple of features identified during the demonstration.
Firstly, procedural events. We saw numerous occasions when this kicked into play, ranging from coyotes preying on an old man, to a pack of cowboys charging past with a person tied up behind. Another example showcased how much these should add to the overall experience, with a broken carriage and a seemingly desperate female occupant calling out for assistance. No sooner had Marston stepped from his horse when a group of cowboys emerged from behind the carriage and a quick gunfight followed. Rockstar assures us that these events are created entirely on-the-fly, which was supported by the fact that the events had been different every time they'd demonstrated the game. These aren't necessarily just random events however, as we're told that your actions will influence the townsfolks' reactions in the various towns dotted across the landscape. We didn't see this in action, but we're hopeful that it will provide a tangible link between the main storyline and the procedural events.
Another element that should ensure there's plenty of activity in the journey between missions is the fact that Rockstar San Diego has been working tirelessly to integrate a full ecology within the game. Beyond the customary vultures circling above dead bodies, we also saw plenty of rattlesnakes and coyotes, alongside the promise of bears, cougars, wolves, armadillos, and rabbits. It's survival of the fittest out there, with bigger animals preying on the smaller ones, most of which can be hunted by the player and skinned to sell at the various shops.
Animals, particularly the horses, also showcased the adaptations Rockstar San Diego has made to the physics based animation technology, NaturalMotion's Euphoria, which made a startling appearance in GTA IV. The result not only brings horses that behave with the same conviction as Liberty City's citizens, but also the chance of flying spectacularly from your mount as the horse collapses with dramatic realism during gunfights. There are many different breeds of horses to find, some will be faster, some will be stronger, and others will be more obedient. They'll prefer a well worn path instead of hurting their hooves away from the beaten track, and can be spurred into running faster at the risk of a possible injury. Such attention to what will be the main method of transport, highlights the efforts Rockstar San Diego is paying to every aspect of the game.
The first of three missions featured in the demonstration involved Marston trying to rescue a friend named Bonnie, who's been taken hostage in an exchange for a notorious prisoner. With the local Marshall providing assistance, Marston discovers Bonnie tied in a noose and within a split-second the chair is kicked out beneath her and the somewhat inevitable set-up takes place. Making a return form the original is the 'Dead Eye' mechanic, which temporarily slows down time to gain a little extra precision with any weapon featured in the game. Alternatively the trusty pistol allows you to paint multiple targets on an opponent (as many bullets in the chamber) and pull the trigger to unleash a quick barrage of fire. The frantic shootout also provided a look at the covering system, which promises to be much more fluid and useful then it was in Red Dead Revolver. Marston had no problems taking cover behind a wide range of different sized objects, even those that are moving, we're reliably informed by a Rockstar representative.
Following a successful rescue, the demonstration rolled into the ramshackled town of Armadillo. Unlike the wilderness, towns will be governed by a robust law system, which we suspect will play similarly to that of GTA IV's. As the townsfolk go about their business, reacting to Marston based upon your actions, towns provide plenty of places to buy and sell your wares, and the chance to play the odd occasional mini-game. '5 Fingered Fillet' is a test of reactions, the classic game of stabbing a knife between the fingers of an outstretched palm, mastered by Bishop in James Cameron's Aliens. We also noted what seemed to be a drinking mini-game in the saloon, but never got the chance to see this in action.
It wasn't long before we were coming to the assistance of a dodgy dealer, selling dubious snake oil to a disgruntled group of locals. Stepping aboard his carriage, the challenge was to protect the merchant and his goods in a classic on-rails shooting section. Although riding shotgun is an accustomed Rockstar experience, it provided plenty of opportunity to witness the evolved Euphoria technology in action. Before the demonstration came to its conclusion we had one final mission to sample in Mexico. Teaming up with the Mexican Army, Marston is challenged to protect the mail train on its route while riding on horseback. Keeping up with the train while blasting the banditos from their horses was handled effectively by holding onto the A button. It's difficult to form too much of an opinion on the missions until we actually get our hands on the game, but they appear to at least offer the customary levels of action and variety that we've come to expect from Rockstar.
Although it's early days, Red Dead Redemption is showing plenty of potential and should easily reach the standards of Rockstar's previous open-world efforts. We didn't really get the chance to see too much of the game in action, but what we saw certainly left us craving for more. Finally, a decent Western video game might be on the horizon.