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Red Dead Redemption

The decaying carcass of Red Dead Revolver casts a foul odor. Gutted of its linearity and naïve handling of the American Old West, Rockstar San Diego have skinned the aforementioned less-than-stellar elements of the otherwise promising homage to the West, creating an exemplary sequel in the process. Not only have the developers redeemed themselves for the last outing and fledging also-ran titles which followed, but they’ve also set an impressive new standard for open worlds and sequels to try and live up to in the future.

Believe it or not, the horses actually handle well.

Believe it or not, the horses actually handle well.

New Austin is a fictional territory set in the West. In the early-1900s, life on the frontier is wildly abuzz with the activity of townsfolk and the loud horn of a passing train, while at the same time, only a stretch over a couple of hills there’s a serene twisting river setting apart the embankments. John Marston is deathly afraid of swimming, as he expresses during one of the many cut scenes. Having characters with fleshed out flaws is a far better alternative than using cops and/or invisible walls as a means to block off the player’s progress until they’ve completed the required mission.

Marston is the quintessential Western character. Mean as they come, he’s an ex-bandit now dispatched by the Federal Government to round-up the fellow members of his old crime syndicate. Thus, he’s a villain given an opportunity to become a reformed lawman. This isn’t your typical stereotypical Grand Theft Auto character with everything to lose, either. John Marston is given the ultimatum of working for the government or being locked up and leaving his wife, young boy, and aging father to fend for themselves.

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There are other eclectic characters with sharp tongues and a good range of dialogue. Not once in the game did I ever have the thought that I’d rather skip a scene or an interaction with a stranded ‘damsel in distress’ – a character archetype which is portrayed in a short animated film within the game’s movie house. The asides from the main action never felt bothersome or offensive to the flowing narrative, whether I was pulled away for a game of gambling, horseshoes, blackjack, poker, etc., it rarely detracted from the experience and only made the game that much more immersive. There were a couple times the story came off the rails, leading me to believe I’d done things out of order or they were glossed over when Rockstar San Diego pieced together the continuity of the story.

There is enough gravity and consequence assigned to Marston’s actions for it to be convincing without hinging on over-indulgent. Killing good people in public is bad and places a bounty on your head. The sheriffs are easily avoided, so long as the bounty remains low, but when the highly-trained U.S. Marshalls are called in, it becomes a real struggle to stay alive. Once captured, you’ll be released with the agreement that you’ll be hunt down a high-stakes bounty, dead or alive, and will be slighted a large sum of money. Whether you choose to stick to the good or bad side of the morality meter, the choices don’t actually have any effect on the story and anyone you’ve killed is reincarnated within three in-game days.

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Many of the gameplay mechanics transfer over from Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV, which is unsurprising considering that both games use the RAGE engine, which was mostly created by the Rockstar San Diego team. At times the connection between John Marston and his surroundings left me in awe. When you brush by a non-playable character and the result is anything more than a canned animation it looks good. Though there were also instances where I’d barely push against them and they’d flop downward or in one case, when I was explaining how authentic I felt the movements were to someone nearby, a lady’s arm began convulsing. It’s clear that there are still some kinks in the RAGE engine, but when it’s used effectively, it makes a huge difference. Nonetheless, it bares a lot of similarities to the other games from GTA IV such as a clumsy albeit largely improved cover mechanic and the standard auto-targeting, which can be turned off in the menu. There’s a dusting of Fallout 3’s influence evident in the V.A.T.S.-inspired dead-eye and camping mechanics, as well as some of the elements of each game’s open world environs.

Without dwelling on the equine physics or breaking into hyperbole, the handling of Red Dead Redemption’s equine physics allows for horseback riding like it’s never been seen in a video game. Whereas Ocarina of Time might’ve been too far ahead of its time and Assassin’s Creed had a lot of the key ideas down but didn’t follow through convincingly, the horses of Redemption act with sentience and personaly. While it’s nothing to pour over senselessly and there needs to be some kind of option for viewing the breed of the horse you’re currently riding, the animals are certainly used effectively for herding missions, traveling, etc. The first time your horse dies and you realize it’s never coming back in the game, there’s a tangible feeling of grief. After doing hours of herding, outlaw-hunting, stranger missions, horseback racing and exploring the vast Western expanse, I’d worked hard to save my horse from dangerous packs of attacking coyotes, wolves, and bandits, so it felt a bit jarring when I accidentally ran him off a cliff.

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Ending effectively after a satisfying 30-something hour stretch of good, well-structured story arcs, there is still plenty of worthwhile gameplay in Red Dead Redemption’s multi-player, the most appealing aspect of which is the Free Roam mode. Allowing for players to form together into posses, the whole open world of New Austin, West Elizabeth and Mexico are presented, with camps of bandits littered about, providing an objective beyond killing everyone that’s not in your posse. There are also some other decent modes which you’ve likely become accustomed to in other games, like a treasure collecting mode where your character is given extra weight as he collects treasure and attempts to make it back to the treasure chest for the score; dramatic duels and deathmatch-scenarios are also included. As you gain experience, more characters, horses, and so on are unlocked for use in multi-player. This alone is no reason to buy a game, it mostly feels included out of necessity. We now expect every game to do the same things as its predecessor – Red Dead Revolver featured multi-player gun fights – so Redemption includes much-improved multi-player, sans circus midgets.

Offering up an example of how you always wanted Grand Theft Auto to look, Red Dead Redemption takes all of the qualities of the franchise and transitions them into a Western format on the verge of industrialization. It’s great to play a game-changing open world release that’s not based in a city or desolate wasteland, but instead takes place in the varied stretches of Westward land ready to be taken under government control. It fulfills the common elements of many regularly referenced pieces of western film and literature without becoming over-reliant on any one source of inspiration. Much like Batman Arkham Asylum did for superhero games last year, Red Dead Redemption never sacrifices gameplay to achieve authenticity, and makes the appropriate concessions in the story to keep the game heading in the right direction. Every time a Grand Theft Auto or Table Tennis game is released, we ask ‘how can Rockstar possibly surpass this in quality?’ Rockstar have redeemed themselves and there’s no need to return to the city after providing this compelling argument against automotive transportation.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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