For a Few Dollars More
Put on some Ennio Morricone music, preferably the Good the Bad and the Ugly, or For a Few Dollars more because on the 21st of May here in Europe we get our hands on Rockstar's hotly anticipated open world game: Red Dead Redemption.
Set in a time as the Wild West was losing its innocence and independence, Red Dead Redemption is the story of John Marston and not Red from the original Rockstar hit - Red Dead Revolver, it revolves around John who is a reformed outlaw and he must track down and bring to justice his old pal, Bill Willamson. Rockstar have gone the extra mile this time and have managed to push the boundaries of the open world game, putting extra emphasis on genuine exploration of a frontier world that is being racked by serious change, both in terms of social, political and technological aspects.
Rockstar has also managed to do their research whilst making their open world western epic, they have crafted a world that evokes the period of change whilst still retaining the fun of an open world game. There are dozens of tiny details and hidden things to find in Red Dead Redemption, all of them wrapped up in a sense of emergent gameplay that not even GTA IV managed to evoke. For instance you can get hold of a treasure map and unlike many games this will not be a direct waypoint to the shiny gold, no, this is a mini-game itself.
The map is often festooned with a picture or clue that leads you to search for unique landmarks in the 3 distinct and vast areas of this truly epic-looking experience. This coupled with the geographic layout of the various regions provides an interesting and seldom seen experience, the only thing I can vaguely recall that had this kind of treasure hunt was inFAMOUS and that proved to be quite fun.
One of the biggest things about an open world game should be immersion and thankfully Rockstar have taken this to the extreme with Red Dead, they have managed to bring together several interesting ideas, such as Marston's campsite itself, or the ability to join other campsites and listen in on gossip. They have made hundreds of emergent, context sensitive random events that trigger as you explore the game world. These can be simple bandit attacks on random travellers, or more complex scenes, you might even get your horse stolen.
Many of these events are only triggered if certain circumstances are met, such as day or night, the right conditions are vital for the feeling of seamless integration for these events and Red Dead Redemption looks to have nailed this one quite nicely. Beyond the emergent events there are numerous activities that are in the game, races, hunting, bounty hunting where you can ride out and capture wanted criminals for the law, capturing and breaking wild horses, poker and so much more.
Towns and settlements, cities and outlying regions are all teeming with life, unique and interesting NPC's abound as well as the townsfolk and bandits, and they all have their own AI routines and their own interactions with you as well as each other, fights break out in Saloons and no two events are ever the same. Marston's actions in the world of Red Dead Redemption affect the people in some way/shape or form, being a bad guy can lead to your character getting so much richer quicker, but also a large bounty on your head, a bounty that other gunslingers might want to try and collect. Not to mention the law, there is a bandanna that you can use to keep your notoriety down.
You gain fame from your deeds (completing lots of challenges) and successful duels, you gain more fame and more people wanting to prove they're the fastest gun hear about you. If you're a good guy then you'll gain the respect and trust of the people along with the fear of the bandits, of course if you're a bad guy you'll scare the townsfolk witless and you might even find some shops are closed to you, after all, who wants to deal with a known criminal? This helps bring weight to the things that you do and transforms the world from a simple, lets shoot the townsfolk in the middle of a gunfight to one where you're thinking tactically whilst the lead is flying.
When the leads' flying it's obvious that Rockstar have kept but tweaked the gun combat from GTA IV. The cover system is better and the inclusion of the Dead Eye targeting system from good old Red Dead Revolver is a welcome addition. There are several levels to it and at the most extreme you can slow down time, plant numerous markers on your enemies before you finish them off in a blaze of hammer-fanning six-shooting that would make Clint Eastwood proud.
Of course for a game set in the Wild West, Rockstar have managed to bring their design skills not only to the environments and systems inside the game, but to the most important feature - horses. Usually horses in a game are pretty standard affairs, they have no personality barring one of the usual go from 'A to B' and act like a fleshy car. In RDR though they have personalities and AI, drive one too hard and it might buck you and run off or just flatly refuse to move for a while. Whilst on horseback the AI takes care of the little things like avoiding obstacles, jumping over low lying branches and generally trying to keep it and you alive.
You can ride a horse off a cliff, but seriously, you will die and so will the horse.
In a gunfight from the back of a horse, the AI moves up a few notches to make sure that you can keep on shooting and not have to worry about collisions and so forth. How this fares in the final game, we can't wait to find out since this mode of transportation is integral to the experience and well, shooting from horseback just looks utterly badass cool.
There's a whole lot more to the game but it's beyond the scope of this spotlight at the moment to cover it, in the allotted segment. Some of the things to look forwards to are challenges that can be unlocked to earn some sweet in-game rewards and more.
The power behind the throne
Rockstar's game engine, RAGE, has been tweaked beyond GTA IV and this game looks set to challenge their dark and gritty city based open worlder, with some seriously amazing vistas. A starry sky at night, rushing rapids, massive canyons and more wait in the Wild West and the weather effects look mind blowing. Rain turns to snow as you ride further north, thunder rocks the heavens with sharp jagged lightning in the middle of a vicious storm and when the sun comes out the puddles of rain dry up. These systems all tie together and as the landscape is changed by weather, or by the day/night cycles, little touches help flesh out the world before you.
As we mentioned before, the game is teeming with life from bandits, to wild horses, animals and more are all out there in the various regions, all based on numerous AI routines. When the sun goes down, campfires appear across the vistas and Marston can pitch his own or go and wander by someone else's fire. Nocturnal animals pop out at night and the whole game's feeling becomes subtly different, it immerses you quite literally in the dark. Night time critters are on the prowl and they'll hunt each other as well as you if they think they can get away with it.
The people react to the weather and their local environments, and with three large regions to explore plus hidden extras, there's a lot of RDR to go around and that suits us just fine. We're huge fans of open world games and having all of these systems in play just makes our mouths water at the prospect of spending so much time in the game world.
There's not just RAGE of course, there's also Euphoria and this is one of the best animation systems to have come out of the game industry for a long time. First seen in GTA IV and later Force Unleashed, even though it was in Force Unleashed before GTA IV, Euphoria by Natural Motion models animation based on skeletal animation techniques, giving the characters a life-like quality that traditional animation and rag-doll physics is largely incapable of doing. With Euphoria it's possible to allow the character's in-game skeleton and muscle structure to feel the nature of a fall or bullet wound, reacting to protect itself from harm and tumbling in a variety of realistic (albeit Hollywood Western tweaked) reactions. Shoot someone in the knee and they'll hobble or fall to the floor in agony, trying to crawl away. Shoot them in the gut and you can sadistically watch them crawl off and bleed out somewhere.
Euphoria doesn't just model the gunshots, the reactions and the physics of combat; it's used for subtler interactions. Marston and the townsfolk in their day to day lives for instance, you're going to encounter a lot of stairs and Euphoria can model the character's reaction to those stairs, saving animators a lot of time and trouble. Get drunk and there's a lot of fun to be had with Euphoria, even with GTA IV, its better implemented in RDR however and there are a lot more subtle interactions with the environment too.
Euphoria also models the horses and these are the best in-game horses that we've seen. Just looking at videos, we can see that a massive amount of care and attention has been paid to the creatures and this level of detail runs through the whole of the game, the wild animals with their AI and Euphoria animations act like wild animals. So with RAGE, physics, Euphoria and the various random events RDR is shaping up to be one heck of a time sink and a fantastic game.
But there's more!
We've mentioned the single player up until now, but RDR is coming loaded for bear with a massive multiplayer that supports up to 16 people. The true star of this particular multiplayer is Rockstar's take on the game lobby, gone are screens where you wait for a host to select a game mode, the entire single player open world is there for you to use as the game lobby. You can create posses of 2-8 players and go explore every nook and cranny, every interior locale and every town and bar. You can choose to interact with the townsfolk, kill bandits, hunt wild animals and basically have fun the way you want.
You can skirmish with other players or play structured modes like deathmatch, and capture the flag variants by assembling at locations designed for such play. You can ignore it all and just ride as far north as you want in a huge group, galloping across the plains and into the forested regions where the rain becomes snow. Rockstar have managed to revolutionise both multiplayer and the open world game with this simple addition to RDR. This is the feature that we are most excited about and we can't wait to explore with our friends across the vastness.
We've already got plans to hunt bears with bowie knives, ride wild into a settlement and see what kind of bounty we can get, holding off waves of law enforcement in our own version of Firefight or Horde mode. We might even attack the outlaw locations in the cooperative team based challenges. With the wild animals, random emergent events and the like just waiting to drag us further in we can see a lot of hours spent just roaming the wilderness with our ever-increasing posse and teaming up with another posse to do a mass assault on the bad guys.
Key to the structured events is the unique and very Sergio Leone, Mexican Standoff start where you begin with either one big group or several teams. You must shoot the chosen target and hope to be the Last Man Standing before the others respawn and hunt you down for being a great shot or just lucky as all heck. With so much freedom of choice, specific map areas that have horses, wagons and other surprises in them like cannons, RDR's multiplayer looks set to completely ignite our love of shooting things as a team once again.
We want to see so much more of the multiplayer free roam though, we're quietly hoping that you could play poker with your friends and indulge in some other mini-games like horse wrangling and drinking until you fall down. Of course these are pipe dreams that can only be answered by Rockstar when the game finally comes out, it's so close now that we can literally taste it and we'll have a full review of RDR when the game ships on the 21st in Europe (18th for the US).
Check back then!