Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently engaged with, enraged at or totally perplexed by.
Howdy you lily-livered, yella bellied dtoiders! This week’s Now Loading is focused on Rockstar’s popular western themed game, Red Dead Redemption. I’m about halfway through the game at this point but have plenty of initial impressions to share. So read on as I discuss “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly” of Red Dead Redemption.
Today I’ll just discuss what I liked about the game (The Good), in the next column I’ll talk about some of the elements I disliked and as for the contents of ‘The Ugly,” well I’ll just keep that to myself for now. Keep in mind I haven’t completed the game yet so many of these observations are tentative and are subject to change depending on which direction the game takes.
The Best Western Game Ever!?
There have been plenty of western themed video games since way back in the arcade days but none has managed to get it so right until now. Usually western games offer little more than a retread of familiar tropes (a gears of war style shooter, a beat-em up, an RPG) only with the graphics changed to emulate the old west aesthetic. RDR seems to be built from the ground up with its setting in mind, and I’m not just talking about the perfectly faithful graphics which help set the atmosphere. Everything you could imagine doing in a western has been simulated: from the most exhilarating actions (frenetic gang shootouts, tense gun duels,) to the most mundane everyday tasks (herding cattle, lassoing horses, playing high stakes card games.) This is the first time that I actually felt like I was playing a character in a Sergio Leone movie, and it’s because the game gives you the tools to recreate the coolest scenes of almost every single amazing western movie ever made.
The Best Open World Game Ever!?
The way those tools are so seamlessly integrated into the world and made accessible to the player is what makes RDR the best open world game I’ve played.
Unlike the Grand theft Auto games that inspired it, the mission structure here is actually more conducive towards allowing you to do your own thing. In GTA the most essential component of the game seemed to be the main quest, sure you could mess around, act like a self proclaimed agent of chaos, but it seemed that you were limited to causing crime and devastation and making stunt jumps when it came to tackling the game’s sandbox nature. Engaging in these activities seemed like something completely alien to Niko Bellic’s (GTAIV’s protagonist) story, just a mindless distraction until I got back to business and tackled the main storyline missions.
With RDR this paradigm is almost reversed. The most essential and entertaining part of the game is actually the sandbox portion. Sure the main storyline missions do drive the story forward but you never feel rushed to take on the missions, nor do you feel like you’re wasting time when you are just roaming the world and finding interesting stuff to do. The most ingenious element is the introduction of random events.
While you are roaming the wilderness or just hanging out in town you will come across several random events; some I have seen include: A woman being hunted by a pack of wolves, a prostitute about to be murdered by a crazed client, a gang of hoodlums terrorizing a town, a sheriff who wants you to help him recover a stolen safe. The way you choose to handle these events is probably one of the best (but not only) sources of the games most memorable moments. The most brilliant aspect of these events is the fact they are repeatable; the game encourages you try those events again and again handling them in different ways, experimenting with your options and creating a unique tale each and every time. There is an excellent article by Mike Dunbar that touches on this repetitive encounter element in great detail with some well thought-out comparisons to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, I encourage you to check it out here.
Bonnie McFarlane is an awesome character:
There was a recent article here on Destructoid which points out how games rarely introduce well developed female characters that have a friendly (platonic) relationship with the male protagonist.
The character of Bonnie McFarlane completely sidesteps this trend. She is not a sexpot who tramps around in a revealing outfit, but she is by no means unattractive. She dresses sort of like a tomboy but still manages to come off as very feminine. She is a strong, self-sufficient woman who expertly takes on many roles and responsibilities usually regulated to men; she is also portrayed as handling those duties more efficiently than her male counterparts. She earns John Marston’s (the protagonist) respect with her direct plainspoken no-nonsense manner, her adherence to principles and her strength. But she wins his friendship with her demonstrations of camaraderie and loyalty. Initially, she seems to be attracted to Marston, but she backs off and respects his space once he reveals that he is a married man. These and numerous others reasons indicate that Bonnie McFarlane is definitely one of the most deftly constructed female NPCs to appear in a videogame.
However, there is a moment in the game where the effort nearly comes crashing down. Bonnie is inevitably captured and reduced to the cliché ‘damsel-in-distress’ role. Fortunately, this is somewhat salvaged by some of her dialogue after she is rescued. Regardless, it is unfortunate that Rockstar felt the need to head towards such a predictable route, I was hoping they would turn the cliché on its head and have Bonnie rescue Marston.
Dead Eye Vision:
Not much to say here other than I felt this was a flawless implementation of bullet time. I was initially skeptical as the concept of bullet-time seemed to be out of place for a game set in the old west, but having the ability to shoot two or three enemies at once, or to skillfully blast the gun out of my opponents hand during a shoot-out did a lot to make me feel like the archetypical Western hero; think Clint Eastwood walking into a saloon and taking down an entire gang before they even get a chance to pull out their guns. It doesn’t necessarily remove all of the danger; you still have to think fast and can die if you act recklessly. Bullet-time in RDR makes the player feel like a total bad-ass without making him feel invincible.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of this game. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson of Rockstar perfectly nailed the feel of those old Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks. The quiet moments are fueled by discreet ambient sounds and the occasional sharp twang. Intense moments are complimented by music with enough propulsive energy to rival Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven theme. It’s much better than the soundtracks to the Wild Arms (a western themed JRPG) games, and considering that I absolutely love the music of Wild Arms, that’s saying a lot. (If you never heard anything by the old school movie composers I mentioned earlier, I posted some clips throughout the article of the aforementioned Magnificent Seven theme and Morricone’s theme to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Check them out, you won’t regret it.)
That’s it for now you dog-meat faced buckaroos. In the next two installments of ‘Now Loading’ I’ll continue my discussion on Red Dead Redemption and focus on what I thought needed improvement (The Bad.) After that, in the third installment I’ll surprise you with my discussion of ‘The Ugly.’
If you scum sucking varmints have any comments, disagreements or questions I challenge you stop flappin’ your jaw and pull out your pistol pardna'. Or if you’re feeling especially nasty you can just leave a comment below.