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We get our second look at Rockstar's gun-slinging open world Western, Red Dead Redemption...
Red Dead Redemption simply had to have a vast open world. It had to have this because, firstly, it's Rockstar's speciality, and secondly, because it's the best way to make gamers believe that anything is possible in a game. This, after all, is the fierce beating heart at the centre of Wild Western mythology; the sense that any man can succeed there, so long as they're tough as old boots and willing to take some huge risks in order to prosper. This and the sense of adventure; that feeling of personal insignificance as you stand atop a gaping canyon but, at the same time, unlimited possibilities in these endlessly sprawling, mineral rich lands.
But enough of our corny take on the Wild West. We'll let Rockstar do the talking from now on, as it depicts this Wild West setting peerlessly in Red Dead Redemption with its now entirely refined application of the RAGE engine. The draw distances are vast and daunting, made all the more stunning by fine brush strokes of heat hazing that add atmosphere to the parched textures across the game's landscapes. While these landscapes certainly aren't limited to desert canyons in the full game, this is what we've seen first-hand in our previews so far and we've been consistently impressed by what's on show.
The real sense of adventure in Redemption, though, will not be limited to these impressive visual displays and an expansive main campaign. Arguably, the real sense of adventure will come from the secondary missions. Those missions where you truly feel out-on-the-lam, stretching the game world to its most open-ended conclusions and exploration based rewards. This is what Rockstar wanted to show us in this second look at Redemption by demonstrating features like the game's wanted system, one of the treasure map secondary missions, a 'Most Wanted' side mission, and an insight into Redemption's reward system.
First up was one of the treasure map missions, which require far more skill than merely following a trail that leads to an X marked spot. Maps can be acquired throughout the game (presumably with cash or good/dastardly deeds) and the map we saw simply illustrated a sketch of a particular landscape which, in this case, was a rocky outcrop that had formed into an arch through millennia of weathering and erosion. A simple arrow pointed to an area of the outcrop and, after much searching and viewing of the landscape from different angles, we finally came across this unmistakable arch. Our protagonist, John Marston, then proceeded to dig at the spot where he unearthed solid bars of gold (Rockstar assured us that rewards at the various treasure locations will vary).
The key to this mission was making the gamer work for their reward and not simply handing them a basic seek-and-capture mission that requires all the applicable initiative of a squashed lungfish. Instead, players are encouraged to be constantly mindful of their surroundings and truly explore in order to get the most out of the game. It's an ethic that's present throughout Redemption, as you make decisions in the missions and interact with characters in ways that can drastically sway how townships and the local law enforcement react to you. Marston's rewards for carrying out certain missions come in one of three forms (cash, fame, and honour). How he chooses to carry out these missions, however, is where these rewards vary.
While cold hard cash is always going to mean the same thing no matter what you do, fame and honour certainly won't. Honour forms a morality system in the game depending on the good or bad actions that you chose to take and fame is a measure of notoriety. Of course, this notoriety can be built up by either committing immoral actions or conducting yourself like a saint, although we'll bet good money that the quickest way to up your fame rank is to do dastardly deeds (just remember, kids: the quickest way isn't always the right way). This reward system is then tied into Rockstar's custom-tailored wanted system for Redemption.
In essence, the mechanics of the wanted system are taken from GTA. When you commit a crime, a wanted circle will appear on the map from which you have to escape before the local sheriff tears you a new one. Rockstar has latched on a more long-term consequence to your actions though, which is carried with you beyond the wanted circle and places a bounty on your head that varies depending on the extent of you crime. Giving the local sheriff a noogie could be a mere $50 bounty, while suggesting that the South won't rise again might result in a fully blown $1000 reward on your head. A higher bounty obviously means that you'll be getting attacked more often by opportunistic bounty hunters as well as being unwelcome at surrounding settlements, although there are ways of clearing the bounty to make your adventures more hassle free.
A quick trip to the nearest telegraph office leaves you with two options: paying the cash ransom yourself on the one hand, or alternatively doing a quick favour to be granted a pardon. These favours result in mini-missions that might require in a bit of gunfire and death, although they'll certainly be the preferred option of more frugal players. When you're not wanted by the rozzers though, you can always pick up 'Most Wanted' side missions from a nearby sheriff's office. The standard rules apply here: the mission details send you to a location where a villain will be waiting with their mob in tow. Your job is to detain the wrongdoer, dead or alive, and haul them back to the sheriff's office for a healthy pay-off and some tea and biccies. Bringing back the perpetrator alive obviously results in a higher bounty, so you're best off shooting them in the toe before lassoing them into submission.
Want to know what Red Dead Redemption is all about? Rockstar's voice-over guy will teach you...
Side missions aren't merely limited to these structured treasure map and 'Most Wanted' escapades though. Redemption will also treat players to a wealth of procedurally generated events across the game world, such as a firing squad bearing down on a man that's just about to be executed or prisoners who have escaped from a transport vehicle. It's up to you, as John Marston, to decide whether you want to get involved in these events without necessarily knowing what the consequences will be. Does saving the man from a firing squad result in a higher honour rating if he's innocent, or do his actions deserve punishment from the business end of ten rifles?
Of course, you could just chose the misanthropic approach to life and turn the other cheek to these escaping prisoners and the vigilante justice of execution gangs. Said misanthropic gamers will be plentifully catered for with horses that can be tamed and broken in, as well as upgradeable camps that you can bed down in at night to gather more ammo and health while registering a handy save point. John Marston is a complex man who's only got space in his life for a trusty stead after all. Well, that and a bit of vulture sharpshooting whenever one of the winged beasts pops into view. Much like the pigeons in GTA IV, a number of Redemption's vultures can be shot from long range as a time burning side task.
Speaking of the vultures, Rockstar uses them as one of the many fine details that are synonymous with its open world games. When John Marston has ransacked a place, leaving nothing more than corpses in his wake, you'll often catch the odd vulture swooping in for dinner. Likewise, whenever John drops by the sheriff's office for fresh bounties, you'll occasionally catch the local lawman himself posting a fresh wanted poster. Walking amongst the inhabitants of a settlement also reveals a myriad of tiny details, such as locals preparing dinner from farmed livestock and the township's revolutionaries bellowing their rhetoric to the people before the local authorities cart them off for a night in the slammer. These touches are the bread and butter of what makes Rockstar's sandboxes the best in the business and long may it continue.
As far as the main campaign is concerned, Rockstar had the time to take us through a mission from the story to give us a better look at the dead-eye system. Essentially a bullet-time variant, dead-eye allows players to slow down time and paint targets that are then peppered with bullets by Marston when you pull back out of the dead-eye mode. Killing enemies in the regular combat mode builds up the dead-eye meter that revolves around the map on Redemption's HUD (like health/armour in GTA), and can then be spent at your will when the action gets hairy in fire-fights. There was also plenty of variation in the combat during our demoed mission, such as manning a cannon to blow apart the wagons of adversaries who were trying to retake an encampment that John Marston had just captured.
With the exception of one or two titles, open world sandbox games have been a consistent disappointment on this generation of consoles compared to the still seminal GTA IV. Come next April, we have no doubt that Red Dead Redemption will provide the sort of originality and immersion that we've been longing for, not only in sandbox games, but in the Wild West gaming genre as well.