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"Grand Theft Auto with horses," says the skeptical gamer upon seeing gameplay footage of Red Dead Redemption. It's similar to the skepticism that swirled around Fallout 3 ("Oblivion with guns"); it's a belief that the new game is simply a new skin wrapped around a familiar skeleton. While RDR does travel the same road as GTA, it parts from the latter in many interesting ways.
John Marston is a former outlaw who's been forced by the government to hunt down his long-time associate Bill Williamson. The fairly straightforward task leads Marston on a bloody, cross-country journey through the last days of the Wild West. Though he'll have to kill loads of people to complete his mission, he's a bit more moral than the GTA heroes. He's married and has a child, so he at least doesn't piledrive prostitutes all day. Whether he succumbs to his other old vices - robbery, murder, gambling and so forth - is up to the player. He's capable of being a force of justice or a ruthless criminal out on the frontier and this ambiguity makes his story more interesting than the nihilism that GTA offers up.
The large open-world environment of RDR is opened up to the player sector by sector as the story proceeds. Explaining its size in terms of other games (e.g. "It's got x more/less square miles than GTA IV") isn't really helpful because it's structured differently than most open-world games. GTA games have one or more large cities where the player spends most of their time but RDR's world only has a few villages. These small settlements are packed with minigames (such as Horseshoes and Poker) and offer up movies and newspapers for your entertainment but ultimately you'll spend most of your time in the wilderness. Though it's beautiful, the great outdoors are a bit sparse.
You can place waypoints on maps and instantly travel to them so you're not forced to trudge back and forth across the landscape too much. However, there are good reasons for you to ride the roads manually - or stray off them entirely. There are 30 species of animals, peaceful and predator, for you to hunt. Their pelts and meat can be sold in town for money and killing/skinning these animals allows you to complete challenges and earn rewards. They're fun to hunt just for the sake of hunting, though. Depending on their ecological niche, these animals will behave differently around you. Rabbits will dash away when it hears your approach. Wolves, though, will group up and try to attack you as a pack.
Horses are given the most attention by developers and it makes sense because they're your primary means of transportation. There's actually a relationship (of sorts) between Marston and his horse. First, you find a horse out in the wild, chase it down and lasso it. You can then run up to it and try to break the horse, which is essentially a balancing minigame. If successful, you can then hitch it to a post in town and it will become your permanent mount (until you catch a new one). You'll be able to summon it by pressing up on the D-pad and it will be replaced by a horse of the same breed if it dies. Even once that's all done, though, your horse's loyalty has its limits. If you spur the horse too much and ride it too hard, it will buck and ultimately toss you off. The key is to manage the horse's stamina (shown by a bar near the radar) by spurring it sparringly and feeding it apples to give it extra energy when needed. If you treat the horse well, you'll be able to boost its max stamina.
You'll find plenty of people out in the wild, too. Question mark icons will pop up on the map to point you toward NPC's offering quests ("strangers"), some of which have multiple steps. The game also employs a dynamic mission system, which randomly generates quests of a few different types. For example, you may find a traveler being attacked by animals or a wrongly accused man being lynched. How you respond to these scenarios - do you rescue the man or perhaps shoot him yourself - can affect your Honor score, which determines whether people respect or fear you. While many of these dynamic events are simply a matter of shooting a couple bad guys and will get old fast, it's a way for Rockstar to fill in the game world a bit more without having to craft additional unique stranger missions. It prevents the world from feeling like empty space and encourages you to explore a bit. Unlike some sandbox games, Redemption offers ample justification for its open-endedness.
My other big gripe about sandbox games is when the story missions end up being less fun than the putzing around a player does in the open world. Though some of the RDR missions are just simple shootouts, there are some really great moments packed into the campaign. About a third of the way through the game, you're tasked with guarding a train on its way through the countryside. You have to ride alongside the train on horseback while bandits attack from different directions. Seems straightforward enough until you realize how difficult it is to shoot the bandits on the other side of the tracks. You can try to time your shots and hit them through the space between the train cars, or risk darting across the front of the train to get to the enemies on the other side. It took me a couple attempts to get the hang of it; the repetition wasn't grating because the game employs a checkpoint system for these missions.
The combat controls are very much like GTA IV. It's a third-person shooter with cover mechanics. They've got the auto-aim shooting here, too, so you can coast through these fights if you want. If you're looking for more of a challenge, though, the game's got two other aiming modes. A step up from the Casual (auto-aim) targeting is Normal (the default), which only locks onto targets if you press the left trigger button halfway down. If you press the trigger all the way down, it goes into free aim. The Expert aiming mode only allows for free aiming. While some might scoff at the notion of auto-aim, its optional nature is enough for me to tolerate it. I think even veteran gamers will be tempted to use it during a high-speed chase.
Still, I'd recommend not using auto-aim at all because it undermines the Dead Eye mechanic. Dead Eye is a "bullet time" ability which slows down time for up to a few seconds. During this time, you can queue up shots on a few targets. Dead Eye time is drawn from a red bar in the corner of your screen which regenerates with time or use of certain items. It's useful in both close quarters and long distance fights. While slow-mo abilities aren't anything new, I'll reiterate that it's a balanced substitute for auto-aim. Looks pretty bad-ass when done well, too.
On the multiplayer side, Redemption has free-for-all, team deathmatch, and capture the flag style modes for up to 16 players. They're pretty conventional but they're bound together with an innovative new "Free Roam" mode. "Free Roam" is essentially like the Free Play mode from GTA IV, except that there's specially designed content for you to do. You can form a posse with up to 7 other players and complete unique online quests like clearing out gang hideouts or stealing a mine cart. You can also just run around killing other players. There's a certain MMO quality to the Free Roam.
Theoretically, players would form posses in Free Roam and then join up with the normal multiplayer modes as a team. Judging by the small games I usually find in the other multiplayer modes, though, it seems Free Roam is the preferred online diversion. I can't blame my fellow players for this preference. Running amuck in a sandbox world is a lot more fun with friends. In one Free Roam match, my posse took over the small town of Armadillo. We shot a few civilians and incurred the wrath of the law enforcement, which will continue to come after you until you flee their search radius. We opted not to flee and instead barricaded ourselves in a saloon. Fighting the stream of sheriffs was fun enough but once another posse of players showed up to attack us, it was a blast. This was true sandbox gameplay - a fun time that we ourselves had constructed in the game world.
Sometimes the appeal of the game isn't due to mission design, good graphics or player freedom. In some cases the cause of my enjoyment was simply Rockstar's cinematic flair and the exotic setting. At one point Marston helps a rancher guide a herd of cattle to the corral during a fierce thunderstorm. To keep the cows together and safe, you ride in front of stragglers and guide them back to the herd. While it wasn't a life-or-death scenario for my character, the game had convinced me that these cattle were important for the survival of this ranch.
It's interesting that one of the most engaging moments (for me, anyway) of this action game came from a scene where not a single shot was fired. I guess it's just that the the Wild West doesn't appear very much in video games and its unfamiliarity makes it fascinating. It's a rich and believable Wild West, too. Why the "Grand Theft Auto with horses" criticism rings so hollow is that the game isn't just a re-skin of GTA. Sure, Redemption looks like a Western but everything else about it is Western too - the missions, the storyline, the characters, and the gameplay mechanics. You couldn't adapt that cattle ranching mission to any other sandbox game out there.
With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar created a vivid Wild West setting with the same skill that they've crafted the crime-ridden cities of Grand Theft Auto. If you want an open-world game to pass the time with until GTA V is released, you can't do much better than Redemption. Redemption raises the bar that GTA IV had set two years ago.
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Publisher: Rockstar Games