Red Dead Redemption
As we near its May 18 release date, the buzz behind Red Dead Redemption is growing. Could this be the gunslinger that finally establishes the Western as a viable video game genre? Rockstar hopes so, and it’s enlisted the help of its most talented designers, including Grand Theft Auto IV architect and Rockstar North producer Leslie Benzies, to make sure the game gallops out of the gate. After playing the first few hours of the game on Xbox 360, I can see why fans are waiting so eagerly in anticipation of the game and retailers are planning midnight game launches.
Red Dead Redemption kicks off with protagonist John Marston being escorted off a boat by two law enforcement agents. He’s not wearing bracelets, so he isn’t under arrest. However, the way they push him around and the stark contrast between their wardrobes indicates he’s not exactly viewed as a colleague. The agents are dressed in the finest garments from the east, but Marston’s scruffy beard and worn clothes point to a much different background. As the group moves away, workers are busy lifting a prototype automobile off the boat and onto the cobblestone streets of the city.
Without saying a word, the agents guide Marston to a nearby steam train and watch him board alone. As the train leaves the station, we get our first glimpse of the world of Red Dead Redemption. Rolling hills and forested areas give way to large expanses of grassy pastures and wind-swept prairies. As Marston sits silently on the train, a pair of old ladies gossip about the happenings of the day. A preacher shares his closed-minded worldview with the naïve young lady sitting next to him, flippantly denying the viability of the technological marvels she brings up, like airplanes. The facial animation technology looks vastly improved from Grand Theft Auto IV, and the constantly shifting camera angles indicate that, as BioWare did with Mass Effect 2, Rockstar is taking a cinematic approach to cutscenes.
The train pulls into Armadillo station, a dusty Texas-like border town that would look right at home in a Clint Eastwood movie. One main thoroughfare runs through the isolated village, which is home to a saloon, general store, doctor, silent movie theater, and sheriff’s office. Marston is here to find a guide in the saloon who can help him find Bill Williamson, one of the outlaws he used to run with. If Marston wants to see his family again, he must convince Old Bill to turn himself in and take responsibility for all their past bank heists and murders.
We find the bearded hillbilly guide entertaining the advances of one of the saloon’s scantily clad female employees. When Marston makes his presence known, the guide throws the lady off his lap; this isn’t his first visit to the whorehouse, and it won’t be his last. After exchanging pleasantries, they mount the two horses hitched in front of the saloon and set out.
Around dusk, we approach Fort Mercer, a former army base the bandits now call home. As we trot up to the structure, the guide sheepishly tells us he won’t go any farther. From here on out, it’s up to Marston to seal the deal. He calmly walks up to the door of the well-fortified base and calls out for Williamson. As expected, Bill’s not too keen on turning himself in. To drive home his point, Williamson leaves Marston a parting gift – a gunshot to the belly. As night sets in, the gang leaves Marston to bleed out alongside the dirt road outside the fort.
As buzzards circle overhead waiting for the life to drain from Marston, a pair of ranchers passing on a horse-drawn carriage notice him lying on the ground. The good Samaritans load him onto the carriage and ride away into the darkness.
Back To Square One
Marston awakens to find himself in a comfortable bed far from the dirt road that was supposed to serve as his early grave. His gunshot wound is wrapped, and though he rises gingerly, it’s clear he’s on the mend. His savior is a self-confident female rancher named Bonnie McFarlane. When she inquires as to how Marston ended up bleeding on the side of the road, he makes a clever quip to dismiss the conversation. She informs him it cost her $15 to buy the medicine he needed for recovery, and he can work off his debt by helping out around the ranch.
During these introductory missions, Rockstar gives players a safe haven in which to practice with Red Dead Redemption’s controls. Marston sharpens his shooting skills by targeting the critters munching on the farm crops, learns the limitations of pushing his horse in a race around the ranch, picks up tips on cattle herding while guiding the cows out to pasture, and learns how to lasso and tame wild horses. The latter skill comes in handy if you’re stranded on the plains and in need of a quick way back to camp.
As we discussed in our previous hands-on preview of Red Dead Redemption, the guns use the same snap-to auto-aim functionality Rockstar introduced in Grand Theft Auto IV. You can also turn off the auto-aim to up the challenge and test your true gunslinger skills. Holding down the left bumper brings up the weapon wheel, which features slots for revolvers, shotguns, sniper rifles, projectiles like fire bottles or dynamite, rifles, a large bowie knife, and a lasso. The lasso is handy for wrangling horses or capturing enemies. Many bounties pay more money for bringing in the outlaws alive, so mastering the skill of roping enemies while they’re shooting at you is a lucrative endeavor. Several weapons for each class are available, which can be picked up off dead enemies or purchased at gunsmith shops.
The competent gun mechanics are complemented by a horse-riding system that gives you unparalleled control over your steed. Double-tapping the A button digs your spurs into your horse, which gets him galloping. Once you reach your ideal pace you can hold A to maintain the speed or match that of a travel companion. To push the horse even further, you can repeatedly jam the A button, but if you don’t let up before the horse’s stamina bar diminishes, it’ll buck you to the ground. To pull on the reigns and slow the horse, simply tap the right bumper. Anyone who has tried to guide a horse in Assassin’s Creed or Oblivion will appreciate the easy handling Rockstar has implemented here.
After living the ranch life for a while, it’s time to send a thank you card to our pal Bill Williamson in the form of a bullet to the head. To start the revenge mission, we must first speak to the local marshal to see if he’s interested in providing some backup. Turns out he’s got his hands full already, with unruly characters terrorizing Armadillo’s upstanding citizens. In exchange for the marshal’s help with Williamson, Marston agrees to help rid the town its unsavory element. A few short gunplay-heavy missions later, we’ve fulfilled our obligation, and the marshal gives us the name of a local merchant that may be of use in formulating a plan.
Taking To The Plains
On the way to locating the businessman, we stop to marvel at the expansive world of Red Read Redemption. Though the landscape stretches for miles, it’s far from barren. A hijacked carriage careens past our trotting horse, and we decide to turn our guns on the thieves and return the vehicle to is rightful owner. Each act of kindness raises your honor level, which dictates how townsfolk, law enforcement, and bandits react to you. Perform enough good deeds and lawmen will turn a blind eye to small crimes you commit and shopkeepers may cut you a deal.
Red Dead Redemption puts morality into your hands, so you could also kill everyone involved in these incidents and keep the spoils for yourself. Don’t expect much hospitality as an outlaw; if there are witnesses to your misdeeds, a bounty will be placed on your head. It won’t just be the local lawmen chasing after you, either. Concerned citizens will take up arms and form a posse to hunt you down.
Random encounters with travelers aren’t the only extracurricular activities in the game. Red Dead has robust progression systems that track your prowess as a hunter, sharpshooter, survivalist, and treasure hunter. Each level tasks you with a specific goal. For example, to achieve a new rank as master hunter you may have to kill five wolves with your bowie knife (no small feat). Each new level features increasingly deadly animal targets – cougars, wild boars, and grizzly bears, to name a few. Sharpshooting, on the other hand, focuses on targeting more evasive animals like birds and rabbits.
Like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the countryside is filled with various types of flora. To increase your survivalist rank, you must collect specified amounts of each plant (which can also be traded in for cash at the general store). Treasure hunting is more involved; all you’re given is a drawing of a landmark that indicates where the treasure is buried, and it takes a keen eye to spot them in the wilderness. Most of the treasure is currency, but you’ll occasionally stumble upon weapons as well.
Prepping The Ambush
After spending an hour or so fiddling around in the wilderness, it’s time to get my revenge plot back on track. We find the smooth-talking snake oil salesman named N.W. Dickens scared and feigning an injury alongside the road. After taking him back to Armadillo he agrees to help us out, but he needs money to get his plan for infiltrating Fort Mercer to work. He enlists Marston’s help in a sales pitch for a cure-all tonic that he’s peddling at a nearby ranch. The crowd seems skeptical, so he bids someone to step forward to try out the tonic for himself. Marston is the plant in the audience, and Dickens quickly selects him to be the participant.
Marston guzzles the disgusting medicine, and then Dickens informs the audience that the tonic will sharpen all of his vital abilities. To prove it, Dickens challenges our reformed outlaw to shoot a longhorn skull off the porch of a building roughly 50 yards away. When our first shot sails wide the crowd moans, but Dickens assures them the tonic is just starting to take hold. Though we nail it on our second attempt, the crowd still isn’t buying it. A burly man then says a truer test of skill would be shooting his cowboy hat in midair. He tosses up the hat, and just to make sure we’re successful we activate the slow-motion Dead Eye ability and effortlessly plug his Stetson. That wins over the crowd, but not the big guy, who now is down one hat. We settle our differences with some old fashioned fisticuffs. He acquiesces after I put him on his back, and gets in line with the rest of the ranch hands for a bottle of the tonic.
A few more errand boy missions for Dickens, and he agrees to let us use his armored stagecoach for a Trojan Horse style ambush on Williamson’s gang. He recommends seeking the additional help of an unsavory grave robber who knows the gang well and could open the door from within.
I find this toothless shell of a man, named Seth, digging up a grave in search of the second half of a treasure map. When Marston questions his motives, Seth replies, “It don’t bother the dead none.” A few missions later, we’ve located the second half of the map and infiltrated a bandit camp where the treasure is supposedly located. Seth fiendishly reaches for the chest in anticipation of the untold riches inside, but much to his chagrin all he finds is a glass eye. He may be dejected, but he still agrees to play his part in the ambush.
The final piece of the puzzle is finding a weapon powerful enough to make up for the drastic difference in numbers between our small force of deputies and an entire fort of renegades. A drunken Irishman Dickens knows supposedly has a line on a Gatling gun, and after Marston issues some stern words to our whiskey-soaked friend he gives up the location of the gun and we retrieve it in a nearby mine. Finally, all the pieces are in place for the surprise attack.
Fool Me Once, Shame On You
Our ragtag group of schemers meets at the marshal’s office in Armadillo and heads out toward Fort Mercer. When Seth opens the door to the stronghold, Dickens dives the stagecoach into the camp and starts peddling his snake oil. With the bandits preoccupied, the stagecoach doors fly open and we start firing, picking off the surprised gang members one by one. As the marshal, his deputies, and Marston cherry-pick targets throughout the fort, Williamson somehow manages to escape. Rumors are he went down to Mexico to take refuge with another member of the old gang, which means Marston must head south of the border.
After playing the first few hours of Red Dead Redemption, we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about diving into the rest of the game. With solid gunplay, an engaging story, and a huge open world to explore, all of the pieces for a successful game are in place. Rockstar clearly put a lot of effort into delivering a polished experience on par with Grand Theft Auto, and this is one Western-themed adventure that won't be slow on the draw.