Manifest Destiny: Techland Reviews Red Dead Redemption

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Red Dead Redemption
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
ESRB rating: M for Mature
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

Rockstar’s taking a big gamble with Red Dead Redemption. They’re taking fans who’ve grown to love the publisher on the strength of their brilliant Grand Theft Auto games and plopping them into the prairies of the Old West.  Will the loyal gamers who’ve thrived in Liberty City and San Andreas follow Rockstar’s open-world vision to old-time New Austin?

Howdy, Stranger:

It’s apparent right away that Rockstar’s got different ideas in mind for Red Dead Redemption by the way it opens. If you’ve been eagerly anticipating the game, then you already know that John Marston’s a former crook who had settled down to start a family. And you know that federal agents have threatened the safety of Marston’s family to blackmail him into tracking down his former compatriots and bringing them in dead or alive. But, you don’t get the full picture of this set-up until well into the game. When RDR starts off, you’re already compromised. Marston’s been bullied into helping the federales and goes after old running buddy Bill Williamson. After a tense discussion with Bill, rifles get drawn and Marston goes for his pistol, only to get shot down and left for dead. Luckily, a lady rancher comes upon him and nurses him back to health.

Marston’s the most gentlemanly Rockstar video game protagonist that I can remember. Sure , it works mostly as a function of the period-accurate speech but you also get the sense that they’re flouting critics who paint them as only capable of creating vulgar things. But, it’s clear from that opening that Marston’s a man who’s lost his way. It falls on the player to help shape what kind of man he’s going to be. Does he revert to his old hell-raising ways or does he become a man who aids in helping tame the wild west? Rockstar’s playing with the pacing and story delivery in RDR and the story missions don’t come out in a neat little procession. You’ve got to discover the story and how it progresses in RDR and that means talking to everyone and roaming the countryside.

Seen ‘im Shoot The Wings Off a Fly From More’n a Hunnert Yards:

Redemption gives players some sharply defined gameplay mechanics to engage the world with. Of course, shooting’s the most important in a Western action game and it feels satisfyingly solid. The tiny white reticule dot replicates the pinpoint accuracy you’d have to have as a gunslinger and you can take out specific limbs for those times when you want to capture a target alive. The Dead Eye feature gets you slow down time and paint points on the target where you want shots to land. It’s useful but you still wind up wanting to become a better shot with relying on Dead Eye.  (If not, there’s also an aim assist toggle that locks onto targets for you.) Speaking of takin’ ‘em alive, using the lasso to truss up your bounties or animal kills is as easy as shooting: just aim and fire. Horseback riding features a nice management mechanic where you’ll need to watch your horse’s stamina while keeping up speed. Work him too hard and he’ll buck you off.  RDR’s packed with unique side missions and skills that you can build up–hunting wild animals, foraging for herbs and plants, running down wanted men for bounties. There’s a lot to do but, again, none of it jumps up and down for your attention.

The biggest triumph of RDR is the sense of the world being dynamically generated all around you. Riding out from ranch to town, you’ll see cowboys hunting deer, shootouts between lawmen and criminals and highwaymen robbing stagecoaches. You don’t have to interfere in any of it, but, if you do, you’ll build a reputation that will affect how you’re greeted and treated as well as the side quests available to you. At one point, after a gunfight I barely survived, I walked around to loot the bodies of the dead bad guys. Suddenly, I stumbled to the ground, almost dead and the screen pulsing red. It turns out it was an effing rattlesnake that almost spoiled my hard-won victory. I groused at first thinking that I should’ve had some warning but then I realized that that’s exactly how something like that would’ve happened. Then I shot the snake dead and skinned it. Good riddance, but awesome, nonetheless. Getting snakebit like that shows how Rockstar’s tweaking the template that players have gotten used to in urban open-world games. This ain’t the city, and you folks are gonna have get used to roughing it.

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