You're on a vast landscape. The biggest one ever made by Rockstar, bigger even than the terrain of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. You're in the virtual west. No cities are nearby. Think you can have fun?
Never a development studio looking to take the easy path, Rockstar Games is roaming into the gameplay wilderness with its next big game, Red Dead Redemption. Their team at Rockstar San Diego is daring not just to make a Western, a genre which has had few, if any blockbuster games, but do so without ignoring the rhythms of life in the great outdoors. It's not the easiest way to situate a game, to keep it interesting and fun.
But, with luck, based on what representatives of the company recently showed Kotaku in New York, we'll have a good if harrowing time out there. Don't mind the quiet. It's not meant to last.
Rockstar wasn't allowing hands-on time with Red Dead Redemption yet, but their reps did play the game in front of me, showcasing how reformed outlaw protagonist John Marston can venture across the game's three expansive regions. His adventure is set circa 1910, when the Wild West was all but tamed and the government was encroaching on all sides. The places where Marston goes are the remains of the fringe: a Mexican area called Nuevo Parasio and the U.S.-set New Austin and West Elizabeth.
We mostly stayed away from storyline missions in this demo, braving the dynamic events that are built to keep life interesting off the critical path.
The Rockstar reps had Marston ride his horse, boasting of the attention to detail in its physique and gait (see today's first-in-a-series developer videos for more on that and other Redemption features). With his horse he could ride the plains and use maps to search for treasure. Those maps aren't very game-like. They illustrate landmarks you'll have to be sharp enough to spot for yourself in Marston's world. He could hunt animals and skin them for pelts that could be traded in at town. He could pick flowers, as I requested he do, to give to a doctor to make into medicine. None of this seemed like instant fun. All of it seemed like tonally proper role-play. Maybe this is what it was like out there, back then.
There's action in those hills. The animals exist in an ecosystem. Coyotes, unfriendly animals, walk up to Marston while he's resting near his pitched tent. Bears roam too, though we didn't spot one. Rockstar offered a list of animals that act within the game's ecology: bears, cougars, wolves, snakes, armadillos, rabbits. After the reps had Marston kill a man, vultures appeared overhead. Good for target practice.
There's crime in the virtual west. We found a man being held up by bandits. Marston killed them. He could be nice to the man who was robbed — or rob him himself. The choice affects Marston's honor ranking, which affects the flow of the game. So does a rise in Marston's fame stat, which only goes up and makes more missions available.
Sometimes criminals have run away. Marston lassoed one — an escaped convict — whom he found. He had a choice to tie the man up or kill him, bring him back dead or alive. We chose alive. Didn't matter. The lawman in pursuit shot our roped-up prize.
We looked at a town in the game, one that flowed with dynamic and uniquely rendered characters that Rockstar says move through their day naturally. That fishmonger working his area won't stand there at night. The ladies of the night might show up there instead.
Marston can cause problems in the city and get a wanted rating for his troubles. It shows up in the upper-right corner of the screen, not in GTA-style stars but as a big word "Wanted." It fills with red signifying that the surounding area is not safe for him to remain. The law attacked and Marston had to stand and fight. Or run. The red in the Wanted meter drains as he leaves the area, and does so more quickly if the player was smart enough to have Marston commit his crimes while wearing a bandana over his mouth — and then shed it later. Those techniques help Marston escape a proximity alert for his Wanted status, but a bounty on his head remains until he pays it offer or wins a pardon letter for good deeds and turns it in. Rockstar reps said bounty hunters would come after Marston if the bounty got too high.
The game auto-saves and has regenerative health. Both features are designed to allow a long venture into the wild to not be too punishing. Your horse can die, though. And new horses can be gained.
We ventured further into the wild and found a town under attack. The sheriff needed help. Men needed to be killed. Marston used his guns and the one returning element from Red Dead Revolver — to which this game has no narrative connection — "Dead Eye" slow-motion sharpshooting.
I didn't touch the game and I couldn't assess how far off Red Dead Redemption's path we really went. But where we went did look like the wild. Where we went looked like it flowed with the slower, less predictable pace of the beautiful but dangerous untamed west.
This game is vast, but in it, there are signs of many ways to have fun, to live and fight in the rhythm of a man on a vanishing frontier. That's a path Rockstar seems to be treading down with success so far. Sometimes it's quiet out there. But, no, it seems, not for long.
Red Dead Redemption is set for release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in April 2010.