How The West Was… No, I can't do it. Far too obvious.

In the last RDR post I talked about the issues I had with some elements of the game’s narrative. Perhaps the nit-picking nature of the criticism gave away how much I’m enjoying the game (or maybe it was the bit where I said “especially as Red Dead Redemption is a brilliant game,”) but it seems a little unfair not to write about what I’m enjoying.

At this point it’s pretty tempting to write “everything else” and be done with it. I’ll try and pepper in some criticisms while I’m at it.

DISCLAIMER: I should mention that I’ve essentially been mentally conditioned to love the setting. I grew up watching Westerns on Sunday afternoon TV with my dad. The same dad that conditioned me not to completely hate the taste of bitter. They don’t half mess you up, your parents.

Red Dead Redemption is a game with an extraordinary sense of detail to its world. You’ll have to forgive yet another GTA comparison in the discussion around this game, but the difference in approach is striking. In GTA IV your character is in what feels like a living city. People, thousands of them, teem the streets and roads following whatever scrap of AI code is sending them from their spawn point to their deletion. By their very numbers they feel inconsequential and, aside from direct physical contact, they have zero interaction with you. You are standing in a crowd, completely alone. It’s a fairly accurate representation of your average city. The game attempts to temper this with a handful of friends you can call and hang out with but even this informal non-mission interaction feels too scripted. (It also feels pretty dull – the bowling mini-game is shit whether it’s boosting favour with a friend or not.)

Red Dead Redemption feels like the complete opposite. The world is huge (and feels even bigger because your main method of transportation has exactly 1 horse power) but largely barren. It means the interactions you do come across – and there are plenty of them, from travellers in need of help through to wannabe gunslingers looking to make a name for themselves by duelling the best in the west – feel more meaningful. They’re no less scripted, but the sense of community born out of a place where the environment is deadlier than the inhabitants lends these small world events a degree of authenticity. Even now, after logging about 70 hours with the game, I feel a small pang of guilt when I ignore a man whose wife has been kidnapped to hunt bears.

His survival chance decreased dramatically after I actually learned how to duel.

Ah, the hunting. The game features 4 ‘Ambient Challenges’ that you can work towards at any time throughout the game. These are mostly brilliant (the flower picking one being an exception – I mean really flower picking is how I show off my mad survival skills?) and a much better way of having players explore the game world than making them find 100 tangentially-themed collectibles. While attempting one of the hunting challenges, collecting 5 pelts from three specific species, I found myself camped up in the hills for about 4 in-game days. It completely changed the dynamic of the game. I found myself isolated from any pockets of civilisation and running low on ammo and medicine. I could have used bait to try and attract some critters, but there’s no guaranteeing what will come to investigate. A pack of wolves could have spelled disaster.

As I drew closer to my objective I let my guard slip and, without warning, the growl of a cougar and a flashing red screen let me know I’d been careless. Luckily it didn’t land the second, fatal, attack. After I’d killed it I had to pause the game, catch my breath and make a cup of tea. Cougars, man. Fucking cougars.

Seriously: fucking cougars

Between random world-events, ambient challenges, opportunities for gambling, night-watch jobs, bounties to collect, strangers to meet, gang hideouts to clear and even scraps of outfits to find, there’s plenty to keep you occupied before you even begin to look at the missions. Well not necessarily before. As with any open-world game you’ve got to wade through a lengthy opening of cutscenes and tutorials before you’re let loose on the world. The somewhat meandering opening is effective enough as an introduction to the world and, to an extent, your character (although I personally preferred the immediacy of Gun’s opening which gave you the classic Western moment of the lone gunslinger arriving in a new town.)

Elsewhere the story is somewhat of a mixed bag. Each character you can do missions for hangs around a little too long. After your 4th or 5th long horse ride with the same person retelling you their philosophy of the west you start to wish the character didn’t refuse to fire at friendly NPCs. Even Marston himself runs out of interesting ways to tell people he’s trying to save his family far before he stops telling people he’s trying to save his family.

"Hey, John. Have I told you about how I'm a grumpy old curmudgeon trying to bring a little law and order to my town? No, you're probably right, now isn't the time."

Other sections are more successful. A couple of times during the story, landmark moments like arriving in Mexico or the resolution of a late game mission have you riding to the next destination while a song plays in the background. It’s an inspired moment of emotional resonance that strikes a chord in a way that could only be achieved in a game. It’s like the ladder moment of MGS3, only not ridiculous. I should also point out, now that I’ve finished the main story, that the final collection of missions almost make up for my issues with the Mexican campaign. It’s a well executed segment, setting up the story nicely for the final resolution, which itself manages to actually give a tangible sense that something has changed for the characters involved while still leaving a believable reason for the player to be able to carry on existing in the world afterwards to tie up loose ends. Fallout 3 could learn a thing or two.

More successful than the story missions are the strangers you encounter throughout your travels. These are essentially narrative-vignettes about people trying to make their way in the region; writers looking to capture the romanticism of the era, producers looking to forge a new age of cinema and even just concerned spouses looking for their loved ones. The first ones you come across will all too often result in the stranger turning out to be mental, to the point where you start trying to second guess each person’s particular deviancy, but as the game goes on you’ll find some genuinely interesting characters that you’ll encounter in multiple places throughout the game. Particularly worthy of mention is the ‘I Know You’ strand, featuring an unknown man with a penchant for testing your moral fibre. It’s one of the most intriguing mysteries of the game and its resolution ties-in brilliantly with the final cutscene.

So, a couple of story niggles aside, pretty much perfect then? Not quite. Red Dead Redemption is unusual in recent Rockstar games in that many of the core systems at work are non-diegetic. Take the fast-travel; you just need to set up a camp and with a couple of clicks you can travel instantly to any location you’ve previously visited. Bizarrely the game also includes an in-world fast travel system with coaches that can be hired. Pay for a coach or move a few feet away and travel for free? Unless you’re deliberately trying to preserve the atmosphere it’s not much of a decision.

Marston contemplates the mystery of the fast-travel fire.

Death is handled in a similarly blunt manner with the game displaying a hilariously over-sized DEAD screen and reloading the last auto-save. There are plenty of doctors dwelling in major settlements so why not just have your character wake up there à la GTA? Also, and this is getting really picky, there’s really no excuse for your character to die the moment he steps in a body of water. How much this stuff bothers you is probably dependent on how much you buy into the atmosphere woven by the setting, visuals and audio. In case it’s not clear yet I bought into it a lot, much to the consternation of my flatmate who kept reminding me that I could fast-travel instead of taking 15 minutes to ride my horse into Mexico. I hadn’t forgotten Chris, I was just ignoring it.

TL;DR version: Red Dead Redemption, it’s better than GTA.


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