At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.
The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.
The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.
Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:
Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.
You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.
In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.
In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.
If I’m seriously playing a game I find it hard to take the evil/jerk options if I’m given the choice. Maybe it’s because I like to think of myself as an upstanding member of society and being a total ass in games runs counter to that line but it’s probably because I like being the hero loved by everyone rather than the dark tyrant conquering the world. Still if there’s marked differences between the good and evil choices and the game is good enough to warrant a second playthrough (like Mass Effect 1 did, I haven’t done it with 2) I’ll usually go the other way just to get that experience. However I’ve found that, usually in sandbox type games, once I get bored with certain aspects of the game I have a tendency to switch into what I call Jerk Mode where I start messing with the game and its people in any way possible usually with hilarious results (for me anyway).
I hadn’t really done this in quite a while until I recently began trying to play through Red Dead Redemption. I had fully expected the game to be done in about 15 hours but after spending that long on primarily slogging through the story line missions I started to get a little bored with the world I had been in for so long. What followed was a classic example of Jerk Mode engaging as I began hog tying the entire town of Blackwater, punching up horses and eventually letting off hundreds of rounds in the middle of town just so I could find where the last free roaming citizens were hiding only to add them to my pile of hog tied comrades. Why the in game police take offense when I look at them the wrong way when holding a knife but barely give me a second look when I have a pile of 20 hostages tied up is beyond me, but it was quite comical when they’d walk past saying “Good day Mr Marsten”.
I’ve also found myself in Jerk Mode whenever I’m watching someone play a game that allows you to break things in extremely funny ways. I remember watching one of my housemates play Fallout 3 just after it was released and he remarked on how he could kill anyone in the game, even the core story NPCs. What ensued was an hour of me watching him over the shoulder and telling him to beat up everyone he came across, just because it would be funny. To his credit he never relented although what followed was me installing the game afterwards and acting out my twisted sense of humour on the poor citizens of the Fallout world, much to his dismay.
Looking back at all the games that were privvy to my jerky behaviour I come to realise how much it endeared the games to me. Once I had got to that point of boredom in any other game I would have simply stopped playing them and found something else to fill my time. With the ability to change my playstyle completely and fool around for a while I’d end up spending quite a lot more time with the games than I usually would and, most interestingly, enjoy them quite a lot more. It could be that I’m just supressing my inner jerk and these few times are the moments when he comes out to play but there’s something to be said for a game that allows the player who has lost interest in the game to immediately rekindle it, even if that means toturing the poor NPCs of the game’s virtual world.
My gut feeling about where this behaviour stems from is that open worlds with emergent properties really didn’t exist up until about 5 years or so ago and now that I have the opportunity I’m reveling in a new found freedom. As someone who’s been a gamer for as long as he was able to muster the hand eye co-ordination required to play them I lived through the days when the games were barely able to stray from the linear formula. Today however it seems odd when games don’t incorporate real world physics, meaningful choices and at least the feeling of a big wide world that you can bend to your whim. Sure there’s still great experiences to be had with strictly linear games but I’ll always have a soft spot for games that keep me hanging around for a little while after I’m done with them, unleashing my inner jerk on the world.
It’s been a while since I did a game review on this blog and there’s a very good reason for that. After spending a solid few months developing Geon (and subsequently relegating myself to rewrite it again) I fell hopelessly back into my old addict, World of Warcraft. The lure of defeating the nemesis that Warcraft 3 created in the Lich King was too tempting and I was soon caught up in the rough and tumble world of raiding once again. Still I found myself with less tolerance for some of the crap the game throws at you (although I admit most of it has been removed, thank heavens) so I’ve been dabbling with a few other games. Just Cause 2 happened by my way through several recommendations from friends so I ponied up the US$50 for the game and gave it a good slog over the past couple weeks. There’s a couple unique things about this game that got me hooked and one external thing that changed the game fundamentally for me.
The name has been subject to both ridicule and praise amongst the gaming community and rightly so. Whilst I think that the actual thrust of the name is supposed to be that you’re fighting for a just cause (although that’s questionable) it can also be taken as a light hearted stab at the core of the game: fucking around. Probably a more apt name for the name would be Grand Theft Democracy: Panau, but then again I’m not really in the business of making up game names now am I? 😉
Right off the bat the game is quite a looker. I caught myself on several occasions just flying around the island of Panau and checking out the scenery. You’re not left wanting for various methods to see the scenery either as nearly every form of transport is represented on the tiny island nation. The attention to detail also extends to the little things like the constant stream of explosions you’ll be setting off, and all the glorious debris that follow it.
The story itself is a little thin on the ground. You’re an Agency Agent named Rico Rodriguez (wait it gets better) who’s being sent to Panau to figure out why the island has severed all ties with the glorious USA and to hunt down one of your former colleagues who’s gone rogue. Nearly every character is some kind of overblown stereotype and realistically the game wouldn’t have suffered much if they replaced everything with just text boxes instead of in game videos. Not that I come seeking a deep story from an sandbox action game but the deliberate attempt to be completely cheesy and bordering on the racist, whilst amusing, became almost a chore to sit through towards the end.
Combat in Just Cause 2 is a ludicrous as it comes. The main objective of the game is to cause chaos by any means necessary which mostly means going around and blowing anything and everything up. For such a small island nation Panau seems to have an extremely healthy and incompetent military with fully armed helicopters, aircraft and land vehicles all laying about just waiting to be driven away. This leads to a game where you spend most of your time looking for somewhere to lay waste to or laying waste to something. Realistically though you’ll usually end up trying to find a helicopter with rockets on it as it’s the quickest way to blow up a whole mess of things and it provides you a quick getaway once the fuzz gets on the scene.
Now I’m not one to complain about a game that enables, nay encourages, you to unleash untold destruction on the world they’ve thrust you into. I’m known for being a complete ass in games that let you do this, leading to me spending many hours loading up a save game and wrecking havoc on the in game world. My better half has grown used to me cackling madly as I set up elaborate contraptions in games just to see the NPC crowd explode in a flurry of ragdoll physics and giblets. Still after a while I became bored with the whole untold destruction thing, opting more to try and do missions that would grant me more chaos so I could progress the damn story. To be honest I lasted about 7 hours before this got extremely tedious, so I started to look for other solutions.
You see it wasn’t too long after I got the game that someone put me onto this video of someone having some fun with multiple grappling hooks (yet another one of the games unique features). Intrigued I started hunting down the mod that he made reference to called Bolo Patch which, amongst many other things, enabled this multi grapple ability. Included in the usual money and upgrade hacks there was also the ability to change how much chaos you had, and I couldn’t resist setting it to its highest setting. Now many people will say I was missing the point of the whole game here but hear me out, I was completely and totally bored with what it had to offer. Really all I was after was some closure on the thin plot they had got me interested in and hopefully something different than blowing up yet another military installation.
Playing just the agency missions would see this game done in about 3 hours so you can see why they padded it out with the various faction missions as well as the traditional sandbox chicanery. That wouldn’t of been too bad except for the fact that many of the missions felt like I was doing the same thing just in a different area. Additionally there are whole parts of the game rendered completely moot, such as the black market dealer. Why would I bother buying something from him when realistically I was only 5 minutes away from having something infinitely better? I can’t tell you the number of missions were trivialized by just finding a helicopter and then raining hell from the skies or how every stronghold mission seemed to have a mounted gun that I could take with me for the whole ride.
In the end I turned on god mode and gave myself a fully upgraded rocket launcher with unlimited ammo and honestly the last few missions were a blast. There’s nothing more fun than juggling your enemy in the air with a relentless chain of RPG fire which every so often would land directly at my feet sending Rico flying skyward in a hilarious rag doll spin. There’s also some fun to be had with stacking 50 triggered explosives under your feet and doing the same, as you can actually throw yourself up so high that you can sky dive back down to the ground.
Would I recommend Just Cause 2? That depends, you really have to be a fan of sandbox type games to enjoy the things that this game provides. Whilst it does have its moments (and really some of them are just spectacular) the real meat of the game is just too much of the same thing and after a while you’re longing for something other than blowing up another village or fending off an endless horde of Panauian soldiers. The redeeming feature of Just Cause 2 are the stories you’ll tell with your friends, like that time you hijacked a plane, flew up to another plane, grapple hooked them together and then watched them collide as you parachuted back down to earth.
Just Cause 2 is available right now for PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$99, $99 and $78 respectively. Game was played on hardest difficulty setting for the entire game, with the last 3 out of 10 hours game play spent cheating like there was no tomorrow.