There are surprises in the first hour of Red Dead Redemption, the grand Western from the development house of Grand Theft Auto. I won't spoil the most important ones today.
A day ago I was in the virtual West, in the rough country of John Marston's United States at the moment when car motors started rumbling and the page of history turned past the American frontier. I had an Xbox 360 controller in hand, prepared to play the most ambitious Rockstar game since Grand Theft Auto IV, for the first time, from the start, for an hour.
Marston is our man in Red Dead Redemption's fictionalised early 20th century West. Past an opening scene that establishes the place and mood of the game, he is ours to control. His domain is a land of hot desert, dusty towns, and sharp mountains, an interactive landscape painting that immediately feels as immense as the big sky above its long plains.
Briefly obeying the rules of Red Dead's narrative, I had Marston saddle up and ride to a fort. We galloped with a guide on a second horse, to the base of a notorious outlaw, Bill Williamson who waited therewith armed friends and possessed no interest in friendly conversation. I'll skip telling you what happened with these men.
I think of the Wild West the way I think of a Grand Theft Auto. These are romanticised places, all fictional to some extent, where people have gone with the expectation that misbehaviour was as part of life as breathing. They are locations where the law only plays catch-up, where justice may win only after some adventure has been had. This philosophy perfectly suits a Western overseen by the men and women who craft GTAs. And so I felt it was no violation of Red Dead Redemption to steer John Marston, on the dawn of his game's second playable day, away from the characters with whom conversation would trigger plot-advancing missions. Instead, I took him to the wild.
Horse-riding is easy as grabbing a car in a Grand Theft Auto, one button-press to mount, taps of a button to spur the horse on. I headed to the wilderness, agape at the natural beauty rendered within the game and encouraged by a Rockstar developer to fire Marston's rifle at a tree. The crack of my shot made birds fly from it. From the tall branches I tracked tiny flying specks that may have been mistaken for mere graphical effects except that my activation of Red Dead's signature Dead Eye slow-motion targeting let me zoom in to size up the bird's body, squeeze the trigger and shoot the bird down. I found its small body and took from the songbird a feather, to later try and sell at a shop.
What kind of man shoots a songbird? The same who checks to see if he can shoot his own horse. I can tell you that it can take a shot in the rump, but not one in the head. That horse can be skinned, its meat another commodity to be traded.
Without a horse I feared I was stranded, caught in an interactive dull patch. Not so. A man galloped by on his own horse. I had Marston shoot him. The horse fled, dead man dangling from the stirrup.
I made Marston walk and learned that in Red Dead Redemption, the circling of birds high in the sky means the same thing it does in real life: Something dead is below. The death I found was a woman in prairie dress, collapsed to the ground, a man sobbing at her side. I stood and watched. The man produced a revolver and shot himself in the head. This scene was dropped into the game at random, I was told, one of many moments Red Dead Redemption will employ to surprise players as they roam its terrain.
I learned to whistle for a new horse that came galloping with the press of a button, learned that the horse would throw me if I spurred it too many times swiftly in a row. I learned to steal a wagon and learned not to drive it off a cliff with any expectation that the horses pulling it would survive. I learned its best to set up camp out in the wilderness to save the game, lest you want to be revived back at your house (where you last saved) sans songbird feather.
I did obey for a time and take a mission. I agreed to a tour of the game's first town, led by hard-nosed and hard-riding Bonnie MacFarlane. She had Marston shoot rabbit and clear a henhouse of predators. We raced horses, then I left her.
Off-mission, I took Marston and his horse to a gorgeous overlook, the grand expanse beyond, painting-perfect and all player-explorable. But my view was interrupted by the bustle of a boar running up ahead its right side, like mine, exposed on the ridge to the expanse below and beyond. I activated Dead Eye slow-mo and took aim. But into my scope's view galloped a hunter, a man on horseback who I swiftly decided would be my second trophy of this impromptu boar hunt. My first shot hit the boar. There was no time for the second. The hunter and his horse turned left too late, too much momentum and maybe some panic to keep them safe as they skidded sideways off the cliff, down tumbling to a broken end below.
I took the boar meat.
Wolves attacked my horse at one point and killed it. A cougar pounced onto Marston and mauled him. The West in Red Dead Redemption is rough and maybe a little busier with wildlife than the nature of our real big-sky country. I didn't mind. The scenery felt neither too slow to be less fun than the lively streets of a Grand Theft Auto nor too lively to detract from Red Dead's sunset-slow pace. It moves and it is beautiful, but it neither rushes, nor sits still.
In its first hour the game was pressing the right buttons. It has the promise of delivering what, of all things, I wanted the James Cameron Avatar video game to be, a demonstration of a video game's ability to allow a person to explore an intricate and gorgeous exotic ecology. The game signals an evolution of Rockstar subtle expertise. Two examples: graphically, rolled shirtsleeves and pants finally look like clothes worn, not painted, on bodies; seamlessly, well-written story-driving cut-scenes better merge with gameplay thanks to the smart choice to automatically put Marston in motion at the moment the player is given back control, rather than having Marston dumbly end conversation by standing, waiting for a command.
Red Dead Redemption's mystery, in this week prior to its release, lies still with its ability to fulfil. Such was the case with journeys to the real West and is with this game. Both would be journeys into an unknown where the stay will be long but the fortunes unclear. Life could be slower in this virtual Western, paced a notch behind what a twitching gamer might immediately demand.
How much must we be entertained in a game set out West? Rockstar appears to be aware, of course, that life on the frontier could become dull. They've programmed against that. Shooting that songbird from that tree, for example, ignited a list of shooting challenges, ones that will be increasingly demanding in both the nature of their prey and the conditions required to complete the hunts. There are many such challenges in the game, to be pursued even as the game's story unfolds. There are treasure maps. There are strangers to find whose missions also occur outside the main narrative but populate this adventure to ensure it is interesting. I was told of outlaws' camps and hidden stashes. I found none in my hour and so, like you, am left to find out on my own console whether the hours of this game are rich enough with adventure to please - or if this expanse is too broad to entertain, whether it is prone to the repetition that can plague the vast games programmed by human hands. More of the richness of Red Dead's first hour would alleviate any such concern.
Near the end of my first eventful hour with Red Dead Redemption I wandered back into town. It was day time, so the workers were not at the poker tables I found. A man was sharpening knives on a stone. I was foolishly having Marston jump a fence into a corral leading to an angry meeting with a rushing bull. I sent Marston on horseback to a marshall for what would be the next mission, but I was out of town. I'd done nearly nothing that I was supposed to in this game, just lived in its violent nature for an hour.
I left satisfied. I left hungry.
(For more on my first hour with Red Dead Redemption download Kotaku's latest podcast, which featured two Rockstar creators as guests.)