No puns, a Rockstar classic.
It's easy to forget just how special Rockstar games can be. Grand Theft Auto taints and enhances the company in equal measure with the connotations conjured when Rockstar is brought up is one of modern satire, controversy and a style of game for a very specific type of gamer. As such there was little hype about Red Dead Redemption. GTA with cowboys was the call and despite a larger than usual spread of information from Rockstar there was little idea of what kind of game awaited us. Red Dead Redemption is a game more important than anyone could have suspected, one with the potential of redefining a company and a genre. The manner in which it does this is what is of course of interest.
At it's core RDR is fundamentally Grand Theft Auto 4 in both technology and general gameplay structure. Within an open world characters will be able to offer missions of varying type and importance to the overarching story. Complete them all and you'll have more characters, locations and story unlocked. It's the same structure since GTA 3 and whilst perhaps at time showing the negatives of it's rigid nature (one mission had someone wish me a good afternoon despite it being 2am and very plainly 2am) it is a system which works in an open world. You are never wandering with no idea of where to go next to further the story and with the addition of "stranger missions" (random encounters in the world) the mission junkie style of player has an embarrassment of riches. The mission variety is of a high quality with everything from assaulting enemy strongholds, breaking horses to hogtying criminals included. The speed with which you get into high intensity missions is much appreciated getting the game to pace at an early stage with intelligent integration of tutorials into the missions ensuring that no player is left behind or bored when starting the game. This pace keeps your going into the meat of the game with the story kicking along at a good pace and missions never managing to frustrate. One criticism of the plot would be that perhaps there's a lack of character cohesion from the characters you encounter. You have a main character principled enough to walk up to an enemy and try to reason with him despite 3 guns at his head yet he doesn't tell the local swindle merchant to piss off when he's asked to assist in deceiving the townsfolk? An early female ally undergoes significant trauma and you never go back to check in on her? It's a minor issue but it's aggravating that such a quick paced and interesting story gets stopped by you shaking your head and thinking "did he really do that?". If the story aggravates though there's enough to be getting on with outside the main missions. Poker leads a gaggle of fun mini games you can play for cash which sit along side varied farm work which pays whilst giving a tough test of your skill level. Heading out to hunt and gather flowers though is the main draw in the remarkable open world created by Rockstar. It's this world which is the real star of the game.
Whilst Just Cause found fame in the insanity possible in the world and GTA 4 in it's humour the portrayal of 1911 New Austin is one which is more sparse than the other open world titles but infinitely more likable. As to be expected there's little in the way of bustling cities, a few towns of varying sizes and the odd farm building in the middle of nowhere but in it's emptiness RDR has a world more teeming with life than any open world game created. Riding and having the games only train charge past you it has an effect on the world, animals race away and other riders wait to pass. Head past some people resting by a campfire and you are greeted, hunters go about their business and drunkards piss on the world. It never feels like you are watching a looped AI action, the game excels at giving life to a wilderness and where there's life there's things you'll want to explore. Fallout 3's great criticism was that the wastelands were too desolate to be of interest yet here life is the key factor which will bring you in. Riding along and see deer you veer off and hunt them before hopping off your horse to skin them. Whilst there you could choose to grab some flowers to sell whist enjoying the exceptional ambient sounds and changing scenery. Whilst the world offers nothing of overt architectural interest the natural landscape has enough to be going on with. Towering mountain ranges, deep ravines and staggering vistas all offer different views of what is an incredible world to explore and showcase the stunning graphics on show. Screenshots don't do justice the draw distance or the detail in the world combined with the aforementioned stellar sound work giving one of the most compelling game worlds created in a long time.
All of this is just one half of the game. The focus on multiplayer in the run up to launch was no accident and the multiplayer in RDR represents the biggest attempt at mastering multiplayer in the open world that Rockstar have managed. There are two distinct multiplayer types. More traditional modes such as deathmatches, capture the flag (or bag...witty Rockstar) and a goldrush game-type reminiscent of Halo Reach Headhunter mode headline a fun if not terribly deep traditional multiplayer game. The real star is free roam where you and friends (or random people if you're masochistic) can head out and have fun in the full game world. There are unique challenges to complete, gang hideouts to attack and shooting your friends horses when they are travelling at speed never ever gets old. It's a significant improvement from GTA 4's free roam feature with the challenges giving focus in a gametype which can so often descend into chaos. This focus is furthered by a leveling system linked to unlocking characters, mounts and weaponry making completing challenges a necessity if you are to look good and truly compete online. The strength of this mode is somewhat hit and miss however. The underlying technology is great and there is little problems to players undergoing different tasks simultaneously but what you have is a representation of the main game world devoid of some if it's most charming features. Towns which should be a big focus are simply shells where you can transport quickly across the map and get the law on you if you need that challenge. Whilst you can hunt as a group and find flowers it seems baffling that you can't play poker, or horseshoes or even herd cattle and whilst you can attack gang hideouts with only seven on show that can be done in an hour or two with a decent group with repeated attacks getting repetitive. That's not to say it's not enormous fun to play in essentially a large playground with friends it's just that the fun doesn't last as long as it perhaps should.
Red Dead Redemption is a big step forward for the open world genre. The multiplayer aspect whilst flawed sets the standard of what people expect to be able to do in this style of game and the single player is a classic Rockstar glance at a cinematic style rich with humour and compelling characters. Crucially this style of game is finally detatched from Grand Theft Auto and the baggage which comes with it as RDR is of high enough quality to stand along side the seminal title as a genre defining game in it's own right. This is a game which is for not just Rockstar fans or GTA fans but for any self respecting gamer who is looking for a high quality experience.