How the West Was Won: Red Dead Redemption Hands-On

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Video game westerns tend to be weird beasts. Games like Call of Juarez or Gun tend to focus on the gunfighting aspects of the cowboy genre, which is a natural fit. But this fixation on shooting winds up making them feel generic, like every other weapon-based combat game dressed up in a ten-galloon hat.

Red Dead Redemption won’t feel that way.

I played a few chunks of the game yesterday and it’s clear that Rockstar’s trying to do something enormous with their take on turn-of-the-century America. Rockstar reps told me that RDR will have the biggest map of any game they’ve made so far and there will be 500 individual characters with speaking parts. Mind you, that’s in addition to the tons of non-playable characters that will be populating the towns in the game’s fictional Old West.

As for Redemption’s main guy, he lead character’s a former thief named John Marston, who’s trying to leave the ne’er-do-well life behind. But a law-enforcement agency named the Bureau–a sort of antecedent to the FBI–kidnaps his wife and child to force Marston to hunt down the members of his old gang.  The backdrop of RDR is an America where new invenyions like the telephone are emerging and big corporations like the railroad companies use their influence to get their way, by doing things like getting local marshals to drive out Native Americans from their land.

Marston’s a conflicted character whose battle prowess will be called into service of some morally ambiguous missions. In terms of controls, anyone who’s played a GTA game in the last few years will feel instantly at home in RDR. The biggest differences will be in Marston’s weapon set and how he gets around. For the latter, you’ll have a horse who comes to you when you whistle. You can spur the horse to increase gallop speed but if you do it too much, he’ll gets over-tired and try to throw you off. When it comes to weapons, Marston will be able to wield a six-shooter, repeating carbine rifle and a shotgun. Marston will also have a lasso, which will work on just about any person or creature in the world. If you don’t have a horse, you can go out and snare a wild bronco, which you’ll then have to tame in a mini-game. I roped a grazing steer when I was playing, only to bulldozed and get dragged a few yards for my trouble. Cows and horses won’t be the only critters in the game; you’ll be able to hunt and skin 40 animal species, too. The skins and flesh will be let you earn money in the markets of the town you visit.

You’ll be a stranger in most of the game’s locales and, depending on who you help and how you help them, residents will be friendly or wary. One mission I played had me cajoling a reluctant sheriff into doing his job so Marston could track down a fugitive. The soundtrack really helps to create a tense, lonesome vibe when you’re on horseback. Reps said that the music took cues from Ennio Morricone’s work with classic spaghetti westerns, as well as rock legend Nick Cave’s work on the soundtrack for The Proposition.

Riding out to the deserted ranch where the varmints had holed up, I got to take advantage of the Dead Eye mechanic, the key feature for gunfights. Dead Eye slows down time and allows you to selectively target parts of an enemy’s body. They’ll get shot in spectacularly unique fashion in ways that almost make you feel like an artist. All that fancy shooting will get people talking about you, too. The Fame system has pluses and minuses. If you’re renown as a honest lawman, NPCs will lend you a horse to get around town. But, if you’re more of a vigilante jerk, other NPCs will challenge you to duels to try and take you down.

Another mission took me to meet a crazy ol’ coot named Seth, who’d been robbing a grave when I stole up on him. Seth was all fired up about a treasure he’d heard about and needed Marston’s gun skills to deal with the gang that wanted the loot as well. I got really see where RDR’s day/night cycle would impact the gameplay. The fight started in the late afternoon and I had no problem picking off bad guys as they hid behind rocks. But, when the sun set and I had only moonlight to see by, it was harder to figure out where exactly the gang members were skulking. Once the bad guys were all shot t pieces, a flock of vultures set to feasting on their dead bodies. It may seem gruesome but it’s this kind of stripped-down, naturalistic presentation that shows just how dedicated Rockstar is to delivering a Western experience that feels like it has its own holistic logic.

I only got to play single-player missions from RDR but it will have multiplayer options as well. Rockstar’s releasing Red Dead Revolver on May 18th for Xbox 360 and PS3.  Look for more coverage on the game in the coming weeks.