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Red Dead Redemption

Your horse trots along the hillside, the sunlight friscalating against the sage brush. Spotting a white-tailed deer you raise your Spencer rifle. Sighting in on the deer, with the rifle balanced against your other arm, you take a deep breath, hold it -- and then you notice how quiet things are. The deer runs off, suddenly. Cursing, you try to put it back in your sights --

-- but you're on the ground now, pinned under the corpse of your horse.

A catty growl tells you that the cougar that killed your horse is upon you, but you can't see the bastard. It killed your horse with a single swat of its paw. Tossing the Spencer into your other hand (the one that isn't pinned under your horse's body) you realize you've only got one shot. The cougar lunges.

Welcome to the world of Red Dead Redemption.

Rockstar's latest open world video game is a wonderful homage to spaghetti westerns like For a Few Dollars More, Hang 'Em High and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Film critic Roger Ebert recently declared that video games can never be art. He's clearly never played a game like Red Dead Redemption.

Players will step into the role of John Marston, a man with a shady past who went straight, got married and had a son. Federal agents (finally, a plausible villain!) hold Marston's family hostage. To win their freedom Marston must go back to the border states where he used to raise havok with his old gang. His mission: round up the outlaws he used to ride with, or kill them.

For those unfamiliar with the 'open world' concept, here's a short rundown. You start the game and then do whatever you please. The game doesn't carry you in a linear fashion from one plot point to the next. Instead, you can opt to do parts of the overall plot at your own pace, exploring the game world in between plot developments.

Game World
And it's a huge, extremely detailed world. Animals (over 35 different kinds) inhabit the wilderness. Wolves and coyotes hunt in packs, and they can (and will) kill you if you're not careful. Bears and wild boar lurk alongside skunks, and birds like crows and eagles flap and soar through the wilderness. These animals aren't just sprites that move around; they can be hunted, skinned and they interact with one another. Rockstar's attention to detail here is wonderful -- if you notice vultures circling far off in the distance, go investigate! If you notice a coyote running after you, look for the rest of them before they encircle you.

Visually the game world is straight out of a Sergio Leone western, complete with rosy sunsets and harrowing thunderstorms. Players can spend time just trotting through the world, waiting for the game to throw a random encounter at you. In one encounter a man on horseback begs the player for help, saying that a group of men are going to hang his friend, who didn't do anything wrong! It's up to the player to rush to where the victim is and stop the hanging.

Rockstar is clever enough to give the player lots of ways to resolve the situation. The player can ignore the problem, or help. When helping, you could just shoot the men trying to lynch the man (or woman, the game pulls no punches) -- but maybe all that's necessary is to shoot your gun in the air? This all assumes the player even gets to the victim in time.

Sometimes the random events were more sinister. In one instance, I found a woman on the side of the road with a broken stagecoach. She coquettishly asked for help, and since I was a Boy Scout in all of my past lives I jumped off my horse to assist her. I didn't even notice the five men with guns hiding behind the stagecoach. After dispatching them I lasso'd the woman, hog-tied her, and then left her on some nearby  train tracks. I didn't stick around to wait for the train.

Which brings up RDR's main method of moving around the game world -- the horse. Again, the detail that was brought to this aspect of the game is fascinating. There are multiple horse breeds, with different colors, markings, stamina, and reactions. Some are more suited for racing, others for wilderness traveling. Others are sickly and can die if over-spurred. Players can be bucked off the horse if they push it too hard. And of course, they're not bullet-proof. One of the game's neat features is that you can whistle for your horse, and it will come looking for you. Also, how the horse is treated by the player matters. A horse that is more loyal to you has greater endurance and speed.

And then there are wild horses, some of which can only become available to the player once you 'break them'. That means lasso-ing them out in the wilderness, mounting them, and holding on for dear life.

There are also stagecoaches, trains and shoe leather. If you can imagine doing something, or have seen it done in a Western, then it's worth trying. Want to ride your horse alongside a train and jump aboard? Go ahead. Want to tie up the conductor and de-rail the train? It may be possible. Rockstar is just that crazy.

If you thought the animals in the game were difficult, try going into a town. There you'll find anti-Semitic shop owners ("No Jewish goods in my store!" -- no joke!), prostitutes, gang members, cowboys and ranchers. You can play 'Five Finger Fillet' (jab a knife between your fingers faster than your opponent), cheat at poker, and defend the town from the Walton Gang. Players can drink whiskey until they can barely stand up, or they can go to the tailor and get themselves some new cityslicker clothes.

There are random encounters in towns just as they occur in the wilderness. Perhaps a man in the street decides he just doesn't like your face and challenges you to a duel. Will you accept? Will you ignore the hooker screaming for help as her John threatens to kill her? In ways that are somewhat similar to Fallout 3, the player must make moral decisions. You can be a hero, or a desperado, it's up to the player.

If the player does something criminal like killing a dog, a law-abiding person, or stealing, they will become 'Wanted' with a bounty amount being shown on screen. A posse will be dispatched to capture the player and you'll have to stay out of the posse's visual range long enough for your wanted status to return to normal. Still, the player will not be able to go near civilized towns until he either pays off his own bounty, or allows himself to be arrested and jailed.

Red Dead Redemption has a unique 'harsh language' system, that can be used to mollify opponents into submission. Tersely-worded letters can also be written, or, players can tell various NPCs scattered across the game world to tell their opponent that they're not speaking to them, on account of their boorishness.

I'm joking of course.

Players will deal with danger using traditional weapons of the Wild West -- fists, knives and hot lead -- and the occasional stick of dynamite. The targeting system in RDR is somewhat similar to the one seen in Fallout 3 (another fantastic 'open map' game, which is why this reviewer kept on comparing the two). When firing a weapon the player has two choices -- they can pull their gun, target and fire. This isn't always easy to do on a galloping horse, while chasing someone or being chased yourself.

The second method is to use your 'Dead Eye' meter. When your 'Dead Eye' is triggered time slows down (but only in single-player), the screen color changes to red and you can 'paint' different parts of your target, and then choose to fire on those targets once you exit the 'Dead Eye' mode. You unfailingly hit those targets, but painting them before your meter runs out can be tricky. The 'painting' requires a steady hand, or you'll 'paint' the target's arm's, legs, or some other part that is unintended.

This is a big improvement over Fallout 3's targeting system, which allowed a player to take their sweet, sweet time deciding what part of an opponent to hit -- taking some of the spontaneity out of the game. In Fallout 3 you could be surrounded by multiple enemies and effectively freeze the game while you decided how to respond in combat. A player could prepare a sandwich in the midst of an attack, and as cool as that might be, it takes away some of the 'sting' of battle.

Rockstar's new system achieves a nice balance requiring some skill and limiting how much of it you get. Your 'Dead Eye' meter replenishes slowly over time or by using items like chewing tobacco or moonshine. So you can't use 'Dead Eye' all the time, requiring that you either be skilled at shooting without it, or use it strategically.

The targeting system also allows you to do things like cut ropes with bullets, shoot weapons out of an opponent's hands, or shoot their hats off, leaving them unharmed. Again, gotta be careful -- it's easy to shoot someone's hat off, and then their head, accidentally.

Combat physics are good, with opponents (or yourself) crumpling very authentically when shot. Shooting an opponent's horse out from under them might slow them down, but once they're back on their feet they'll still be shooting. Or maybe their spur will get caught in reins and they'll be dragged behind the horse.

John Marston meets a wide variety of characters as the plot unfolds. The NPCs you meet in-game hit all the Wild West stereotypes that fans of the genre will expect and stretch across a wide spectrum of morality -- there's the insane prospector, the beautiful-but-strong female rancher, the sheriff who isn't sure he trusts John, and a snake oil salesman who would make P.T. Barnum proud.

Some of the cutscenes are rather funny, and a lot of the dialogue between John and the plot characters take place while they're headed out to some destination, riding by stagecoach or horseback. It all flows very nicely and the dialogue feels natural and real. The voice-acting is well-done.

The game world itself is somewhat limited by how far along the player gets in the main plotline, but not much. The overall game world is broken up into very large zones. Players who try to get into a zone that is not yet open to them will find a bridge that is under construction blocking their path.

Go Plumb Crazy!
What really makes RDR so much fun is that there are so many different activites, aside from breaking the law or following the plot. You can toss horseshoes (just as much of an adrenaline rush as off-line horseshoes), poker, blackjack, or liar's dice. You can bend an elbow at the local saloon and get yourself properly roostered, then stagger out into the street and find some trouble. There's also cattle herding and breaking horses for those looking for honest work. There's also hunting for animal skins and pelts.

Or, you can hunt humans by taking up bounties on dangerous criminals. Bounty hunting is one of the quickest ways to make some fast dinero. Once the target is found, players have to take out the target's  gang and then bring them in alive (hog-tied and laid out on the back of the player's horse) or dead (take off their thumb as proof). Either way the player has to fight their way back to the nearest jail, which means eluding pursuing bandits on horseback. It's exciting and requires some strategic thinking.

Strangers you meet in towns or the wilderness may also ask you for help, providing opportunities for side quests. Also, skills can be ranked up by performing certain tasks for skills like hunting, sharpshooting, wilderness survival and treasure-hunting. Once you reach Rank 10 in any of these skills something useful is unlocked. Level 1 Sharpshooting requires that you do something very simple, like shoot a bird out of the sky. Higher levels for other skills can be considerably harder -- for one of the higher levels of the hunting skill I was required to kill two cougars using only a knife. Madness!

Players looking for an even rougher experience can log into the multiplayer action and enter 'Free Roam'. This game mode is just like the single-player mode (same game world) with the exception that there's no plot to unfold and other players can wander around the game world. This means you can hunt down other players for fun or work cooperatively and fight to clear out groups of bandits for 'XP'. Get enough experience playing multiplayer and players can unlock different character models, weapons and mounts. Some of the mounts range to the exotic including steer, buffalo, white buffalo and a Zebra Donkey (Zonkey) which is what results when a Zebra makes sweet love to a donkey.

Players can directly enter matches that run the gamut of typical multiplayer games, similar to Capture-the-Flag, straight out team versus team fights, and free-for-all battles. The game world in Free Roam is just like the single-player game world, so you can hole up in an abandoned fort with some friends and defend it from other players. It is possible to create a 'posse' of fellow players and tackle special missions as a group. That new capability was recently added to RDR via a free upgrade.

This reviewer hasn't played much multiplayer yet, and the few times were about what you would expect -- a lot of trash-talking and getting shot in the head. Without Dead Eye it was very hard to get a bead on someone.

Final Conclusion
The only other game that even comes close to being as good is Fallout 3, which, truth be told, I would consider a slightly better game only because it was far funnier. The action in RDR, however, turns out to be better, and far more challenging.

I can't recommend Red Dead Redemption enough. It's fast, easy to learn and offers such an overwhelmingly fun array of things to do that the replay value should be quite high. The graphics are great, and while the game's styling is somewhat reminiscent of Rockstar's earlier open map games like Grand Theft Auto, the theme is so fully realized that it feels like a completely different experience. From little details like the pause screen (which renders the game screen into a stark, red-white-black Westernized sumi painting) to the lonesome theme, Rockstar nailed all those little details to the wall, making Red Dead Redemption an 'open map' game of the first water.

Reviewer's Overall Rating: 
Average: 10 (1 vote)

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