The Big Country
Much like the GTA games, Red Dead Redemption does not take place in an authentic America, but instead presents a ‘bastardised’ version of the Wild West. It comprises three distinct territories: ‘New Austin’ (a clear riff on Arizona and New Mexico), ‘West Elisabeth’ (which makes up the civilised portion of the West) and Nuevo Parasio (south of the Mexican border). The game world spans an enormous expanse of terrain, with vast swathes of land separating each district. All told, the landscape is significantly larger than GTA IV’s Liberty City and is bound to keep explorative gamers busy for hours on end.
What would a Western game be without dynamite?
Indeed, exploration is a key aspect of Red Dead Redemption’s appeal. Travelling off the beaten path will present its own set of rewards, including the afore-mentioned buried treasure. In a novel twist, every loot pile has its own unique treasure map with a sketch of a nearby landmark, such as a pile of rocks or an overhanging boulder. Players will need a very keen eye (and an even sharper memory) if they hope to spot every telltale marker. Think of it as the collectable stars in GTA III taken to the next level.
The world of Red Dead Redemption is big, but that’s not to say it’s sparsely populated; at least, not compared to certain other Westerns we could mention (we’re looking at you GUN). The land is home to a veritable menagerie of critters, beasts ‘n’ varmints. Snakes, rabbits, wild dogs, carrion-picking vultures and grizzly bears are just some of the wildlife you’ll encounter on your travels. Naturally, you can interact with every creature in the game, with hunting-and-skinning activities for any wannabe survivalists out there.
See those mountains in the distance? According to Rockstar Games, every vista in the game can be travelled to and explored.
As mentioned, random events also figure big on the map, with robberies, hangings, jail breaks and raids all just a brief gallop away. Once again, your actions have bearing on how much honour Marston accumulates, which in turn affects how other characters perceive him. Put holes in a lawman and you’ll be on the Most Wanted list before you can say “sufferin' succotash”; save civilians from certain death and you’ll become an instant hero. Just like in the best Westerns, morality is an essential part of the narrative, with every action having its own consequence.
Paint Your Wagon!
As you’d expect from a game nurtured by the RAGE engine, Red Dead Redemption is stunning to look at. Light refracts off characters and objects in an organic way, while clouds shift and dissipate like the real thing. The sunsets in the game are spectacular, as cinematic and poetic as any John Ford film you care to name. Special mention must also go to the horses. Rockstar San Diego has poured a lot of time and effort into nailing this aspect of the game, and it shows — your four-legged companions look and behave remarkably like the real thing. They also exhibit unique characteristics: a well-trained steed will dutifully return to its master’s whistle (even when it’s in the process of being stolen!) while a skittish breed might throw you into the dust at the sound of a rattlesnake’s hiss. Much like the range of automobiles in GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption sports a variety of equine ‘models’, each with its own speed and handling. (Horses for courses, if you will.)
The sunsets in the game are truly awe-inspiring.
In addition to RAGE, Red Dead Redemption uses a customised version of the Euphoria Physics engine. This helps to give character models more realistic mannerisms and interactivity routines, leading to an extra level of immersion. This was especially noticeable during our preview session when we entered the dilapidated town of Chuparosa. As we rode through the dusty streets, the townsfolk went about their day-to-day lives with admirable realism. Blacksmiths sweated at their forges, kids dashed about on kiddish capers and prostitutes preened from brothel balconies. The town truly felt alive in a way few sandbox games can match. Moreover, each and every dwelling in the game has been built to look unique — consequently, you’ll never see the same building in two different towns.
Interestingly, some of the seemingly innocuous events in a town may actually be optional missions. For example, while in Chuparosa, we saw the deputy sheriff exit his office and hammer a Wanted sign on the wall. This turned out to be an interactive object — after the deputy left, Marsden picked up the poster and assigned it to his mission list. We then tracked down the offender’s gang and engaged in a protracted shoot out. (You can either hog-tie your bounty and drag him back into town, or drop him in the dirt then and there.)
Meet the Western 'taxi'. A distant relative of Roman Belic perhaps?
This level of graphical authenticity in Red Dead Redemption also extends to Marsden — every item he acquires in the game is represented on his body when not in use. Unlike the GTA games, there are no magically appearing shotguns and the game looks all the better for it. It’s a small touch, but impressive nonetheless.
On the downside, we did notice that some characters suffered from the peculiar movements that are synonymous with Rockstar games. This is especially noticeable when characters come to an abrupt halt or suddenly begin to run. We also bore witness to several instances of pop-up, including a train that seemed to appear out of thin air (no, it wasn’t a ghost train). Bear in mind though, that we were viewing unfinished preview code. With any luck, these minor kinks will be ironed out before the game is released.
After giving us a taste of the game’s open world, Rockstar Games loaded up a story mission which sees Marston storming a heavily guarded fort in a horse-drawn carriage filled with dynamite. Once through the gates, the action was fast, frantic and bloody. Red Dead Revolver's Dead Eye mechanic is back in the saddle, allowing you to draw multiple beads on assailants before smoking 'em in quick succession. The weapons in the game are based on authentic firearms from the period, which should please all three members of the Wild West historical society. Rockstar San Diego seems to be striking a balance between the madcap shootouts of the first game and the more measured gunplay of GTA IV.
So there you have it, partner. The Red Dead franchise may not have the instant cachet of GTA, but we reckon it'll make a fistful of dollars regardless. Provided Rockstar can craft a compelling storyline to match the open world gameplay, Red Dead Redemption may just be one of the must-have games of 2010.
Red Dead Revolver's celebrated 'Dead Eye' mechanic makes a welcome return to Red Dead Redemption. Follow GamePro Australia on Twitter: @GameProAu