Monday 7 June 2010

Red Dead Redemption - Review

Red Dead Redemption can easily be written off as Grand Theft Auto on horse back and although there's plenty the game shares with Rockstar's other sandbox titles there's also much that makes it distinctly different.  Fans of Grand Theft will feel immediately at home with the controls, what they might be surprised by is the tone of the game, the moments of peace and tranquillity and a story that has you empathising with the games lead from the very start.

GTA4 will remain as this generation of consoles stand out sandbox game in most people's eyes but Red Dead achieves what Dan Howser (head of Rockstar) wanted with that title right from the start.  Of course you can play this game as a bad ass if you want, but you won't, and that's the achievement.  By making John Marston such a likeable character, with a clear reason for stepping back into the world of outlaws, after attempting to go straight, you will step into his shoes and do your best to play the good guy throughout.

A game like this is going to live and die by three things, the gameplay, the story and the visuals and all three are delivered with much panache.

Visuals first then.  Is it better looking than GTA4?  Yes in many ways it is.  Rockstar, because of the Wild West Setting, have been able to create a huge area to ride around in that is, at times, breathtaking.  And yet what really makes the areas sing is how alive it all feels.  It's nigh on impossible to sit on the back of your horse and not see some wild life, whether it's a deer, a rabbit, a bear, or an eagle soaring high above you.  Weather plays it's part too and a coupled with the in game clock, leads to the sky never seeming to look the same twice.  Characters move well, although running will make John Marston look a tad odd, but the horses, such a key element, look superb, manes flowing and hooves leaving tiny horseshoe prints in the dust.

The story will, for the most part, keep you enthralled throughout.  There's a dip in quality during the games second act in Mexico (despite containing some of Red Dead's most exciting missions) but by the third you will be glued to your controller again, desperate to see where it all ends.  Marston's quest to bring his two former outlaw colleagues to justice, in order to save his wife and child from government agents, has you empathising and caring about him from the start.  Yes, there's plenty of ambiguity about who he helps to get what he wants, but it's less far fetched than Nico's GTA4 tale, the environment and 1911 setting help to keep Red Dead grounded in reality.  There's plenty of great characters throughout, the voice acting is superb, some you'll love and some you'll hate but all feel like properly fleshed out people with their own motivations.  In terms of 'a tale told well' Rockstar out do themselves here.  One moment you will be laughing at Marston's wry asides or staring opened mouthed at a grave robber chatting away to an exhumed corpse but for nearly the whole 25 hours plus of the story you will be willing John Marston on to the end of his journey in the Great Plains.

The gameplay is where everything really hangs though and it's here that Rockstar, as usual, truly excel.  Open world games, where you can go wherever you choose live and die by what what you can do within the constraints of that world and in Red Dead there are times when the multitude of options available is just unbelievable.  Want to go hunting?  Done.  Want to have a dual?   Done.  Want to rid a town of bandits?  Done?  Want a game of poker?  Done.  And on and on it goes.  The Wild West has provided Rockstar with a rich history and they've cherry picked the best of that to create a game that that feels so very alive and the sheer depth to what's going on is a joy to behold.  Random events crop up throughout, which you can either choose to ignore or get involved with.  From saving a man's wife from a hanging, to simply recapturing escaping prisoners (dead or alive) or even just sitting down at a roadside camp and listening in to a conversation, there is never a trip that doesn't give you an opportunity to build your fame and honour.

'Fame and honour' make a difference to how the rest of the games inhabitants perceive you but it all feels a bit of a bolt on and has no tangible impact on the games story.  So although you have some control over Marston's decision making, it's far more about feel than it is about outcome.

The traditional mission based structure that GTA fans will be used to is here but the constant distractions and challenges all help to keep the momentum going throughout.  The missions themselves are the usual mix of go here, shoot him, come back here and shoot the other guy etc, but they are nicely interspersed with plenty of missions that are just as much about building the story and giving you more of Marston's backstory as they are about shooting the bad guys.

Gun play is suitably weighty, the various weapons feeling 'of their time' and battles can be fraught tight affairs until you discover what could so easily be a deal breaker.  'Dead Eye'.  Essentially it's bullet time, eventually evolving into a slow motion mode where you can target body parts of multiple enemies and pick them off before they've even unleashed a shot.  You can choose to not use it if you wish but at times it's essential.  The trouble is it can make battles almost too easy and you'll walk away from a fight, with what appeared to be insurmountable odds, without even a scratch.  Rockstar are in dangerous territory here, Dead Eye looks brilliant, you can see enemy bullets hit you in slow motion and the ensuing spray of red, but turning battles into a walkover could so easily have been a miss step.  What saves it are two things.  One it's nicely limited, so you'll pick and choose when you use it and most of the time you won't even bother, even later battles are perfectly completable without it.  But the most important factor is that when you do use it, it's like getting a snap shot of how Marston's brain works alongside his gun.  The way that in a blink of an eye he can pick his shots and drop six bandits doesn't feel out of place, it just helps to make you feel more like a gun-slinger. 

Red Dead Redemption is the 'game of the year' so far.  Rockstar continue to produce titles of the highest quality but this could be the moment when we look back and say, here's where they grew up and things really got interesting.

Absolutely essential and that's without even mentioning the superb online mode.  You will believe that you are a cowboy.


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