We were invited to a preview screening of Rockstar’s latest epic Red Dead Redemption recently at Notting Hill’s luxurious Electric Cinema. The demo took place on their astonishing new HD screen and we can safely say that Red Dead Redemption looks, even under the pin-sharp scrutiny of a full-sized high definition cinema screen, utterly overwhelming. Everything from the wild animals that roam the rougher terrain (all part of the game’s fully-functioning eco-system) to the incomparably realistic landscapes – beautifully aided by some faultless draw-distance – look as refined and muscular as anything you could possibly compare them to.
Visual polish aside, the game looks like the natural progression of Rockstar’s very own sandbox benchmark from two short years ago. The comparison is inevitable, if only because everything that Rockstar do for the time being exists in the shadow of the behemoth that is Grand Theft Auto IV. That game raised the bar beyond the reach of most other development teams, and though Red Dead Redemption doesn’t stray too far from that particular framework, it boasts a hefty number of refinements, and a personality all of its own.
Like its spiritual successor Red Dead Revolver, the game takes place in a world totally in-line with the one depicted in the very best Spaghetti Westerns of the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is an environment so lovingly re-created that you can almost smell it, and just wandering around is frequently as gripping as following the game’s plot to the note.
In one sequence during the playthrough, Red Dead Redemption’s hero John Marston is walking around a reasonably well-populated town looking for a Wanted poster, in order to create the opportunity for himself to make a little extra bounty-hunting cash. Suddenly, one of the game’s unscripted events occurs beside him. A partially-clothed prostitute flies through the doors of a nearby saloon and lands face-first in the mud outside. Her attacker drunkenly swaggers out after her, grabs her by the throat and issues some barely audible threats, before using his knife to cut her up and eventually, kills her.
Although Marston doesn’t step in this time, players are free to intervene at any point during incidents like these, and how you react to every moral dilemma in the game will have a bearing on John Marston’s reputation within it. Stop a group of bandits from robbing a stagecoach and your ‘honourable’ reputation will increase (enabling things like price-cuts from grateful vendors in town) or join in with the thieves and see relationships with shopkeepers deteriorate, but personal wealth skyrocket. Go on a senseless killing spree and your ‘Wanted’ meter will heat up, and although it bleeds out relatively quickly, a bounty will remain on your head until you pay it off yourself. If you somehow manage to murder the population of an entire town, you’ll have to wait for it to slowly re-populate.
Fans of Red Dead Revolver will be pleased to know that arguably its best feature – the slo-mo ‘Dead-Eye’ targeting system – makes a welcome return in Redemption. It adds a slightly arcadey bent to the gunplay and puts more of an emphasis on combat, which will certainly please those who weren’t tough enough for GTA IV’s frenzied, knife-edge gunfights. Hopefully ‘Dead-Eye’ somehow makes it into the multiplayer component, which is still shrouded in secrecy but surely destined to be special.
Visual cues in the distance (like smoke or circling birds) alert you to the locations of story missions, steam engines and stagecoaches stand in for GTA IV’s taxi cabs, and one of GTA IV’s few minor problems – that there were no mid-mission checkpoints – has been remedied here. The story is familiar but strong (Marston is dragged back into ‘the life’ in order to save his family) the Old West is a tantalisingly fresh setting for a videogame, and it is a world so well-drawn and so bustling with flourishes, that it is hard to picture the kind of gamer who isn’t going to want to spend countless hours losing themselves in it.
2010 has been a truly exceptional year for videogames, with AAA titles coming thick and fast during a period that is usually completely barren, but if Red Dead Redemption ends up trumping them all in terms of scope, story and sheer enjoyability, don’t say that you weren’t forewarned.
Look out for our Red Dead Redemption competition coming soon…!
Watch the Red Dead Redemption trailer here…