Better Red Than Dead

24 05 2010

So, last week, a little game came out. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Goes by Red Dead Redemption. Being the wide-eyed, ever-eager-for-more vidja games hog that I am, I snatched up a copy of the game pronto-like. If you’ve watched or read any gaming news recently, you probably know about the game. Made by Rockstar (the same folks what made Grand Theft Auto), it’s an open-world game in much the same vein.

However, one thing that greatly separates RDR is its setting. RDR is set in America, 1911. It makes for a very interesting setting as the western states (such as Texas or New Mexico) were still mostly lawless entities that upheld the ideals and lifestyle of the wild west. However, industry was pushing west and the life of the cowboy was coming to an end. You play an outlaw in this setting, a former cowboy and gangster that has reformed his life in hopes of moving on. He has a wife and kids and a past that continues to haunt him into the game’s start. The story is incredibly cliche to start out, but it doesn’t hold the game back from what I’ve played of it.

The setting is one of RDR’s biggest strengths. While there have been plenty of games set in the west, some even set in an open-world western setting, but RDR does it best. Perhaps even the best of any open-world setting I’ve seen so far, and I’m a pretty damn big fan of open-world games like this. For starters, it’s incredibly open. Many games would shy away from this, preferring to make their game seem fuller or more involved. GTA IV, for instance, had very, very few open areas (aside from the water) where you could just stand and see emptiness around you. RDR uses the setting to its advantage, with several instances where you’ll be in the open with a little town on the horizon, perhaps a gang hideout and that’s about it.

It certainly captures the spirit of the west, the spirit of the time before everything became industrialized and populated. Out in the wild, you’ll see plenty of cacti, desert bushes and more. Wildlife was also not forgotten to be included. At any time, you can see birds flying by, deer galloping around, wild horses running by and other critters scampering about. All the critters have their own behaviors and all can be hunted and skinned. That’s right, PETA won’t be very happy to see a cowboy running around shooting horses in the face and skinning them, but dammit is it fun.

Once I set foot into one of the game’s towns, I was pretty surprised by the life shown. Sure, GTA IV had citizens that had their own schedules and mannerisms, but RDR takes it one step further. People in the town will buy things from the shop, order drinks from the saloon, do chores at the ranch, check their horses and more. And of course, being that it’s the lawless west, you’ll see plenty of random acts of violence. One time I walked out of the saloon and heard a woman scream. I glanced to my left to see her chased by a drunken yokel. He yelled at her to calm down, brandishing his knife at her. I was given a moral choice, the game did nothing to warn me about this. I could shoot this drunken man and protect the woman, or simply walk on by and go about my business. Being the nice guy I am, I chose to save her. I shot the man dead and people jumped, some cowered in fear, but the woman was only too happy to thank me. I received a bonus in honor and about $5 or so as thanks.

There’s been some flack about the main character, how he doesn’t really have a personality, and I can see where they come from. John Marston is comparable to Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (or just about any western) but he’s easy to sympathize with. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s done bad things in his past and he knows it. He simply wants to do what’s right, but if someone messed with him, they’ll regret it. Of course, the bad thing about this is since it’s an open-world game, the player is free to make him a complete jackass. That’s a problem I have with this sort of thing. The character, John Marston, is a nice guy, overall, but if the player wishes, he can be downright dastardly. The game allows you to lasso and hogtie innocents, allows you to blow innocents away and rob banks, which just isn’t something Marston does, at least anymore. You can even approach whores who may hit on Marston, but he simply shakes his head, saying “Sorry miss, I’m not that kind of man anymore.”  I know they want to give the player the freedom to do what they want, but when in one cutscene, Marston can talk about how he’s not a violent man anymore that only hurts those that deserve it, the player can murder an entire town and throw a hogtied woman in front of the train if they wish. Maybe it only bugs me, but it just seems weird that a player can do that.

However, one of the randomized events that really stuck with me happened as I rode through the wilderness. A man approached me, shouting about how his friend was being hanged for something he didn’t do. I rode with the man and saw a tree surrounded by thugs with a man being hanged, kicking and screaming for help. I pulled out my gun and began to shoot the thugs, but one ran behind the hanged man. It should be noted that not all guns are pinpoint accurate, and I found this out in the worst way. I aimed a bit closer to try and get a shot on this man, by the bullet veered to the left, hitting the hanged man and killing him. The man who called for my help fell to his knees and began sobbing that his friend had died. There was still a thug left, who immediately shot the crying man in the head. I shot the thug and was left there with seven or so dead people around me. Now, I’m not really one to get emotional around games, and I can kill an NPC in a game without mercy, but this made me pause. I actually felt bad that I shot the wrong man and felt bad that his friend was quickly shot in a moment of pause. Rockstar should be commended for its efforts in making the world seem alive and making me care, at least momentarily, about one of its fake inhabitants.

In case you forgot this is a Rockstar game, you’re reminded constantly. They invented the open-world game as we know with GTA III, and the formula still works today. You see icons on your map where you get missions, you do your mission, advance the story and so on. Sure, it’s a formula, sure, it may be tired, but it works. The setting and characters in RDR are so impressive and interesting, you won’t really care.

Ok, I’m going to cut this short here. There’s still MUCH more to be said about Red Dead Redemption, but for the sake of your sanity, dear reader, I’ll stop it here. Stay tuned for an entry about the game’s incredible multiplayer mode(s) and a bit more about the game itself.




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