For those just joining us, AusGamers was cordially invited out to Rockstar's Sydney office to spend a day playing Red Dead Redemption. The preview session saw no holds on what I could do with the game; I had free reign to broach any mission I wanted, engage in any side-quests I could find and explore as much of the world as I desired. The end result saw me splitting the preview up into two parts: yesterday's focusing on the life
of the game if you will, and today's looking more into what makes everything tick.
If you missed yesterday's preview, you can find it here
, but I basically went into detail about foundation of the game's narrative and setting, touching on the shape the US was in, in the era the game is set (1911) and talked about its separate parts functioning as a symbiotic whole with (and for) the player. Today we're going to be a bit more clinical with what the game has on offer; how its gameplay variations work in unison with one another, how it's all paced and what ties it all together. I'll touch on some of the technology, how the game is looking, what you'll be hearing while galloping across the vast gameplay expanse and just how it all comes together in gaming coherency.
While GTA IV was hailed as a crowning achievement in technology for the open-world genre with its expansive and detailed world, physics system and Euphoria, the game engine Rockstar North used was actually developed by Rockstar San Diego. The RAGE engine was originally built for Red Dead Redemption (and was shown off in tech-demo form at E3 in 2005), but has since found itself as the company's staple development architecture; evolving as needed to cater for anything being built within the collective Rockstar studios' walls. What this means, however, is that while the engine is available to everyone within Rockstar, the team who know it best are clearly the guys who built it. And all the while it was being tweaked and moulded to bring us GTA IV, San Diego were in development with Red Dead Redemption; learning from mistakes or shortcomings essentially tested with GTA IV. This shows in the final result; the game is very, very quick to load (so no annoying GTA IV pre-load art screens), and the game-world seamlessly renders in incredible scope. The only time you're really facing any lengthy loads is if you fast travel to different areas, otherwise it's all-immersive, never once pulling you out of suspended disbelief and your overall experience.
The incredible thing about this streaming world is just how unbelievable the draw-distance is. I'm reminded of the likes of Oblivion, Fallout 3 or even the recently released Just Cause 2 - all showcasing massive landscapes as far as the eye can see. But Red Dead draws so much more detail out of this scope, and the game-world is much more engaging as a result. The build I was playing only suffered minor moments of pop-up, and I never noticed a single hitch in frame-rate. There's also an incredible level of real-world detail - something I touched on in part 1 of my hands-on. Essentially there are never two areas of the landscape repeated twice. Texturing is insanely detailed with smooth load-ins that barely catch your eye, this helps in a gameplay facet too. One of Red Dead's optional side-quests involves finding treasure, the only thing is, the maps designed for this purpose are usually very vague, often only representing locations via crudely drawn landmarks. The idea then is to match up these amateurishly-drawn maps with the real-world. The first one I attempted was reasonably easy, but the second had me utterly baffled. I can see this quest seriously pushing the cerebral envelope for a lot of players.
Something else I touched on in part 1 was also the use of NaturalMotion's Euphoria animation tech. It's actually starting to make its way around to various developers now, but Rockstar were chosen as one of the first to utilise it in videogames, and while it was very cool in GTA IV, its evolution is more than apparent in Red Dead Redemption. All characters and animals in the game are animated using Euphoria, and the end result is a robust and more-naturally organic gameplay and ambient experience. Marston, for example, walks with deliberation; his strong stance, bow-legged cowboy stride and horse-riding ability are all immediate stand-outs. In combat enemies react realistically when hit, and when dead, will fall with amazing physics. It adds to the brutal nature of the Wild West, but also delivers a level of combat satisfaction too many games ignore. Every shot fired counts in Red Dead Redemption, so actually killing enemies with skill and seeing their reactionary animations based on said skill is like a virtual pat on the back. Moreover, the combined technologies of the RAGE engine, its physics system and Euphoria really can't be understated - especially when you consider you'll be partaking in plenty of horse-back combat, stage-coach driving/riding and, of course, mixing it up with game's trains. You'll almost never experience action the same twice over.
Dead or Alive
Within such a large game-world, and with so many perils to be aware of, it was important Rockstar never pull the player too far out of the game in the event of death. Mid-mission markers are very forgiving here (unlike GTA IV), and dying will either respawn you at a checkpoint during a mission, or in your closest owned or rented house/room. The freedom to own or rent in every sizeable town was a very good idea, and I applaud the system, because off mission it's just as easy to die, and the last thing you'd want to do is have to travel some of the larger distances to get back to where you bit the dust.
In your rooms/houses, you can replenish ammo, sleep (which acts as a Save system and advances time by six hours with each nap) and change clothes. Clothing is a reasonably robust system, and the in-game menu even has an option to check out your what you have available or what's required to get the next ensemble. From what I toyed with, there's no deeper level of item customisation (in the way of mixing and matching), but there was a lot of space for various outfits, teased in silhouette form. You can also visit general stores, gun shops, clinics, the tailor and more to buy odd items such as Chewing Tobacco, Apples (for your horse), Medicine (to replenish your own health) or bandannas (which are used to disguise yourself should you need to break the law, or if you're running from the law). Gun shops offer a variety of weapons, while others can be found lying about the place or are rewarded at the end of missions. You can also sell items found, or the skins from animals you've hunted in the wild, and as mentioned in part 1, the game's economy system is actually challenging to manage and engaging as a result. It's all part of the symbiotic nature of the game I've been reiterating; side-quests become important because they reward the player with money, which is then used to strengthen Marston or make life easier on the player (in the house buying or renting factor, or for fast travel etc), but all of this is always intricately linked in some way, shape or form and totally compelling as a result.
The side-quest portion of the game is probably more robust in variety and form than the game's main campaign (sans awesome story). After you complete the first few required quests, the game-world opens up for you in much the same way we've come to expect from Rockstar open-world games, and most side-quests can be started by simply talking to NPCs, reading Wanted posters or generally engaging in life in the game-world. 'Strangers' is another in-game menu option, which tracks quests that aren't part of the main story. See a question mark on your mini-map and it'll lead you to an NPC usually asking for help. Some of their missions might come in the form of simple fetching, travelling or killing, but others can actually last a long time, with multiple tiers replete with breaks that actually require hours or days of in-game time to pass. This maintains the organic flow of the symbiotic game-world I've been raving about, and it helps keep everything fresh and alive - there's no repetitive structure in place for missions here, and while some of them are essentially the same, only in newer areas (like breaking in horses), you're never forced to do anything in any one particular order, again elevating Red Dead Redemption over its Rockstar brethren ten-fold.
About the only thing carried over from Red Dead Revolver (technically Redemption's precursor) is the game's Dead Eye shooting mechanic. The basic element to this, in the single-player campaign, is that Marston can draw, enter Dead Eye (with a push of R3) and paint various targets on his opponents in a moment of slowed time before pulling the trigger. In this mode, depending on your Dead Eye meter, you can paint multiple targets across a single enemy or even multiple enemies. It comes in ridiculously handy if you're dangerously outnumbered, or if you're having trouble locking onto that elusive rabbit running through the underbrush. The game's difficulty settings tie into this in a way too, with targeting acting as tiers of Easy, Normal or Hard. Choosing a to have the game help with auto-aim, for example, is essentially the easiest setting. You can also choose to have a snap lock-on (that is still unrestricted) which is like the normal setting, or 100% free-aim. The good thing about this is the game doesn't scale in difficulty (except a little in Casual mode), it just offers options for skilled or unskilled players to let them play the game in the most comfortable and rewarding way possible.
As law was a bit of a grey area during the era Red Dead is set, Rockstar has implemented something of a morality system that sees you gaining or losing both Fame and Honour. The amount of both of these will affect how you're treated by the game's NPCs, which can equally affect the availability of certain missions or side-quests. Usually in towns you're often given opportunities on-the-fly to right wrongs with citizens running up to you asking for help in the apprehension of a horse-thief or stopping a kidnapper from taking someone. There are various examples, but easily the most eye-opening came very early on when I heard a piercing screech from a woman, I ran over to the new marker on my map only to find a girl being stabbed to death by a knife-wielding maniac, right on the porch of the local saloon, and in broad daylight, no less. As I didn't make it in time to stop him from murdering her, I lost Honour and clearly gained no Fame - but in my defence, I'd never seen anything
like that in a videogame before and so was plain gob-smacked (and thus unable to react).
As your Fame rises for completing missions, you'll come across various characters out to make a name for themselves by challenging you at Quick Draw duels. These immediately go into Dead Eye once one of you has drawn, and then you have the option to paint your opponent with the aforementioned targets. If you take your time to ensure you mark him up good, you might lose out to a faster gun, though painting him too quickly could cause you serious inaccuracy, and the truth is, due to the shoddy workmanship of the time, there's no guarantee your bullets are going to be overly accurate either. It's an interesting system designed to help you become skilful behind the trigger, as opposed to all-powerful simply because you have the Dead Eye ability.
A Tall Tale
As far as story and narrative goes for the game, unlike some outlets out there, we're not going to spoil it for you. What I will say is that story structure is largely similar to that of previous GTA outings, and while you're certainly given choices throughout with definitive outcomes, you're still following a central plot. The game's scripting and dialogue is incredible though, and they've nailed the era with a cast of excellent characters who all far outshine those seen in the GTA series thus far.
Marston is easily the most accessible and likeable Rockstar leading man yet. His respect for woman, poise, logic and desire to rectify some wrongs in his past make him instantly likeable, but like so many Western heroes and anti-heroes, he's not afraid to get his hands dirty or walk the walk, so to speak. He also looks cool. I've suggested in a previous preview that he's essentially a composite of Clint Eastwood and Wolverine, and playing this long through the game, I couldn't have been more right. His voice-actor does a great job of getting into his skin, and you really feel associated with him. Moreover, the other 'good' characters in the game, such as Bonnie MacFarlane do a great job of off-setting the more cooky of them out there (such as the Golem-like Seth obsessed with his treasure map and dead bodies). And believe me, in the seven-odd hours I played, I saw a serious amount of crazy in Red Dead Redemption.
The overall presentation never detracts though, from the actual world created here. If anything the story is a bonus mission, and all characters and NPCs aside, the greatest personality here is the world itself. Everything I've reported on and compiled over the last two days seamlessly interlocks and interacts to craft a truly organic and free-form gaming experience. This isn't just "GTA in the West", it's a genre-defining experience that utterly raises the bar for all open-world games to follow. It's also an incredible feather in the cap of Rockstar San Diego who have arguably been living in the rather large shadow of their Rockstar North older brother. Red Dead Redemption is their crowning achievement, and a game they should be incredibly proud to have crafted. Time will tell just how the full experience pans out, but with my time with it, Red Dead Redemption proved to be an absolute must-have; a richly gratifying experience that covered so many solid gameplay bases, while introducing many of its own. I can't wait to set foot in New Austin again, and ride off into the sunset.