Red Dead Redemption has been on our radar for some time now, briefly piquing our interest back in 2005 before slipping into the night for a full four years and resurfacing before the Electronic Entertainment Expo last year. For the uninitiated, it's an open-world third-person action game set in the dying days of America's Wild West, in a massive expanse of wilderness straddling the US-Mexico border. You play as John Marston, a reformed bandit who has been blackmailed by The Bureau into hunting down some of his former partners in crime.
This is no small deal, either. The world open to you in Red Dead Redemption is the largest that Rockstar has ever created, and it's teeming with life, both human and not. As you ride around the wilderness, you come across everything from significant towns to deserted shacks, runaway carts, damsels in distress…and even the occasional bunny. The game features 40 different types of creatures, including vultures that circle over dead bodies, lions that roam in the hills, and smaller creatures, such as rabbits, deer, and coyotes. Not only do these various beasties interact in a natural way with each other, but all of them can be killed and skinned (or plucked, in the case of birds), and various bonuses are promised for avid hunters through sharpshooting challenges and collecting skins for clothing.
To track down your former colleagues in this massive world, you need to ride your way through what remains of the West, rounding up a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells to acquire the information, skills, and hardware that you need. The first of these we met was a drunkard by the name of Irish, "a compulsive liar and braggart" who is "rarely without a bottle in his hand." The Rockstar reps on hand explained that this mission is one of the later ones involving this colourful Mick, as was evidenced by the repartee between Irish and John as they galloped to their destination, with John expressing his disapproval at Irish's previous behaviour--he has "an uncanny knack of disappearing at the first sign of trouble"--in the sort of colourful language one might expect. This is typical of the world of Red Dead Redemption, according to Rockstar, as John is forced into allying himself with a number of unsavoury types he would rather not have anything to do with.
This mission was relatively late in the game's first section, so John was equipped with a fairly decent array of weaponry and had the full benefits of the game's Dead Eye system. At first, this is a combat element that just slows the world down when activated, but later in the game, it turns into a system that resembles a slimmed-down version of Fallout 3's VATS system. Once Dead Eye is activated, you move the reticle around the screen and paint targets on your foes, and then a single press of the trigger results in a lightning-quick volley, taking down multiple foes. This can be precisely applied in various interesting ways. If you're feeling particularly sadistic, this mode is useful for incapacitating your enemies--if you target their kneecaps in Dead Eye, you can saunter up to them at your leisure and finish them off with a wide range of executions that vary from weapon to weapon.
The Dead Eye system is particularly useful when you're in motion. The end of our adventure with Irish included a brief ride downhill on a mine cart, with a number of angry miners and one booby trap to take out on the way. The Dead Eye system made it much easier to take potshots while hanging off the back of the speeding cart. The same goes for attempting to shoot from horseback; it's possible to use the regular aiming system, but the Dead Eye system makes it easier. You do need to pick your moments, however, since your Dead Eye meter will recharge only as you make kills, and you never know around which corner you're going to find a particularly large group of outlaws out for your blood.
Having wrapped things up with Irish, we moved on to an exclusive look at one of the game's more unsettling characters, Seth Briars. He is, to put it bluntly, completely insane. He's a prospector driven mad through a combination of too much sun and an obsession with finding buried treasure. When you meet up with him for this mission, he is in an animated conversation with a long-dead corpse, and things just go downhill for him from there. Fighting your way through a set of bandits with the madman on your tail--and quite often charging out in front in his lust for his treasure--is a fairly tense affair, and the game's Ennio Morricone-style music adds to the atmosphere.
One very pleasing touch was that on exiting the house, the sky was thick with vultures looking to snack on the outlaws we had to fight through outside. These vultures could in turn be killed as part of one of the game's sharpshooter challenges, and their feathers looted, which should lead to rewards further down the line.
Thankfully, not all those people whose help you need are drunk, insane, or just out for a quick buck. One character who we've met before is the marshal of Armadillo, Leigh Johnson. He's a grizzled old lawman, keen on keeping the peace in his patch of the west. His local knowledge and firm grip on Armadillo mean he's an important character throughout much of the first part of the story, according to Rockstar, and the mission we got to play was one of the later encounters with him.
While the marshal is sympathetic to your goals, he's not too keen on taking any action that might disturb the somewhat fragile peace he's helped to bring to his district. In order to get his help, you need to first help him clear up a few of the current pockets of nastiness in his district. The mission we saw was quite a long way through this particular story arc and involved riding out into the wilderness with Johnson, as well as his deputies, in order to put down some cattle rustlers to rescue hostages they had taken.
After an initial cutscene and the banter we've come to expect from Red Dead Redemption, we rode out with the marshal alongside and the deputies following close behind. The outlaws around the place had to be dealt with as we arrived and dismounted, which required a combination of close-up kills with long-range executions, thanks to the mix of snipers and close-quarters enemies to dispatch. This chance to play around with the various weapons on offer was entertaining; those enemies crouching behind rocks really didn't enjoy our choice of fire bottles--proto-Molotov cocktails, effectively--to flush them out of their cover, judging by their anguished screams. The accuracy possible in the sniping combined with our itchy trigger finger also led to a lucky escape for at least one sniper as he simply got his hat shot off before we had to take cover ourselves.
Shortly after this point, though, we had the choice of accompanying the marshal down one path or following the hapless deputies down another. Deciding that the deputies could probably cope by themselves we followed the marshal to help him deal with more snipers and tougher outlaws attempting to pick off those aforementioned chinless wonders. After rejoining the deputies, we finished off the final few rustlers in pleasingly brutal fashion. Some of the finishing moves, which vary from weapon to weapon, will certainly please the more bloodthirsty among the audience, though the ability to kneecap a cattle rustler then execute him at close range with a shotgun might raise some eyebrows among the Daily Mail--or Fox News--fraternity when the game hits stores in May.
The combination of the fast-paced combat, fully realised open world, and great characters looks likely to be a winning one for Rockstar at this point. The Dead-Eye system is plenty of fun for combat--the joy of kneecapping someone shouting god-fearing abuse at you cannot be overstated--but the combat outside of that seemed to be working well too. The build we saw still had a few rough edges, but we're looking forward to seeing the final product and the post-launch downloadable content that Rockstar San Diego has planned.