Red Dead Redemption is yet another ‘open world’ game. That’s a fact. But it could also be the best of its kind. Rockstar’s Rage engine was built specifically to bring this game to life. From bunnies and dogs running wild to sweeping Western vistas you can completely explore, this may well be as open a game as you have ever seen.
You are John Marston, and like any good Western hero you are a man with your own agenda. In a previous preview session with Rockstar, we saw a scenario where you help a band of rebels defeat a Mexican military outfit. In this session, we were shown another sequence where you are helping the Mexican military take down the rebels. Clearly you’re primary interest is to work with whoever is going to help get you closer to your own goals.
First thing that hits you: the voice acting is superb. Good actors and good dialogue make for a story that pulls you in very quickly. It’s easy to forget that it takes effort to pay this kind of attention to detail, so kudos to Rockstar for the effort.
We get hands on as Marston offers to help a sheriff deal with some of his towns outlaw problems. With a simple click we whistle up our trusty steed, jump aboard and gallop away with the sheriff to deal with the troubles. Horse control is slick, with stepped speed increments as you spur on your horse. Each speed increment will be maintained until you speed up or slow down, so you can then focus on other actions — you can aim and shoot at speed on horseback, and it doesn’t feel like an overload of commands to stay in control of. But damn if it doesn’t feel good to do.
You can also hold the spur button to follow your ride partner’s direction and speed, perfect in this scenario where the sheriff is leading me to a hideout.
Soon we’re into a fight, and it’s readily apparent how detailed the hit modelling is here. I shoot the hat off a guy hiding behind a rock, I shoot a guy in the arm, the leg, and even shoot the gun from a bandits hand. A leg shot puts the guy down and he’ll try to crawl or even get back up and run off with a nasty limp.
Cover is comfortable and not too sticky. There was some weirdness when hiding behind a very round object, like a boulder. At times the engine seemed unsure of where I was attached to the cover. So when I tried to duck in tight, I at times found myself in an open firing line for the enemy. Hopefully this is something they’re still working to refine... or I might have just been an unco.
After clearing the area, there was our main capture target. The sheriff tells me that if I can put him down without killing him, he’ll be useful for questioning. Now the target busts out of his shack and starts shooting. I missed the mark and killed him with a straight up chest shot. Apparently my honour rating would have gained the most benefit if he’d lived. That makes for an important game function — shoot with care, and your Marston will be rewarded.
Another look around the area, and you notice vultures circling. All the dead outlaws in the area have drawn their attention. Taking a pot shot at the birds, you find with one kill you enter a sharpshooter mode. Make a number of kills and you ‘level up’ your skill. Plus you can pluck feathers from your kills and sell them in town. Same goes for killing rabbits and other animals, which you can skin for pelts or meat. We most definitely did not shoot a horse just to see what happens, and most definitely did not skin the horse. The ensuing horse skinning sound effects, which we most definitely did not hear, were excruciating.
More random exploration led to the discovery of a campsite, where a traveller called me over to sit and chat. On approach he drew and fired, and after a short firefight he went down. Wandering up to the site I found a woman bound and gagged, along with a weird collection of human bones. My Rockstar hands on partner told me he’d rarely seen this cannibal encounter, and that at other times you might find a very similar looking campsite with friendly characters. Procedural encounter goodness.
There’s a lot of self-starter activities. Take bounty hunting missions, play bar games, step up for a town’s night watch duties, or just wander about and look for real events you can get involved with. I chased down a man who had just robbed a store and retrieved the cash. At that point you can decide if you just want to keep the money, or return it for some fame and honour. Which do you need more right now?
In a final hands on scenario, we enter a mission to retrieve a gatling gun from a mine occupied by outlaws. The best of the sequence takes place as we start pushing a mining cart through the mines, using it for cover as we take down enemies. You can get creative and knock out lanterns to start fires, or just shoot up some TNT to blow the bad guys to bits. Gatling gun retrieved (it was in a box, so no rampage for us in this hands on) you start pushing the cart onward and hit a steep slope where you just jump on the back as it speeds along. Obstacles and enemies pop up ahead, so a steady hand is needed to keep shooting quickly to get to your destination safely. A nice sequence, even if it was on rails (boom-tish).
A final note for the ‘dead eye’ aiming system. This is your special bullet-time like mode that you earn through your efforts and kills. As you progress in the game, the mode evolves. First a simple slow motion aim mode, later a mode where you tag your shots by sweeping across enemies, then later you tag by specifically targeting where you want to hit you foes.
Red Dead Redemption is looking slick. Its control schemes are familiar and comfortable for those who know GTA4, and the world feels more open than anything we’ve seen before. While our hands on has been limited in scope so far, Rockstar assures us that if you can see it you can get to it. And we’re talking about wide, wide Western scenes like you’d expect to see in a classic John Ford Western.
But that openness is its potential downfall. Will they achieve the right balance of open exploration and focused story that drives you to take Marston to his final destination? Or could the expansive Western setting become too same-ish? We’re promised three distinct zones in the game — the open frontier, a more populated zone, and the more chaotic turmoil of Mexico. If the game environment and experience can stay fresh over dozens of hours, Red Dead Redemption will be a triumph.
Right now, what we can say is that it feels right. It feels just like you want an interactive modern Western to feel. And that’s a very important goal to have achieved.