Why I can't wait for Red Dead Redemption
Hype is a strange thing. It causes all sorts of people to vehemently defend a product they've never even touched. And despite my best efforts to remain neutral about the release of certain new videogames -- in a laughable effort to sustain my school-bred journalistic ethics -- I'm as susceptible to flashy advertisements and smart marketing as any modern consumer.
Red Dead Redemption, which is out today, coerced me to put my money down based on its trailers and previews alone. My fistful of (60) dollars is purchasing an untested game that I've barely seen or read about, and no matter how capable Rockstar is as a developer, every company makes mistakes (i.e., Capcom's unsuccessful attempts at building western-focused franchises). This horse-riding, cattle-rustling and outlaw-shooting game could be a flop, but for more than a few reasons I don't believe that's the truth.
Instead, I'm going to tell you exactly why I've saddled up to ride into the hype-laden sunset.
Two words: horse physics.
Rockstar San Diego has taken the NaturalMotion Euphoria physics engine used in Grand Theft Auto IV and significantly tweaked its capabilities, which are best seen in the first introductory gameplay trailer. What looked exaggerated and comical in GTA -- the stupor of walking around Liberty City drunk, for example -- now looks more natural in Red Dead Redemption. Watching the horses run in slow-motion reminds me of Eadweard J. Muybridge's experiments with photography and animal physiology, which proved that the hooves of a horse leave the ground during its stride. Sure, Red Dead is primarily concerned with shooting banditos in the head, but the level of care taken by the development team to make its world look as alive as possible is greatly appreciated. Every little bit helps the player's suspension of disbelief.
If there's one thing Rockstar Games' studios are good at, it's their capability to make nefarious activities enjoyable. From Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' drug running to Bully's truancy, Rockstar titles drip a thick glaze of style and atmosphere onto the worlds in which they take place. I, for one, laughed at the idea of going to school as a focus of the gameplay in Bully, but later discovered how original and solid the concept was.
Red Dead Redemption is a modern take on the classic pulp fiction of the Wild West, although it seems closer to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven than Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. On the surface, this is a clichéd tale of revenge, in which protagonist John Marston is on a manhunt for the remaining members of his traitorous, disbanded gang. He's out for blood, and he'll get it. The plot may not be original, but the approach is. Where Red Dead Revolver fell a bit flat in 2004, its sequel will likely succeed by the virtue of its gritty realism, historical accuracy and adrenaline-fueled action. I don't expect this to be a Western simulator, but I do expect it to carry on a Rockstar tradition of weaving complex virtual tapestries of drama, violence, cinematic flair and innovation. Some might berate the developers for creating one more open-world sandbox title, but when did a more appropriate period of history exist to set a free-roaming videogame than the Wild West?
By using a professional narrator and structuring the trailers in a documentary format, Rockstar's latest game comes off as a more impressive -- and legitimate -- idea. Very rarely do advertisement campaigns take the time to establish historical accuracy for the period they're set in. So it's refreshing then to discover that Red Dead looks more like an homage to the West than a parody of it. I'm not as familiar with the true history of the West as I am the evolution of urban life at the turn of the 20th century; even so, the trailers' words about the encroaching effects of a technologically advanced United States on the lawless deserts and canyons of the Wild West are accurate and fascinating. Whether or not the game will make a point of highlighting this dynamic change in American society and culture remains to be seen, but it's good that Rockstar San Diego appears to have wrote in at least one additional narrative theme outside of the core focus on revenge. I still expect there to be numerous other subplots and themes that intertwine with the main story, as is customary in other Rockstar games.
In Red Dead Redemption I will ride to the highest cliff to gaze at a breaking sunrise, while tumbleweeds roll hundreds of feet below, buzzards screech in the sky above and a camp fire smolders into the ashy ground behind me. I will hunt wildlife, and sell the grizzly pelts I've skinned to the general store so I can buy a rare six-shooter. I will use that gun to take back a gold mine from the bandits who have overrun it. I will then use that gun and a horse I took from the dead bandits to hijack a train. And in all of this, I will be playing one game the way I want to without feeling pressured to continue its plot.
Some gamers prefer linear stories. They want to be told what to do, but also hope to have a shred of leeway to do things as they see fit. Instead of limiting ingenuity and creativity within the game's environment, Red Dead Redemption provides its players with three spacious regions to find hidden treasures, landmarks and random NPC encounters. There are also over 30 individual species of wildlife to hunt. Hunting requires players to bring bait, binoculars and a skinning knife; animals can be tracked, and they will fight back. Now I'm not a hunter by any stretch of the imagination, but games can help us enact fantasies about activities we'd never do ourselves. The hunting minigame, which appears to blend itself into the exploration element by introducing animals at random intervals, has kindled my imagination. Perhaps it's the fact that hunting is more realistic than finding hidden packages or shooting pigeons.
Free-roam multiplayer is where, in my semi-educated opinion, the bulk of the online action will be. Here's another great trailer all about it. Go on and watch it, I'll wait.
The game's free-roam mode injects all of the goal-oriented tasks, like team deathmatch and hunting, into the expansive single-player world. Instead of having to select these modes from a menu separately, my friends and I can accomplish our goals when and how we want to. Posses can be formed with up to eight players in an MMO-like fashion. Too many games tread the line between MMO and single-mode repetition, and they usually get it wrong (read: Borderlands). But maybe this time, one game will get it right.
Red Dead's multiplayer has me eager to ride alongside my friends while we level up and unlock new avatars and horses. This particular free-roam idea was last seen in GTA IV, where it was a novel, albeit a boring, idea. Liberty City was sizable, but it still wasn't "big" enough to hold my interest online. Ironically, a less-populated outdoor playground seems like it will have more to do than GTA's urban metropolis.
So now I wait here at my desk, watching the clock tick by in an unusually indolent fashion. I'm anticipating Red Dead Redemption, a game I have a lot of reasons to like, but I'm without any solid evidence to trust my feelings. I could look at Metacritic, but a 94 or a 74 won't change my mind either way: I'm ready for something new, and a cowboy game is new enough to me.
Amazon says my package was "out for delivery" in Portland, Oregon at 6:12 am. Only a few hours to go, then. I'll let you know how it turns out.
And if you need to join a posse, just look me up on Xbox Live. You can call me by my cowboy name: Theodore "Doc Dynamite" Perkins.