It was knee-high water that killed the Old West for good



Red Dead Redemption (2010)

When a sequel is so good that its predecessor scarcely even warrants a mention, you usually know you’re on to a winner – it indicates that the first particular oeuvre was probably successful enough to warrant a sequel, but that this sequel is so good that it can stand alone and laugh mightily at any wouldbe challengers.

You’d hardly even know that The Silence of the Lambs was a sequel (both in film-form to Manhunter and in book format to Red Dragon). And what of Street Fighter 1? It exists, you know. But if this sudden revelation gives you an increasingly frothing desire to seek out and play that dirge, I can save you time by telling you simply not to bother. Just go and bounce your head off a massive subwoofer for a bit until all you can hear is nasty static and high-pitched squeals of terror – you’ll get the same effect as playing the original Street Fighter, more or less.

Anyway, when Red Dead Redemption was touted as the awesome new thing, and a gamechanger in terms of sandbox (or in this case, dustysavannahbox) gaming, one or perhaps both of my eyebrows raised involuntarily. In spite of myself, and how less impressed than others I tend to be with sandbox games, I was compelled to find out more. I thought I’d heard of the series before, and I was proved right: there was previously a game called Red Dead Revolver, which neither you nor I have played and which has almost no correlation to the open world sequel. It’s even touted as a “cult classic” on Wikipedia. High praise indeed.

Still, whatever about its prequel, it’s probably fair to say that Red Dead Redemption is a game that we may not have ever seen: Rockstar didn’t really expect to turn much of a profit on it, and it was more an exercise by Rockstar San Diego to see could they successfully churn out a typically Rockstar game. The result received universal acclaim and became colloquially known as “Grand Theft Auto with horses”, which to me is like saying “Punch Out with rules” or “Metal Gear with sense” – not exactly something to boast about.

Whatever about that, the kudos and bonhomie that this game received impressed me so much that I sat down to play through it a mere four years after it was released – an exceptionally quick turnaround time for me, let me tell you. But that’s all fine and dandy, partner – thing is, how does a little old game like this ‘un hold on up?

You are John Marston, a brash and uneducated but ultimately civil gunslinger who laid down with dogs in the past but now finds his wife and child threatened by powers above. He must now bring his former gangbangers (if such a term existed out Wild in 1911, which incidentally is just a little bit after what’s defined as the Wild West) to justice. His wife and child, the latter of whom you’ll eventually suffer, are an order that John follows devoutly – so committed is he to his wife that he even turns down the local harlots no matter what, which is a wonderful touch.

I have to say though that even in films, the Wild West isn’t really one of my favourite settings at all. But this game nails all of the tropes: you’ve got run-ins with tobaccah-chewers, the clothes look spot on, there’s hogtieing, bad teeth, crooked law enforcers and vicious wild animals. Quickfire duels – you can even shoot hats off, or shoot a gun right out of a gunslinger’s hand – and saloon shootouts; characters with moral ambiguity just like The Man With No Name; taking Wanted posters off the wall, nailing the bounty dead or alive and bringing them back to the lackadaisical sheriff’s office – it’s all here.

The environments all look the part, dusty and arid. But, in a sensible diversion from reality, other landscapes including swampy marshlands and even a snowy mountain are included as well. All of the people populating the towns even look a bit smelly, unbathed in fact.  But possibly the best aspect of the game in terms of nailing the Western atmosphere is its music – it’s got, quite literally, the bells and whistles that call to mind Ennio Morricone’s classic scores from the movies.

The controls quickly become fluent, even if it can be a pain in the backside having to tap the button all the time to keep your horse running or to keep John from shuffling along at a geriatric snail’s pace. And the lassoing mechanic overall could have benefited from more than two minutes of programming. But running about, navigating the land with your ‘orse and all the combat, it all works well.

And if things look bad in the midst of an argy, you can cheat a little and slow time down with a mechanic called the Dead Eye. But even I’m not bad enough to need to slow down the enemy cowpokes, so this is just a handy crutch for players who might struggle a little bit with these types of games. After all, like most games with shooters these days, you can easily take about a half-dozen shots to the face before needing to hide behind a waist-high fence to spend some seconds sweating the bullets out. Having the Dead Eye on will often save you this hassle, as well as allowing you to retake the advantage for those occasions when enemy ne’er-do-wells ambush you out in the wilds.

Now, having John and whichever faithful hoss he’s broken in sink without trace as soon as he touches even a foot of water is a concept that really should not have lasted so long in Rockstar games. I know he’s got cowboy boots and spurs on and all the rest of it, but can’t he be given a fighting chance? Still, at least it’s something that’s finally gone out of the Grand Theft Auto games. Yes, I know. The water thing is such a small issue that it hardly bears thinking about, especially in a game world where there’s so little water. But it’s just one of those little things that can always be improved upon.

The sheer number of glitches in the game is pretty intense as well, and that’s even by PS3 standards. I don’t really mean that as much of a criticism though, since they’re mostly visual bugs and they can sometimes be hilarious – take a look at the many compilations on YouTube and see what I mean. Anyway, it leaves us to optimistically hope that the supposedly upcoming and well-deserved sequel, tentatively dubbed Red Dead Rebellion, will correct some of these silly issues and perhaps take a few cues from that Rockstar game that came out last year. You know, the one that had all of the proles queuing up at midnight, remember that one?

Redemption’s got a compelling, finely acted story (probably a first from Rockstar) with memorable characters. It’s got plenty of missions to prop this story up, with enough things to do on the side to keep you busy in between the narrative. There’s always quirky little events, strangers and incidents in the world that are waiting to be happened upon as well.

Side-missions also allow you to become either a near-mythical legend or a much-feared scoundrel, depending on whether you’d like to make things easier or tougher on yourself respectively. Scoring highly in the Fame and Honour stats brings about certain effects, like shopkeepers only charging a fistful of dollars for purchases, the brasses upping their game to besmirch your name and the townsfolk becoming more likely to get on their knees for you.

On the other hand, intentionally being a little old cactus in everyone’s side means you’ll get more buckshot coming your way, the cougars will hate you even more, the law likewise, and your horse won’t want to speak to you anymore. Your wife will probably find herself a rich prospector too – and worse than all that, your son will stay insolent for the rest of his miserable life. OK, the moral system is a bit rudimentary here, but Fame and Honor are always things you’ll want to shoot for.

Beyond that there’s Outfits to collect, games to play (including Hold’em Poker, horseshoes, the knife bit from Aliens and an “interesting” dice game called Liar’s Dice), races to take part in, bases to storm and different optional areas to explore – all of the trimmings that we’ve come to expect from Rockstar games but that we should never take for granted. And after all that, there’s a substantial DLC pack called Undead Nightmare to explore. Obviously as a dedicated miser I’m opposed to DLC in all its forms, but Undead Nightmare seemingly has an awful lot to it – and the Game of the Year edition of Red Dead Redemption, comprising both the original game, its zombiefied add-on and even more goodies beyond that, can be had fairly cheaply.

It’s true, I do find open world games sort of enjoyable but I certainly don’t treat them as some kind of religion. The way some people go on, you’d think Tommy Vercetti was next only to God. I don’t subscribe to all that style over substance guff. Which is why I’ve never fiddled with myself at the mere thoughts of a Grand Theft Auto game, and it’s why my invitations to the more popular parties, the ones that Zack Morris attends, have dried up as a result.

But despite its status as an open world game, and despite its unfancied Wild West setting, this game clearly has bucketloads of love and effort put into it – not to mention that it’s wholly unique in the first place. It’s for these reasons and more that, in my mind, it stands alongside Bully and Just Cause 2 as one of only a handful of sandbox games that actually holds up. In fact, I’m dangerously close to calling Red Dead Redemption great.

4 November 2014

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