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TVG goes hands on with Rockstar San Diego's open world Western, Red Dead Redemption...
'Keep movin', movin', movin'; though they're disapprovin'; keep them doggies movin', Rawhide! Don't try to understand 'em; just rope, throw, and brand 'em; soon we'll be livin' high and wide.'
The lyrics from the theme of 60s TV series Rawhide (a show about driving cattle in the Wild West) seem to resonate where Red Dead Redemption is concerned. Recent allegations that the game's developer, Rockstar San Diego, is being overworked by Rockstar's New York HQ may or may not have been overblown in the press but, whatever's happened over there, it's certainly helping to develop a sumptuous serving of gaming from the San Diego team. Regardless of whether or not they've taken a pounding from excessive working hours and the withdrawal of Casual Tuesdays, the result looks as appealing as a 16oz beef steak of the highest quality.
At least, that's judging from a recent hands on with the code that we had at Rockstar's UK HQ. While we've compared Redemption to Rawhide (albeit with some abstraction), Rockstar is typically looking to classic films as its major influence for the game's story and depiction. The Wild Bunch is one film that was name-dropped during our hands on; a flick about a bunch of outlaws operating towards the end of the Old West era, when government and authority had finally lassoed law and order around a previously untameable region. Funnily enough, that's pretty much what the accompanying press material tells us about Red Dead Redemption's storyline.
The game's antagonist-cum-protagonist, John Marston is a settled man at the story's beginnings. Following a life of crime across the West, Marston has now disbanded from his former gang members and established a homestead for his wife and children. That is until the US Justice Department (a precursor to the FBI) comes looking for him, demanding that he help them take down the remaining members of his former gang. Naturally, Marston is at first reluctant until the kidnapping of his wife and children by the Justice Department forces his hand. This is where the game's plot kicks off, forming the catalyst for Marston's trek across Redemption's three territories: New Austin, West Elizabeth, and the Mexican themed Nuevo Pareso.
In earlier previews, we spoke at length about Redemptions expansive open-world, the vast scope of its secondary missions and procedural events, as well as gameplay features such as the Wanted and Fame/Honour systems. This time around we're going to be focussing on the feel of Redemption: has Rockstar finally managed to recreate GTA in the Wild West, or do the offerings appear to fall short? We're glad to report straight off the bat that the control suite feels unmistakably GTA. Not so much that it feels like a copy, but enough to have a strong sense of familiarity in the cover and targeting systems. A range of additional features have been attached to the game as well though, to ensure that Redemption has its own identity and branding.
Instead of the conventional weapon select display that GTA places in the top right of its HUD, Rockstar San Diego has instead opted for a large radial interface in the middle of the screen. It's a change that doesn't seem to detract from the experience, nor improve it necessarily. Both systems have their pros and cons: GTA IV's is less obtrusive, but Redemption's is more precise. Nonetheless, it's the gun's themselves that really impact the gameplay experience. Rockstar San Diego has clearly given its range of armaments a lot of thought, providing weaponry that not only looks, sounds, and operates like it's from the time period, but plays like it as well.
More narrated action from Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption...
Something about the gunplay just seems a lot bulkier and heavier than GTA IV's. Perhaps this effect comes from subtle tricks, such as camera movement and weapon reload times. Whatever the case, it certainly doesn't detract from the gameplay and, on the contrary, offers a much more fitting style for the setting. Similarly, reticule movement has been tweaked considerably from the setup in GTA IV. Auto-aim has been downplayed a touch, meaning that the reticule won't stick quite so effortlessly and loyally to targets when you hold down the relevant trigger button. This, coupled with larger and more wide-open areas in the game's many shoot-outs, makes for gunplay that demands a little more sharpshooting skill out of its user.
We saw four missions during our hands on, two of which were demoed with an opportunity to go hands on with the final two. As has been the case with previous missions we've seen in Redemption, they were quick to wheel out heavy fire-fights, requiring Marston to make good use of cover and the Dead-Eye system (a bullet-time variant). It certainly makes sense that there's going to be a lot of gun-slinging set-pieces in the game given its Western theme, but we were mildly relieved to play through a solid on-rails section for the last mission that offered some welcome variation. The mission saw Marston descend into a mine to retrieve a Gatling gun, before riding out of the mine on a cart while simultaneously picking off enemies along the way.
Despite the fact that this section was quite literally 'on rails', it actually felt a lot freer than similar on-rails sections in GTA IV, with variable speeds for the cart that were punctuated by a more satisfying feel to the sharpshooting opportunities along the way. As with all sandbox games, it's essentially this type of mission variation that's going to stop Redemption from veering into the realms of monotony. The game's superb secondary missions and procedural events are additional trump cards against this kind of monotony as well, and Rockstar gave us the chance to go out exploring and find some procedural events for ourselves during the hands on.
What resulted gave us even more faith in the side-missions, and we already thought they were pretty awesome. Visual cues such as smoke from a campfire can reveal the location of these events, and at the end of one of these smoke trails we found a man stoking the fire and what appeared to be a human body wrapped in linen beside him. Naturally, our Spidey sense began to tingle. A closer inspection revealed human remains around the campfire as it became increasingly apparent that, yes, it was a human body wrapped in linen, and yes, this guy had to be one twisted sicko. We promptly ended the man's life and released his prisoner (an old lady no less), with this particular occurrence serving to exemplify the dark and twisted underworld of Redemption's sprawling open-world.
If there's one thing that's pleasantly surprised us from this hands on, it's Red Dead Redemption as a shooter. We'd already assumed that it'd feel like GTA IV in the Wild West, but for it to retain the brilliance of Rockstar North's system while also stamping its own identity on the combat was refreshing to say the least. Heavier gunplay that feels more substantial and, at times, more satisfying than GTA IV makes for an ever-increasingly tantalising prospect from Rockstar San Diego.