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As the era of the Cowboy draws to a close, Red Dead Redemption for the Xbox 360 and PS3 promises to put you in the spurs of former outlaw John Marston. You'll traverse the American Frontier and experience intense shoot-outs, train robberies and bounty hunting exploits that bring the Old West to the modern consoles like never before. With a gorgeous open-world environment and stunning detail, this is one Western that's good, bad and ugly in all the right ways.
The Old West hasn't been served by video games particularly well over the past twenty years but all that looks to change with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. As a spiritual sequel to 2004's Red Dead Revolver, the makers of Grand Theft Auto have promised a huge open-world environment that's authentic and as brutal as the grittiest of Western movies.
From the bleak wilderness with animals scurrying in the scrubland to the dust devils kicking up in the streets of the frontier towns, Red Dead Redemption has a strong sense of place with all the aspects of the Old West perfectly implemented. Each of the game areas has a different feel, Mexico's blood-red sunsets alternating with the Frontier's yellow and gold's, and the expanse of the Savannah portrayed with blues and greens.
Red Dead Redemption does an excellent job of making the environment just as much a star as the characters and combat.
The biggest part of any western is getting used to riding on horseback. Previous games have made this feel awkward or cumbersome, akin to riding a tank with a skittish mind - making the process of shooting from horseback nigh on impossible. Red Dead Redemption rectifies all of these problems and looks to feel as natural as driving a car in GTA IV. Not the biggest endorsement for some I know, but I found the driving in that game a right mix of fast-paced arcade controls with a realistic weight. The same applies to horse-riding here; it neither feels too arcade-like nor overly complicated.
What impressed me most was how enemies reacted to being shot. Instead of just falling in a heap, Red Dead Redemption manages to pull off theatrical and melodramatic death animations that are incredibly satisfying. Blasting enemies with a shotgun will send them flying into scenery and taking a guy down with lead to the gut makes them grasp their body convincingly. Never gratuitous, as the GTA comic-book attitude to death is still present, making shoot-outs feel cinematic rather than realistic. It's a great mix and the Dead Eye system which allows you to slow down time or tag multiple enemies further enhances the combat to be the most natural system Rockstar have every produced.
From a more cinematic and epic standpoint, I love Westerns due to their stunning vistas of the American Old West. The rolling plains, dust-storms and mountains all make the setting a real star in my mind and Red Dead Redemption does an excellent job of making the environment just as much a star as the characters and combat. Rain and thunderstorms will roll in during game play and turn the bleached sunlight into a grey shadow; complete with puddles that'll get bigger the longer it rains. I couldn't tell if this impacted the game play in a physical manner but it made every aspect of the game feel different. Shoot-outs in rainy weather had a deeply moody feel to them that was so different to the usual sun-drenched scenarios I was used to.
Being from the makers of GTA IV you'd expect a similar range of modes and although Red Dead Redemption draws on a lot of aspects the overall feel is quite different.
What I didn't expect was the little details and touches that fill out the world to be so effective and immersive.
There's a levelling up system and just as with nearly every other shooter on the market you'll get to unlock various weapons, perks and horses as you progress. This experience-based play is addictive. Combine this with the unique settings and XP-accruing and you have a compelling blend.
GTA 4's lobby system returns here. Just as in that game you can roam around in an area that looks close to the main game. You're immediately divided into posse of other players and put into an area that's similar to the main game. Instead of navigating menu's you can just screw around shooting the opposition or follow your posse and get missions dynamically added as objectives. There's a real sense of team-play here and sorting out strategies and hearing your posse yelling and cursing as you play is great fun.
This dynamic co-op mode is just one aspect of the multiplayer that includes several of the standard death match and capture the flag objectives. These could easily be boring and staid examples of the multiplayer we've all played a thousand times and become sick of, but Red Dead Redemption doesn't just throw its unique setting into the mix it also changes game play to feel more Western.
The take-away here is the attention to detail - all the little touches. I had previously worried that the epic scope and drama of an open-world Western would be beyond any developer, but Rockstar seemed to have pulled that aspect off with ease. What I didn't expect was the details and touches that fill out the world to look so effective and immersive. If this level of quality can be delivered in the final game and avoid the over-long experience of GTA IV then Red Dead Redemption should be one of 2010's most epic titles for the Xbox 360 and PS3.
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