Red Dead Redemption Updated ImpressionsBy Sterling McGarvey - Posted Dec 15, 2009
Rockstar Games has already established its legacy on urban exploration. There’s little dispute that Grand Theft Auto IV showed off a vibrant world teeming with plenty of activities, but with Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar wants to attempt the same feat in rural territory. Rockstar San Diego returns to the saddle nearly six years after Red Dead Revolver debuted on PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Hopefully, the team’s experience with rendering a vast recreation of the City of Angels with Midnight Club: Los Angeles has helped sharpen the dev house’s skills. I witnessed a 45 minute presentation of Redemption recently, and so far, it looks to bring the franchise in line with what has been accomplished with the Grand Theft Auto series.
Redemption takes place over three territories: West Elizabeth, New Austin, and Nuevo Paraiso in Mexico. Rockstar’s demo focused squarely on Nuevo Paraiso. In this section, the game’s protagonist, John Marston, is tracking associates through the terrain. In an era-inspired nod to GTA’s safehouse system, Marston can save at any camp spot. It’s the first thing I notice as he rises in the morning and mounts a trusty stallion. The second thing I notice is how smooth the animation on the horse looks. The musculature of the creature looks true to form. Or, as one of my cohorts succinctly blurts out, “I can’t stop staring at that horse’s ass!” Admittedly, the structure of the horse looks magnificent. Like vehicle classes, Redemption allows you to pick out your equine partner by breed. The black stallion that Marston rides in the demo is apparently among the most powerful in the game.
As Marston rides, he encounters a group of bandits robbing a stagecoach. Like other open-world games, Redemption offers up the chance to make binary choices that affect your renown or notoriety. For the sake of the demo, Marston takes down the banditos and helps the driver to safety. I ask whether Marston can simply ignore the robbery and suffer karma points for doing nothing. That won’t happen, says Rockstar. Since there are so many ambient events, docking points for doing nothing would be unfair. Coming fresh off Assassin’s Creed II, I inquire as to whether or not he can loot corpses. Indeed he can, says the producer.
After stripping some ammo off the dead bodies, Marston rides into the center of a small village. As I look at the cracked and peeling paint on buildings, the scummy fountain in the town center, and the in-game illusion of visual heat warp, I can only jot down “environments look beautifully ugly and aged.” The art style really captures a sense of a lived-in space. Marston strolls around a market where ladies sell pottery and butchers chop up meat. Cutting over to the sheriff’s office, he eyes a wanted poster. These icons of the Wild West are a device to kick off side missions in Redemption.
Marston takes up the mission on the poster, which involves capturing a notorious criminal. If you hogtie him and bring him in alive, you’ll earn a sizable chunk of cash. Of course, you can always bring the body back and reap some dividends as well. During this current renaissance of open-world games, distractions and diversions seem more apparent and pervasive. During Marston’s journey to nab the crook, he spies a man begging for help. He stops to help the guy, who knocks him off the stallion and attempts to ride off with it. He doesn’t get far. Fifty feet later, Marston whistles, the horse bucks the thief, and Marston pumps him full of lead. Back to the mission. Marston makes his way to the criminal in question, who’s surrounded by a gang of bodyguards. He shoots through the other associates before reaching his man. Unfortunately, he puts up too much of a fight, and Marston must put him down, content to take evidence of his death.
Rockstar fast forwards to another segment, this time at night. Marston joins up with some lawmen to put down an uprising in a small village. During the shootout, I notice the ways that Rockstar San Diego adapts video game devices and conventions to the Western setting. In lieu of red, explosive barrels, Marston can shoot at oil lamps, which set enemies ablaze. At this point in the demo, I ask about close quarters combat, since I felt that it was one of Grand Theft Auto IV’s weaker points. The producer replies with a close-range shotgun blast to one enemy’s face. It’s appropriately brutal. The targeting system also resembles GTA4, but lacks the auto-aim function. Amidst the blood-spattering violence, two things stand out to me. The producer aims Marston’s view upward, and I notice the stars. They’re bright and gorgeous in Redemption, and I see vultures beginning to loom over the town in search of fresh carrion.
In the final mission, Marston is hooked up with Abraham Reyes, a revolutionary who wants to storm a local army fort for supplies. Marston kicks off the raid with an explosives-packed stagecoach, which he drives into the base, before jumping off. One thing’s for sure: PETA’s not going to thrilled with the amount of equine death in Redemption. The base, from what I watch, feels like a deathtrap, and it’s a good thing Rockstar has God mode turned on. Around every crevice and corner, there are gunmen packing massive heat. After shooting his way through several soldiers, Marston climbs to a tower on top of the fort and commandeers a cannon so that he can cut reinforcements off at the knees.
Although Red Dead Redemption certainly has elements that are reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s a bit oversimplistic, if not unfair, to simply label it “Western GTA.” If Redemption delivers on its dark, brooding story and ambience -- reminiscent of Nick Cave’s 2006 anti-Western “The Proposition” or Sam Peckinpah’s tributes to the dying West -- then it could be a unique animal of its own. As it stands now, it’s a great-looking, wide-open world, and I’m looking forward to playing it some more. You should be, too.