Red, Dead and wet.

[This post is a partial response to Mike Dunbar's musings on Rockstar's latest offering]

There he was, the snivelling worm of a man, wanted for cattle rustling, murder and rape. The man who, if retrieved alive, would earn me $240, not an amount to be sniffed at by any man. The bodies strewn across the arid landscape were those of his gang, the most dangerous, stinking, unscrupulous men you’d even wish to meet this side of the boarder. Until a few moments prior to this they had but one thing on their mind, to leave my body to the vultures while they took my possessions and continued their rampage across this God-forsaken land. Now, its just me and him. With the last of his men gone he displayed his true colours; turned and ran, like the coward he was towards a white stallion which was no doubt stolen. I reached for my rifle, and took aim – alive, $240, dead $120. The bullet’s heading wasn’t too bad, it must have shattered his ankle as his foot came to rest in the stirrup. Wasn’t enough to stop him though. With a cry he tugged sharply on the horses reins and galloped off towards the river. Luckily my horse wasn’t far off and it wasn’t long before I was trailing after him, riding through his dust cloud.

With a busted leg this bastard was finding it hard to gallop, it could tell, the horse was all over the place and he was getting closer and closer to a cliff edge, only rapids below to break his fall. I had to stop him, dead and down-stream was no good to me at all. I wouldn’t even earn the money to cover for the bullets I’d used. Gripping with my knees I took one hand of the reins and drew my revolver taking aim for his shoulder; If I could bring him off his horse at least I could tie the sonsabitch and get him back to the deputy. The shot this time was dead on, landing heavily, bringing him crashing to the ground. I drew closer, but this guy was quick to get on his feet. Limping he started off again. I unhooked my lasso with my right hand and rode along side. I overcooked it though, my horse was startled by the raging water and slipped causing us to slide down the rocky bank. Luckily the poor beast hit a rock and broke my fall, but unfortunately it couldn’t stop me from being pulled into foaming clutches of the river. Damn I wish learnt to swim.

The above passage (superfluousness aside) is just one of the gripping sequences which Red Dead Redemption has offered since I purchased it on launch. As in Mike’s post, once I’d respawned at the ranch I was able to restart the hunt and drag the wanted man back to the deputy, making a tidy sum. Having to think on the move though, taking risks in order to receive the biggest reward, its something which Red Dead rests on. The dichotomy between honour and dishonour, making money or saving lives is one which Rockstar have crafted with much love and care during the production of the game. Its moments like this, those aside from the central narrative, which see you out in the wild west with your wits, your gun and your horse, which make the whole thing worthwhile.

Sadly though Red Dead isn’t all like this, not really. I’m not saying it’s bad by any stretch, but sometimes you get the feeling that Rockstar have been more intent on creating an excellent, living, breathing world than actually leading you through it. If you were just to explore and engage yourself with side quests chances are you’d have a blast for an hour or two, but really the whole thing would feel a bit lite. The cast of Red Dead is clearly a mixed bag, in many senses of the word. They are typically those you’d expect from a company producing a wild west game in the 21st century, stuffed with just about every trope you could ever wish to see in the setting.

This all feels a little forced sometimes, especially when you make it to Mexico (although I’ll say no more about that). As a rolling drunk, a cheating old fool or a dangerous posse are thrust into your path however, it does seem to work most of the time. After a while though, you begin to realise the work they’ve put into characterisation isn’t replicated in the quality of the story missions. Each mission through the mid-section of the game is essentially the same, ride to location A accept quest, ride to location B with companion x in tow, converse about A) back-story, B) the mission or C) some similar exposition. Reach location B, kill stock villains, be chased and then return to safety after some more violence. This in isolation isn’t what’s wrong, it’s the fact that almost every mission I’ve played so far has followed this pattern with worrying similarity.

The gameplay itself is very accessible, more so than Rockstar’s other titles, however its also very, very easy. The auto-aim system is far too forgiving, the mini-map provides far too much information about incoming nasties (you’ll know they’re coming long before they are there) and once you’ve got the dead-eye skill up to full you become more deadly than the Master Chief. To balance this though, it seems Rockstar have added some odd elements. Firstly, you can’t swim; although there are lakes, rivers etc – as a kid it seems you were never tempted to cool off after a day of killing people or some such. What makes this worse is the fact no one tells you you can’t swim, it only comes in a passing comment after 12 hours of play so when you make it to Thieves Landing for the first time; the river running through its centre becomes the biggest nemesis the game has to offer. If you can look past this though, you’ll notice that the horses can’t walk backwards, some relatively flat rocks cannot be traversed and a myriad of other glitches (some of which can lead to infinite money making schemes) are all a just more tarnishes to what is an otherwise extremely well made game.

If Rockstar had focused more on making you a free agent in the Wild West, the cow boy alternative to Elite, just looking to progress to law enforcer, trader, or outlaw, then it’d really display the truly great assets of this game in greater detail. The multiplayer moves towards this, and to be fair I haven’t given it a lot of time yet, but I hardly think this’ll be the holy grail of multiplayers. Okay, the graphics are superb and the environments are truly stunning, it is just the central narrative’s lack of inspiration beyond the usual tropes and complete absence of variation in the missions produce something which feels a little half-baked for something which has been left for too long in the mid-day sun.

Now settle down partner!

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)

I make a continue to outline my contentions with Red Dead’s storytelling devices and of other sandbox games here.

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