Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Red Dead Refreshing

by C.T. Hutt

In true Rockstar tradition, Red Dead Redemption is an open world free-for-all third person shooter with copious gunplay and significant adult themes. Instead of taking place in an urban jungle, Red Dead Redemption is set in 1911 in the untamed American South West. Gameplay-wise, aside from a great deal more cattle rustlin’, varmint shootin’, bronco wranglin’, and roamin’ across the open prairie, this title mimics many of the themes found in the much loved but highly controversial Grand Theft Auto series. Unlike GTA, Red Dead Redemption also incorporates a roleplaying element which allows the player to decide what type of range rider they wish to be. Rockstar has also made the collection side quests and achievement based rewards a seamless part of the game. These factors, combined with a vast array of interesting characters, a massive world to explore, and some of the best environmental graphics I have ever seen make this title a definite step in the right direction for Rockstar.

One of our biggest critiques of sandbox shooters in the past (such as The Saboteur and GTA4) is that in order to make progress in the game a player must act in a negative way. Even when the enemy is undeniably evil, civilian casualties are inevitable and in some cases part of the game. In Red Dead Redemption, a player can be as much of a devious bastard as they wish, riding into town on a jet black steed spraying the streets with gunfire and drinking all the whiskey in town, but they don’t have to. If a player is so inclined they can work with local law enforcement to bring down criminal organizations in the territory, save distressed citizens, and ride into the sunset on a white mare. Or you can do a little of both, kick down the doors of the local saloon, play cards all night, rob a bank before breakfast, and save the mayor’s daughter from being kidnapped before hopping on your motley horse and escaping into Mexico. Red Dead Redemption offers not only an open world, but an open character and story. This is done within the framework of an over-arching plot which is pretty interesting in itself. By allowing the narrative to be as personal an experience as the game play, Rockstar has added a fascinating element to its tried and true game structure.

Collection missions have been a long-standing pet peeve of mine. Nothing breaks immersion like a few lines of text telling you that collecting x number of y items is necessary to your cause. Red Dead Redemption features similar quests, but incorporates them into the over-arching game rather than having them exist as arbitrary challenges. For example: if you like to roam around the wilderness blasting critters and collecting their hides eventually your character will gain a reputation as a noted trapper. Townsfolk will start to recognize you for your expertise and you may even begin to start dressing the part. If instead you find yourself interested in the poker mini-game you can build up a reputation for being a champion gambler. Collection quests and mini-games are used to define your character rather than distract from the rest of the game. This is truly an ingenious change; it helps maintain immersion and gives players a motivation to complete side quests that makes sense in character.

Red Dead Redemption is hardly perfect; it relies heavily on combat to move the game along and the missions do tend to feel repetitive. Still, Rockstar has incorporated some elements into this title that the medium as a whole would do well to pay attention to. By allowing gamers to decide which type of character to play in addition to how we play the game, Rockstar is pushing the medium closer to truly open worlds.

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree with you about the success of the honor system in RDR. About half way through, I realized that I was playing RDR a lot like I play Fallout, or Mass Effect. I was worryied about doing the right thing. By contrast, in past GTA games, the only reason I'd even hesistate before running down a pedestrian or shooting up a street-corner would be to determine whether a subsequent escape from police would be more trouble than it was worth.

    How much of this do you think is cued by the playable characters themselves? In Vice City and San Andreas, Tommy and CJ are unambiguously pissed off and actively seeking vengence. Niko is a little bit more contemplative about his actions, but, still, he got on a boat and headed to America explicitly to exact violent revenge upon someone.

    *Spoilers for Red Dead Redemption Follow*

    Marston is not like that at all. His gang "left him for dead" a while ago, but Marston seems to be at peace with that. He speaks favorably of Dutch, in particular, even as he hunts him down. Marston is acting out of a sense of duty to his family. He's trying to make their bad situation better. Meanwhile, he is rightly frustrated and angered by the actions of Ross. That kind of ambiguity, an angry man trying to do the right thing, leaves room for a lot of believable actions and outcomes.

    Dissonance between story and gamer choices in GTA 4 was a hot topic for a while, but I think a lot of discussion was misplaced. I don't think the dissonance in GTA 4 was that Niko talked about being tired of violence but then had no reservations about sniping innocents from the rooftops. The dissonance was that Niko talked about being tired of violence while involved in a bicontinental quest for violent revenge.

    Red Dead Redemption deals with all this very cleverly and MAJOR SPOILER even lets you take revenge at the end without polluting John Marston's character


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