The Backlog: Red Dead Way of Life edition

Some might deride it as simply GTA: Old West, some are praising it as one of the best games of the year (Metacritic has its issues but just look at that aggregate score right now), but however you structure it, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption is out and is the hot topic of the week. Aaron and Nick have started to sink their teeth into Rockstar San Diego's western tale, while Doug is still struggling with the wild grizzly bear that is graduate school.

Enough about that nonsense, though. Let's get on with the show.

Aaron:

The adventures of Theodore Perkins, better known as Doc Dynamite, have been hair-raising, to say the least. In the event that you have no idea who Doc Dynamite is, which means you haven't read my article about how badly I wanted to play the game this past Tuesday, I'm referring to Red Dead Redemption.

My initial report, with 12 hours played and reaching 36% completion (I had little to do yesterday), is that this is a title people need to play if they're fans of action and adventure games. And even though RDR isn't a drastic departure from its Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto roots, its setting makes up for any shared ancestry with its crime-simulating cousin. I must be more interested in the Wild West than I ever gave myself credit for: The lonesome horseback trips across hills teeming with cacti, coyote packs and ghost towns have me hooked. The narrative is also strong, and I find myself able to relate to the characters (even when most border on caricature). It seems Rockstar San Diego took cues from Rockstar North's track record of realistic character development, which further evolved in The Ballad of Gay Tony.

I could explore the world of New Austin for days, and I plan on doing just that. At this current juncture I feel safe in proclaiming that Red Dead Redemption isn't "GTA with horses." It's a lot more than that, but I need to keep playing to figure out what, exactly, this game is.

In other news I borrowed a lot of games this week. The following titles are from my "Games I Gotta Play and Replay, Yo" docket -- and yes, it's a legal parchment: God of War 2 (technically given to me), Guitar Hero (technically returned to me) and Demon's Souls (technically for a console I don't have yet) and Dead Rising.

Nick:

It seems that, once again, I have to play the Bert to Aaron's Ernie.

Red Dead Redemption is, by almost any metric, a top-notch game. In typical Rockstar fashion, the writing and characterization are among the best out there, which is enough to grab the attention of a narrative-driven gamer like myself. But my interest in the game dwindles anywhere beyond that.

It's a challenge to bring the same vivacity to the expanses of the almost-settled West that has made the Grand Theft Auto games such a surreal and, at times, groundbreaking experience, so I'll cut Rockstar some slack for not making this open world as exciting to explore as GTA IV's Liberty City or Just Cause 2's nation of Panau. But when the rest of the game doesn't rise up to compensate, Redemption ends up feeling just like a spinoff of the Grand Theft Auto franchise: the exact same mechanics but with a different coat of paint.

And those mechanics haven't aged well. The cover system is still a far cry from most modern-day shooters, lacking the snap-to precision of Gears of War or the point-and-click simplicity of Splinter Cell: Conviction. A lack of zooming to aim means a heavy reliance on the bullet time-like Dead-Eye mode to knock out three or four enemies at once, making every gunfight an identical, tedious process.

I'd like to say more about the multiplayer mode, but I haven't been able to join a session with friends for more than a few minutes without getting booted out. But based on the few activities I've completed, including a raid on a gang stronghold and a couple rounds of team deathmatch, there's not much going on that wasn't in GTA IV's multiplayer component. If that's your thing, Redemption looks to have ratcheted everything up a notch and made excellent use of randomly generated objectives, like hunting down other players to claim the bounty on their head. But unfortunately, it's all trapped within a decidedly last-generation control scheme, resulting in frustrating, unintentional deaths far too often.

On the upside: My younger brother just got me a copy of Picross 3D for my birthday, and man, does it ever scratch that old itch. If you're a fan of logical-spatial puzzles, you can't go wrong with this one.

Doug:

This week has been, for all intents and purposes, my finals week. Three tests, two papers, class all week, and tons of stress make Doug a crazy man.

However, I have maintained a little bit of time to play games, especially on 360. My time-killing mainstays on iPhone — Words with Friends and Bejeweled 2 — have also seen some time, but I have derived more joy from waxing my stress away with my console than my phone. Forza 3 got some time this week, both preparing for a race I couldn't make online and also spending time with one of my favorite things in car-collection racing games: finding something new to tweak. The great part of having such a wide swathe of cars available in a racing game is that whenever I get the itch to try something new, I can scroll through the "new car" menu and start a new project. Recently, it's been Hyundais and rotary-powered Mazdas. The rotor definitely goes mmmmm.

More time has, of course, gone into PES 2010 — including the fools errand of starting to create and edit 18 teams to create a the American MLS league in the game — and also a return to NCAA Football 10. More importantly, though, I saw popular reaction to Red Dead Redemption, and where and how it's showed up is, I feel, important to gaming culture.

Not only is the "hardcore sector" excited about the game, but so are many non-core gamers and many of the stereotypical jocks and broheims that nerds love to poke fun at. As evidenced by a widespread advertising campaign, the game is shooting mass-market; fortunately for Rockstar, it looks like it's working. I've seen the game eagerly anticipated and then gleefully enjoyed in many corners of the Internet, including one of the leading college football blogs, Everyday Should Be Saturday. Site editor and lead writer Spencer Hall (aka Orson Swindle) had this to say about the game on Friday:

I'm just starting to get into this, but the following are awesome knowns:

  • Pants are available for purchase in the game that have an extra card-sized pocket.
  • This is for cheating at poker.
  • If caught, you can attempt to shoot your way out of the situation.
  • You can work your way up to riding a buffalo as your personal transportation into town
  • You can get stinking drunk and start barfights
  • You can be perfectly sober and start barfights
  • Every multiplayer begins with a Mexican Standoff

As you can see, many aspects of this game play right to the prime 18-35 year-old demographic in much the same way that the Grand Theft Auto games have touched on in the past. Some may worry that this is shallow engagement with the game; however, it seems to my reading of responses that these really are just high points that make great bullet points when hanging out with your bros and telling them how awesome the game is. It doesn't sound like the more artsy details of the games are lost like pearls before swine, but that the ridiculous stuff makes for better headlines.