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Rockstar San Diego's open-world sequel finally delivers what we want from the Wild West...
It's taken six long years for Rockstar San Diego to deliver the follow-up to Red Dead Revolver, a game that began life as a Capcom title and eventually materialised as a somewhat awkward fit for the publisher better known as the name behind GTA. For the sequel, Rockstar's decided to throw away virtually everything from the original, the only link remaining is a 'Red Dead' in the title and the sharpshooting technique granted to the protagonist.
Despite originally making a brief appearance back in 2005 as a PS3 tech demo, Red Dead Redemption has seen its fair share of delays and development strife. The result, however, has been more than worth it: a game that may not quite reach the lofty standards of GTA IV in terms of defining this generation of consoles, but a video game that finally captures the boundless potential of the Wild West setting.
Immediately, Red Dead Redemption ticks the criteria expected from a Rockstar title: razor sharp dialogue and faultless presentation greet you from the start. It's a reassuring touch of quality that tends to follow the synonymous logo. Although the game won't reach the controversy of its GTA sibling, Rockstar San Diego has approached the game in a manner befitting the publisher; so you'll find references to bestiality, come across an insane character who's got an unhealthy obsession with the dead, and plenty of further subjects that cut close to the bone.
The story of Red Dead Redemption revolves around John Marston, a man who like Niko Belic before him, has travelled to a strange location in order to track down a man. Exactly who and why are questions left unanswered during the early stages of the game. Any early exposition is provided effectively on the train journey into town, as Marston eavesdrops on his fellow passenger's conversations. It's an effective way to provide a little background, but once you step off the train the world of freedom awaits.
Stepping out from the ram-shackled town of Armadillo for the first time is an awe-inspiring experience. An opportunity that just begs you to explore the game's stunning, vast vistas, cactus-filled plains, and the mountain peaks that loom in the background. It's this early period that introduces the gamers to Red Dead Redemption's game world and the myriad of activities that await Marston. Beyond his quest Marston will have a chance to play poker, break wild horses, herd stampeding cattle, hunt down outlaws, find gold in them thar hills... This is merely a hint of the range of activities in Red Dead Redemption, truly it's a game that keeps on giving.
Such vast, open landscapes, however, bring a risk that Rockstar San Diego has expertly managed to avoid. In comparison to Liberty City, Red Dead Redemption's game world is a barren and void environment. The scenery is stunning but it would all be for nothing if it was just something to look at. To this extent, Rockstar San Diego has created a feature that masterfully handles the risk. Procedural events are random events that commence throughout the game. They range from duels at sundown outside of the saloon to outlaws terrorising the townsfolk. Procedural events help to give the game a constant sense of momentum; they help to enrich the game world and lend a feeling that it's well and truly alive. They're the link between main and secondary challenges, something to keep things interesting when you're not bothered about following the storyline and always manage to keep the flow of the game varied. Even the hallowed GTA series hasn't managed to bridge the gap in the way that Red Dead Redemption achieves.
One particular procedural event happens a little too often for our liking. It involves a broken carriage, a damsel in distress, and an almost inevitable ambush. Having seen this event play out on numerous occasions, I decided to recreate the classic Western cliche and tie her up on the train track. Who had the sickest mind? Me for waiting quite happily for 15 minutes until the train arrived, or Rockstar for giving an Achievement to reward precisely that series of events!
Beyond the main storyline missions and procedural events, Red Dead Redemption continues to pack variety. Certain characters appear throughout the landscape, offering multi-tiered challenges that provide a tangent to the main storyline. Having such a wide range of events and challenges is masterfully tied together via the Outfit challenges. Essentially these list a variety of different challenges, which when completed reward you with a different outfit and various benefits that go with it. It's a reward for carrying out the activities, but more then that it's a good way to organise and present the huge range of activities that Marston can put his hand to.
If this wasn't enough, then Red Dead Redemption's eco-system of coyotes, rattle-snakes, vultures, bears, and much, much, more is truly the seal on a game world that is bursting with life and absolute conviction in its authenticity. We've whiled away many an hour hunting in the wilderness, skinning animals, and sleeping under the stars.
Ultimately this is where Red Dead Redemption succeeds, it's a game to saviour and enjoy. Taking the time to wander off into the wilderness and explore, spending five minutes to play a quick game of poker or tame wild horses, is where the game excels. It's definitely not about jumping straight to the next main mission. In this area, in terms of the seam between main mission and secondary events, Red Dead Redemption offers a better balance than GTA IV. It's a much more enjoyable experience to develop Marston's character through the secondary events on offer and the key to becoming truly immersed in the game world and the huge amount of opportunities it has to offer.
We said before that Red Dead Redemption doesn't quite manage to reach the generation defining standards of GTA IV, however the upshot to this is that because the game isn't focused on delivering a contemporary, gritty affair it's given Rockstar San Diego the freedom to create a more entertaining video game as demonstrated by the diversity and creativity on offer in the main missions. The emphasis is always going to be on gunplay, but there's no denying that Rockstar San Diego weaves a wonderful line and delivers the variety we crave in an open-world game. One moment you can be playing poker in a high stakes game and it quickly shifts into a duel outside, while other notable challenges include riding a minecart to safety like its a roller-coaster or riding carriages along narrow cliff tops. Red Dead Redemption might not be held aloft in the same manner as GTA in years to come, but in its variety and creativity it does manage to offer something that is equally as entertaining. Simply, Red Dead's range of extra-activities serve a greater purpose: playing poker is many times more engaging than pool or darts in GTA IV.
Unlike the morally questionable protagonists that typically await in a Rockstar title, Marston is a reformed character who's hard not to like. Coming from a background as a former gang member, it's difficult not take an altruistic stance with Marston - he just seems like an affable chap. Despite this, however, the game does feature an Honor system, which reflects Marston's moral alignment: good characters will react positively to an honorable Marston, whereas shadier characters will be more welcoming if your alignment dips towards the depraved end. Complementing this is a Fame mechanic, which rewards you with cheaper goods and generally ensures a bit of respect when you stroll into town. For those that do step outside of the law there's a Bounty system that works in a similar manner to GTA IV. Committing an offense in the view of somebody will often prompt them to alert the nearest sheriff. It's then a case of staying out of the eye of bounty hunters and lawmen, although a bounty will stay over your head until you can either pay it off or eliminate it with a pardon.
When it comes to multiplayer, Redemption has got the standard team and all-out deathmatches covered. These play out through maps that are taken from some of the settlements in the game, which are tight and built-up enough to make the action frantic while still providing plenty of options for cover. The Dead-Eye mode makes a welcome transition from the single-player campaign and can be restocked via power-ups around the map as well as building up a killstreak. In the hands of an expert, it really is possible to rack up the kills through the system, although a risk-reward dynamic comes from the fact that time doesn't slow down for opponents when you initiate Dead-Eye, meaning that you really have to be quick in painting your targets.
There's also a capture the flag variant in there, which is based around looting a bag of gold from the enemy team's base. Crucially, the maps are much more open in this mode than the deathmatches and horses can be used, which makes a more tactical approach essential. Positioning team members wisely across the map is the only sure-fire way to success, while Gatling gun and cannon emplacements on some maps encourage a land-grab dynamic between both teams. The adversarial modes are then rounded off with Gold Rush, which is another every-man-for-himself affair that has you picking up bags of gold from around the maps and returning them to the bank before any enemies can kill you and steal the loot.
While it's true that GTA IV offered a much wider range of modes than Redemption does, it's also true to say that the modes in Redemption have been solidly crafted and the feathered aiming system is more complimentary to the multiplayer experience than GTA IV's. We've also got high hopes for Free Roam mode. Unlike in GTA IV, Rockstar has provided a wide range of co-operative missions for players to take on in Redemption's Free Roam mode, which aptly suits a game world that always teases you to adventure. Working in posses of up to 8 players (although 16 players can populate a lobby at one time), there are a menagerie of different missions to undertake from mowing down rival gangs to hunting down bears, and even seeking out precious herbs (it's a bit like Borderlands meets Monster Hunter in the Wild West).
There is a caveat to the otherwise faultless experience that Red Dead Redemption has to offer, and that's in the form of a few bugs and glitches. Hopefully it's an issue restricted to early review code, as Rockstar titles are typically polished experiences. We've had glitches that stopped a mission from beginning, others that took control of Marston because he was probably in an area of land Rockstar San Diego didn't want him to be. There's a handful of bugs that needed a restart of the game, but ultimately these haven't detracted from the fun and entertainment that Red Dead Redemption offers by the bucketload. We thought it worth mentioning however.
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